by Elizabeth DiDonna
I combined personal, historical and material memories in Progress, performed at Working Method Contemporary Gallery in Tallahassee in 2011. In this four-hour piece, an organic, structural “framework” of unfired clay was built clay onto my body and the chair, starting at the feet and ending at my neck.
Simultaneously, a series of participant performers selected from a series of books that I chose related to the concept of progress. Performers sat in the chair opposite me and read an excerpt aloud as I continued to build. The books ranged from John Locke’s political essays to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to Robert Smithson’s personal reflections on the re-routing of the Colorado River, weaving together a narrative of diverse yet congruent voices.
As the performance advanced, the earlier clay sections began to break; yet if I moved downward to fix the problems the later additions would break also. Even tiny movements, like breathing, would be enough to tear the fragile connections. Despite attempts to keep still the vulnerability of the clay presented itself and decisions had to be made on what could be fixed and what to leave broken.
Residency at 621 Gallery, Tallahassee, Florida
From September through December 2013 I was the artist in residence at 621 Gallery in Tallahassee. The artist studio was connected to the gallery, which allowed the space to be open during first Friday events. Hundreds of locals visit 621 during first Fridays. Mostly Florida State University students, visitors arrive unguarded, inquisitive and ready and willing to participate.
As a part of this residency my intention was to see how I could engage the Tallahassee community by using materials to explore the physical and emotional relationships we have with materials and to witness the connections that emerge between people through the materials.
I wanted to use the studio as a stage – to create an open room or a vessel, a place for allowing. Each month I chose one material with which visitors could employ in the spirit of play. No restrictions were given. They were provided an open space, some materials and just the statement “make whatever you want.”
Reactions from participants were tremendous. People were more than willing to contribute and some even seemed astonished and elated that they had permission to play. For some it brought back early tactile memories: smearing, poking, and grabbing unfamiliar substances just to see what happens. A number of visitors stayed in the studio for each evening’s duration – four hours.
Studio Blog Notes
September 6, 2013
For the first interactive project in the studio, I borrowed sand from Alligator Point, a beach about 45 minutes from Tallahassee, to create a “blank sheet” on the floor of the studio. During First Friday, without any prompts from me, people began to write, draw and lie in the sand. The sand was later returned to Alligator Point with a thank you note.
October 4, 2013
Material: native clay
People visiting the studio were invited to contribute to a community sculpture. The clay used in this project was excavated by hand from a creek bed about 5 miles from 621 Gallery. I created a blank wall of clay and had buckets of clay ready for any takers. People were so excited to get their hands into some clay and just play for a while. I told each person “anything you want and as much as you want.”
November 1, 2013
Material: charcoal and chalk
November’s Project: Please Draw Freely
In the spirit of Yoshihara Jiro’s piece of the same name from 1956, people were invited to write or draw whatever they chose on the studio wall. Instead of paint, participants used charcoal and red clay formed into “sidewalk chalk.”
December 6, 2013
December’s Project: Playing with WORDS. Visitors were asked to contribute words and create a collection of surrealist poetry in the spirit of the Exquisite Corpse. Andre Breton once said of the Exquisite Corpse: “What excited us about these productions was the assurance that, for better or worse, they bore the mark of something which could not be created by one brain alone.” In total about two hundred words were provided and thirty-five poems created by participants. Interestingly, people continued to draw on the wall from November’s project – some also adding text.