Performance: Foot to Mouth II
Conceived and Directed by: Sarah H. Paulson
Performed: January 14, 2011 at the Prince George Art Show in Manhattan
Performers: Kim Howie, Marissa Mickelberg, Sarah H. Paulson, Stephanie Waddell
Performance assistant: Anthony Austin
Four young women wearing small, simple, colorless trunks (something akin to the bottom of an old-fashioned two-piece bathing suit) lie on their backs, knees bent, compactly situated, perhaps two feet from the wall. Leaning against the wall, in front of each performer, is a smooth piece of unpainted plywood 3’ by 3’ square. Gripped by the toes of one foot is one short pencil, which each performer uses to draw on the plywood squares. What they draw for the duration of the three hour performance is a circle. A performance assistant provides them with a freshly sharpened pencil when the point wears down or the pencil is dropped. Occasionally one of the performers pauses to rest her leg, but only briefly, after which she resumes her drawing. Except for the movement of their legs and feet, the performers remain immobile, seeming to see what they draw only marginally. That is their action; they each draw a single circle. They do this without accompaniment of sound, music or special lighting.
It is this simple task, which they perform with a single-minded purity of purpose. They make no visible effort to get a better look at their plywood square, nor the circle that is taking shape on it. Nor do they engage with the artwork they are creating in any other way. They seem to let the tactile encounter of their feet (or foot) with the wood serve as their only guide.
Nothing more takes place than what I have described. The hours pass…..long hours. It is real but ephemeral. It is demanding on the performers and on the viewers. And for the viewer, it requires a kind of submission, as other works by Ms. Paulson and her usual collaborator, Holly Faurot, often do. But if one does, if one stays on and gives over to it, this work yields up much for us, as participants. Ms. Paulson has always said that viewers may come and go, stay as long or as little as they wish; that there were no guidelines that the viewer must adhere to, except that they may not engage with the performers or enter the loosely defined performance space. However, too brief a stay, too quick a viewing, too hasty a departure, all work against the opportunity to define our experience of this encounter. And it is just that, the sifting out and the applying of personal meaning to what we are looking at that makes it rewarding. And with works such as “Foot to Mouth II”, the better, more evocative the piece, the more expansive are the possible meanings which it engenders. It is not about something “you get” but rather, is about something “you summon up”.
The pace and repetitiveness of the action has the aspect of a ritual quality to it (also echoed in other works by the Paulson/Faurot team). But it is a ritual that is not familiar to us, not one which we interpret as guiding us to a culminating moment or some cognitive insight which the creator had in mind. It leads the viewer somewhere; the viewer is free to choose the direction. The performers keep doing the same thing, but the viewers keep thinking different things. Each person’s engagement is unique, much having to do with how long he or she is willing to watch. It transforms the act of watching into a kind of heightened participatory experience.
There seems an absence of want on the part of the creator. We know each performer only wants to draw a circle with a pencil. What then, in that most minimal of intention, what then emerges, what then happens from our frustration and our fascination, if we linger, if we stay? Very simply, I propose, is that we must create the meaning or we find it nearly impossible to stay. And at this critical juncture, the engagement becomes personal, as it did for those who remained watching, on that particular winter evening.
One of the unique facets of “Foot to Mouth II” is that this is a work of art (performance piece) and is simultaneously creating another work of art (the drawing being made). When it is over, both remain. This thought leads me to “my” interpretation of the piece as being a kind of sustained metaphor on the act of creation. There is the uniqueness of the individual in that process, of the individual as an artist. Then there is what is required to make art, the tenacious perseverance and the physical exhaustion that can take hold but must be overcome. This is followed by thoughts on the balance of instinct, intuition and intent. Then comes the feeling that all versions of work are encompassed in the final version of a work; there is not separation, only progression. And finally, that if one consciously circles a thought or a memory or an action long enough, no matter its elusiveness, something interesting comes, something takes shape; some strong or heightened idea edges out lesser ones, or at least lesser ones on that evening, during that performance. Next time, who knows? The experience could yield a different result.
This metaphor felt further sustained in several ways. First, in the nakedness of the performers, of the artists; you must leave yourself defenseless (naked) in your approach to the truth you are seeking. Next, the concept of approaching one’s subject in a non-traditional way, even obliquely. This is aptly shown in the physical positioning of the “artists”, on their backs and drawing not with their hands but with their feet. The picture plane is not of linen or paper but wood, raw, difficult, resisting and resistant to the small pencils with their tiny points of lead. Creation is a ritual. Creation is hard work and sometimes hard to understand. Creation is messy and unpredictable. Creation can involve “someone” putting the pencil back in position when it drops away.
Or that “someone” can be the voice in your head that tells you to stay when you want to leave; so you remain and give meaning to what you are watching.
And so it was with “Foot to Mouth II”. They make the work. You find the metaphor. You make the meaning. You collaborate in the experience. Because, unless you do, there is none. They are the falling tree in the forest.