“Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries” Theodore Roethke
Postmodernism opened space to recontextualize hierarchies that we had come to accept as natural, shifting the focus of ritual from the public to the private realm. Sharon Alward’s video installation performance Pneuma places all boundaries under erasure in a breathing, thinking vision of our incessant humanity as post-theory homage to the necessary collaboration of art and sacrament. Alward's body of work persists in its focus on rituals that neither begin nor end, encapsulating, in the words of Emmanuel Levinas, “a God not contaminated by being”.
Pneuma exists within those moments between breathing in and out, when we are expectant vessels open to admit or deny our soulful potential.
In discussion of her early projects, Alward has written about “opening myself up to the desires and projections of the audience”. Through subsequent public performances that included locking herself in a pillory, humbly cleansing a floor of blood and semen and volunteering at a food bank dressed in neon wings, she gained knowledge of “our deep yearning to connect”. Pneuma addresses the personal challenge Alward faces in the new millennium – “how to reframe the sacred in our Postmodern, Post-Christian world”. The artist wears her body as text, as vessel, as object of abjection and inexorably as pathway for the sacred.
Pneuma represents both a departure and a continuance of Alward’s previous work. The need to involve landscape, both natural and constructed, depicts our pressing need to self-map within a mosaic of societies that are subject to a continuous tumult of removal and reinstitution of boundaries. In Pneuma, Alward opens herself to risk of another sort, attiring herself only in faith. The costumed performance artist occupies persona; in this work, Alward chooses to occupy herself.Even naked, the performer's body hyperbolizes a primitive element – birth, desire, vulnerability, fertility, death. The absence of theatrical accoutrements signifies the presence of the mundane (from which, perhaps, theatre must be born).
Performance has traditionally been lauded for involving and thus implicating the viewer, its confrontational aspect its most inherent value. But in a war-stricken world, confrontation and indictment may no longer be justifiable in a conscientious reflection on art’s role. Are audiences willing to subject themselves to shock and alienation? If performance art lives not on walls or pedestals but in memory, heart, conscience and soul, then the artist bears a responsibility to rigourously consider what she proffers to her audience. Pneuma nudges its audience to find their own edges. The focus is on absence, on emptying, as inherent to process – the flood of containers cleared of their matter form the basis of our vision, our lived experience.
The artist situates herself with conscious inconsequentiality at the intersection of the sacred and the most mundane.
Pneuma’s video screens portray a hypersensitized read of reality with the air of 1950’s Super 8 home movies. On the striated streets of New York City, the fixed image of a foregrounded garbage can guards the e’er-shifting margins of urban surrealism. The crossed metal of the refuse container frames the strobing pulse and pace of the endlessly waiting night. The artist uses high contrast and overexposure to mediate colours that are never still, bathed in the haunted slow transparency of sub-reality. Hyper-focusing her vision, the artist makes herself vulnerable to attack, pinned down and exposed by the fixity of her own gaze.
The camera painfully pans up and sound fades to absence. A man draws a Coke bottle from the waste, provocatively confronts the camera and drinks with gusto worthy of a high-budget television commercial. It’s his show – a heart-stoppingly beautiful act of transmission between two artists, fraught with the energy and power of an intimate negotiation. Time dissolves - we watch the watcher; his regard is knowing as he watches his own watcher. No sound, not a heartbeat. Voiceless, all.
Everyone carries a bag.
Only artists look at trash.
A second silent vignette - another derelict figure that society treats as human garbage. Mounds of rubbish, the bastard offspring of our materiality, give dubious shelter to a homeless man as he drinks a cup of coffee (brother, can you spare a dime?). The pet-owner standing nearby doesn’t acknowledge his existence, approaching only when he thinks that his sniffing dogs might be endangered. We live within the soft belly of disgust, strangely seduced.
Back home at our own landfill, garbage reads like flowers, found porn mocks the artist as she adds her offerings to the masses of trash. Hungover leftover drunks are the only audience in a world of empties the morning after a rock festival. A modern day “honey man” redeems the dawn amidst steamy phantasmagorical porta-potties, commemorating the recyclability of even the most negligible apocalypse.
Chinatown, New York City, Grand Beach. Visual static jerks and wanes its way through the nothingness of time in strict reminder of the necessary respite of memory. The audio surrounding Pneuma’s participants stalks consciousness; the bumps and grinds of toil and nature oppose heady silences to slipslide through the oft-elegant accrual of vessels gone barren. Pneuma subverts conventional visual codes that establish power relations based largely upon economics. The vulnerable artist who situates herself on a street corner engenders a precarious act of communion between watcher and watched, and within the installation space, Alward opens herself to spiritual union with those who choose to enter. The performance artist translates her watchfulness, she is medium/vessel through which garbage travels and is purified. We, the new watchers, are suspended by fades and transitions; an image becomes one with its other, blurred and staggered in grubby complicity with the matter it embodies.
Listen to the passed-through spirit of humanity as if you heard the breathsounds of a constant fervent lover.
You are welcomed to this created space, the deconstructed cathedral of an age that has forgotten why it builds. Centre stage is reserved for the process of ablution – the artist and her fire.
In the aporia of technology as cleansing ritual, techno-fire lights our stagger through night and meander through morning, fuelled by the relationship between excess and lack. The comforting image of a hearth log yields to its own need to abstract, to layer and intensify, to shift its heat from firecrackers blazing to cold revolver blue, endlessly dissolving the boundaries of shape and colour and form. At its most brilliant, it is absent of colour, purer than white. Fire, framed within the hard edges of technology, becomes its own abstraction. The throat and gut urge to claim the familiar from the midst of flame becomes futile; no sooner do images become recognizable than they are gone, transformed into energy purified by its own ephemerality.
Alongside the artist in the sanctuary that art provides, we watch as she performs intensely concentrated acts of necessary sadness. Prairie skies frame the ageless lighting of fire. She smudges with hot ash, cleansing with the stuff that fire leaves amidst green meadow and hollow reeds. The tornado impends.
Pneuma acknowledges the necessity for disseminable media – in video’s portrayal of fire, light begets light.
space in which magic can occur quietly
without moment to any but the solely engaged
As postmodernists seek to de-centre and de-privilege powers-that-be, they expose our dependency upon hierarchies of the past. Our work in this time of Byzantine globalization involves opening an understanding of processes that truly are natural, and to liberate space for personal mapping within a whole and united universe that seeks communion with its constituents. Pneuma finds breaches of cultural etiquette, and invites us into the presence of a negotiated I/we that disempowers conventional divides between subject and object.
If the legacy of postmodernity is to be the multiplication of perspectives, then perhaps the work post-theory is to obfuscate the concept, to simultaneously loosen and broaden boundaries into an infinity that is non-perspectival rather than multi-perspectival. Negotiations begin through commonality; progress, in its considered sense, can be conceived only through intersection. As we heartily engage with the universe in a re-negotiation of our right to physical presence, common ground is our only basis for salvation. The outhouse, repository of the offal of what we thought we needed, serves as icon of a work that is situated precisely at the advent of globalization.
Need is forgotten in the plasticity of desire.
Mysticality exists if you want it to.
Pneuma isspace made accessible by the presence of the meditating artist, a place where atonement and redemption are small and everyday.The artist offers, palms upturned, the elements she has filtered through her eye/camera, exposing the tension between the real and the unrealized, trash juxtaposed with godliness. Her grounding presence carries an inherent offer of safe conduct, countering the isolative history of artmaking with the relentless purifying energy of the human body and spirit.
Clean is never possible, but through grace it is possible to know catharsis and to celebrate the communal breathiness of all that we must be. Alward invites detritus into herself, translates our thoughtless accruals into essences to be felt, and offers us a kind place in which to find them. In soft ritual, she invites us each to know our own quiet magic.
We, collectors and processors of trash, are not so dishonourable.
Honouring the concentricity that our collective consciences have forgotten, Pneuma helps us wait, with hope and grace, not to die. Pneuma follows in the worthy tradition of art that subverts dogmas, but leads (in the meaning of leadership that is exemplary without self-promotion) into open space. It is deconstruction, a la Derrida, but tendering opportunities for an endless cycle of reconstruction, coupling garbage with environment and landscape not to evoke guilt and outrage, but rather as a referent to spiritual balance.
Pneuma offers up its own absences – it is never unkind, hopeless, moralistic or guilt-ridden. Pneuma is a would-be poet slipping a toe cautiously into nightfall, affirming and denying our ceaseless search for that perfect impossible moment, that unachievable purity of clean.
A family skips stones, a moving portrait of the waves that give constancy and endurance to our beautiful waiting for nothing to happen; our fear of what will be and what will be missed. A bird crosses the urine sky.
Gwen Armstrong is a mother/artist/writer/student who lives and works in Winnipeg, Canada.