“If a sculpture is a story, the inverse process is also possible,” states artist, novelist, and performer Alex Cecchetti in an interview with PICA Visual Art Curator Kristan Kennedy, commenting on the combination of performance, object-based story telling, and installation that's presented in his TBA:12 End Things contribution, “Summer Is Not the Prize of Winter”— a piece that aims to transform a narrative into a sculpture.
Allowing for inversions, I suppose it's fitting that I came into Cecchetti's work a bit backwards— backwards in that his installations are the result of his performances, and I didn't spend any long hours with his room at Washington High School until Monday afternoon, when it was empty of performers and visitors, dotted with a smattering of objects, assemblages, and wall/chalkboard drawings.
“The first day it's empty,” explains Kennedy, “and [visitors] walk in and they say, 'Is the air the exhibition?'”
No, it's not. After each daily performance objects are left behind, the room becoming more and more full as time wears on.
“The stars,” Cecchetti says of the things that remain in the room— explaining that these metaphorical balls of gas stay so visitors can create narrative constellations between them. With his finger, he draws angular examples in the air in front of himself, narrating, “You can make the bear, or you can make the scorpion, or you make... What else? A lion.”
Yet, these DIY star charts aren't just for audiences, but also for other performers who replace Cecchetti (and one another) over the ten-day evolution of “Summer Is Not the Prize of Winter.” Cecchetti's replacements do their best to reproduce his story and performance for audiences, simultaneously teaching it to the next performer. (The process is compared to “a game of telephone” and "relay performance" in program notes, with Cecchetti relearning the story from his final surrogate before relating the new, transmuted version on the last day of the festival.)
But back to the stars. When I come to them on Monday afternoon, never having seen Cecchetti's performance, I'm at a serious loss as to how I'm supposed draw the constellations.
Makeshift arrows are propped against a wall— fashioned from pencils and feathers— while apples punctuate the spaces between these shaky objects of flight. On a blackboard are drawings made in white chalk: a cathedral and an enlarged detail of a design that appears on it's rose window, what looks like an aerial view of hunting (think Oregon Trail), the front of an airplane, etc.. On the floor, pairs of rocks and small cups/bowls/plates spread out from a pile of maps and folded fabrics. A wall is dedicated to multicolored scribbles, the curves and symbols of which reading like a combination of various alphabets.
I take furious notes. It helps me think, look closer, scan for subtleties that might tip me off as to how the installation can be interpreted.
Later Monday afternoon, local writer, poet, critic, and PICA Resource Room Resident Lisa Radon prepares to perform Cecchetti's piece. She gives a hug or handshake to everyone in the room, starting with PNCA Chair of MFA Visual Studies and current Guggenheim Fellow Arnold Kemp, who is here today to learn the piece from her (he'll be performing it for the next two days, followed by David Knowles on Wednesday and Thursday, and Sara Jaffe of Erase Errata on Friday and Saturday).
Radon has a box of objects in the center of the floor and holds up a yellow plastic bag, asking the audience to imagine it as a lemon (it doesn't show up again).
In large sweeps, she scans a wall with her palms and returns to the center of the room, grabbing a space blanket. The metallic sheet is unfolded and held up against the wall— intermittently peeled back, suddenly and with emphatic motion, as if something has busted through it. It is folded back up and added to the pile of maps and fabrics on the floor.
“Mineral, vegetable, animal, energy, particles,” she explains to Kemp, who looks perplexed and amused at the pseudo-taxonomical categories listed. “Protons, neutrons, positrons, electrons, Higgs boson, quarks,” announces Radon, shooting off examples from the categories without explanation.
She fills a dish with water from a little pitcher. Her hands shake. Water spills. The cup is placed slowly, carefully, on the floor.
“Come lay down with me,” she says to Kemp, who complies, meanwhile directing the audience to gather around them.
“Sometimes when you lay down it's because you're in a park,” she says after a pause.
“Sometimes when you lay down it's because you're on the beach, in the sand.”
“Sometimes when you lay down it's because you're having sex.”
“Sometimes when you lay down it's because you've just had sex.”
“Sometimes when you lay down it's because you're on the oriental rug in the living room, sinking in,” so on and so forth, stopping at, “Sometimes when you lay down it's because you're dead.”
“Why don't we die in parts? There's no time to say goodbye to ourselves,” she continues, stoking a theme, “Goodbye foot. Goodbye leg. Goodbye other leg,” a sing-songy inflection in her voice, at once somber, accepting, fatalistic— dealing with a thought so dark it must be communicated with light in one's breath.
A baby fusses in the audience and the room starts to feel legit heavy— Radon and Kemp, playing dead on the floor, the encircled audience quickly representing the stages of life before this infant will pass, like the rest of us, without saying goodbye to our feet.
“We die and we're gone,” her voice now abrupt, “which brings us to God... the soul survives.”
She stands up and the audience goes back to their places.
“There's a bird on a bare branch in winter. It flies away. How do we know it was ever there?”
She repeats the question, reflecting, “it's hard to grasp nothing”— now repeating that phrase, sharpening the tip of a dowel with a box cutter, the wood shavings falling around the floor, their transition to functional nothingness mirroring the subject at hand. A feather added to the blunt end of the dowel makes it an arrow, like those leaning on the wall. Radon picks up an apple and gesticulates the flight of the arrow into it, soon adding both to the others in the room. It's all very erratic, affective of Cecchetti at certain moments and then receding back into the self, receding into Radon; lilting, gentle, contemplative.
A volunteer is picked from the audience and Radon writes a “U” on the wall, equating the volunteer with the U and the U with three-dimensionality. She speaks of a fourth, time-based dimension— shows the U in superposition as a C, an S— and then draws a long, cursive-looking line on the wall, placing marks on it to illustrates a person's passage through time.
“Stop projecting yourself into the future,” she says, repeating this new mantra while adding tick marks to the time line.
Radon puts down the paintbrush and Kemp joins her at the other side of the room, in front of the blackboard. She asks him to draw a predetermined symbol: three ovals inside a circle, a pointy part of each oval meeting in the center, like a propeller.
The audience is asked about their familiarity with the symbol, and Radon interjects, “Stop blaming other people for your own incompetencies,” continuing with chalkboard drawings that illustrate where the symbol appears in public space (church windows, jet engines, etc.). She describes the Aztec significance: that the three ovals represent the ears of three rabbits, and by placing them in a circle it's a way of describing how rabbits run in circles when being chased. The three rabbits are in fact one rabbit that runs so fast as to appear as many. The symbol is then a guide for hunters, a way of resisting the human urge to chase a meal that's in flight; wait for the rabbit to circle back around again and take your next shot.
Before the performance ends, Radon holds her arms in the air dramatically, explaining that she's a tree now, a tree in the wind. “The only way for a tree to go anywhere is if it falls,” she states with the vocal inflection used earlier to say goodbye to her body. She takes a rock from her box.
“The only way for a rock to go anywhere is if it falls,” now proceeding as before, applying the phrase to various items.
She gives the rock a place on the floor.
“The only way for a human to go anywhere is if it falls.”
“All it takes is a rock to make an exhibition.”
Before reaching the rooftop, Kristan Kennedy explains that “confusion” is an element necessary to the execution of “Summer Is Not the Prize of Winter.” Cecchetti nods in agreement.
Attempting to comprehend our relationship with nothingness— how the tip of an arrow is born from the void of a knife, how we fall nearer to it and catch ourselves with our feet— is to court a certain type of madness, a certain type of confusion. Are we to stalk nothingness, bow cocked, as we would a hunted rabbit? The same incomprehensible nothing, in circles, day in and day out? There seems to be no great answer waiting in the wings.
On the rooftop, the city below us spreads out into a yet-smaller city beyond the river. Cecchetti recites a poem originally written in his native Italian.
“I'm gonna say first the title of the poem,” he says, “then I'm gonna say the poem.”
He stares hard into the sky, as if stuck on a difficult translation.
“Death...” he sighs, taking a long pause.
“...it never ends.”
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