Its been challenging for me to sit down and write a post following the Seated Woman performance, just as every stage of the process has had its own unique set of challenges. In this type of performance, the work must resolve three distinct media: the body, time, and the audience. I was able to experiment with the body and time, doing a series of “practice” sessions before the performance itself, slowly building my endurance to the full duration of seven and a half hours. However, the work’s relationship to the audience was a complete mystery to me right up until the moment of performing. In this way, durational performance is all about process, as the work is literally being constructed before the audience’s eyes. Each movement, each decision not to move, where and when to gaze, was a learning process, a new discovery.
In many ways my relationship to the audience profoundly surprised me. Quite early on, I realized that my presence was having a very deep impact on passerby. I was able to get people on the opposite side of the street to stop as I followed them with my gaze. Cars driving by slowed to look at me. A few young men paused to call out to me from the sidewalk below. I had originally thought that the veil would obstruct this effect, but in many ways it both complicated it and enhanced it. My gaze became a mystery. The viewer suspected that I was looking, but could never really be quite sure.
After the performance, I learned that many viewers saw the headdress as confrontational. That by creating my own space, by protecting myself, I appeared defiant, vaguely threatening. I noticed that many viewers who came up to the terrace to get a closer look were uncomfortable with standing directly in front of me, and would often stand off to the side beyond my range of motion to turn and gaze back at them. I found this really interesting because when I created the headdress, I was thinking of a particular female ancestor (but perhaps also a more abstracted concept of the women in my past who had to survive in order for me to exist) that my grandmother refers to as Aaji. I’ve learned that Aaji (paternal grandmother) is from a dead form of Bhojpuri. The word itself is a spectre, it is both dead, yet alive in my grandmother’s body, and now in mine. For me, this is the heart of the performance, the embodiment of the spectre of the past, the things that are both alive and dead, the reality of our bodies and the objects the museums display.
Another aspect that I found interesting was the number of viewers who came up to attempt to speak with me. Like most art objects, I decided that I would not be speaking to viewers, and would instead let the authority of the museum speak for me. I was struck by how many viewers really wanted to know what the piece was “for”– a class? a protest?– and how some viewers were incredibly frustrated that I would not give them an answer. In this way, the piece became a performance of the problem of art itself, that it does not give us easy answers, even when that is what we want the most, and that for some, this denial of resolution is a challenge.
Even though the piece may appear to be a solitary endeavor it required a lot of people to help it reach fruition I’m incredibly grateful to the staff at the Fralin Museum for being supportive of the piece, in particular Bruce Boucher and Jennifer Farrell. I’m also so thankful for my students who were able to help with the performance (Danielle Loleng, Taylor Fox, Shantell Bingham, Tiffany Wang, and Chris Lumain), and in particular Scott Ellwood, who took some great images. Thanks to Elizabeth Webb for helping with video documentation and Howard Singerman for his insight on the proposal. Thanks to Eric Schmidt for advice on designing the plinth, and Allie Tisdale for helping me build it. Bill Bennett deserves a big thank you for bringing me to Charlottesville this semester, and helping to get the ball rolling on this project. I’m so happy that my two major life-collaborators, my mother Vijaya Mackrandilal and my partner Sean McConnell, were there to take care of me and support me before, during, and after the performance.