On Friday, June 21st, 2019, ISSUE Project Room Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow Benedict Nguyen presented very peak summer solstice, the second program in soft bodies in hard places, a platform of trans-disciplinary events circling planetary events over 2019. Poet Jean Lee responds:
I attended a roundtable at the start of the artistic process. Everyone shared their upbringing and history, diving into the gorgeous depths of their formative moments. I felt a level of unprecedented comfort I hadn’t felt in years. I witnessed most of the generative process from afar—through discovering an artist’s past work, seeing progress through drafts and video, and through remote discussion. My presence was fragmented, and my observation was fragmented. As I collage the moments together, most of me regrets my inability to be physically present, but the part of me that writes this piece is fascinated by the fragmented view. The lack of consistency and physical presence allowed me to have a splintered perspective, and this allowed me to see patterns I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
I share this with you now for transparency, and to discuss how profound the experience was even with a fragmented presence. The artistic spaces that once housed me hurt me, causing tremendous trauma. This project—the second installment of soft bodies in hard places: very peak summer solstice—was a haven. All the artists involved, the six I watched from afar, nurtured one another and sent vibrant reflection into the world. They invited viewers, readers, and listeners to pause and dig within. The first meeting where everyone so freely and graciously shared themselves was evident throughout the process. The final performances discussed birth and motherhood and community. Seeing the progression of the art and the final project was profoundly healing, and I am glad that this will most likely be the last creative piece I put out into the world for a long time.
One of the patterns that I found to be the most profound was the formation of friendship.
I often return to the first roundtable and think of the moment when we all said what we were most looking forward to, and Fana said that she was most excited to meet Jasmine. We passed around Jasmine’s poetry.
I remember that moment because the next moment I was physically present for was the artist’s discussion before the performance. Fana and Jasmine hugged on stage and talked about having found a friend. Seeing the preface and bounding to the present moment—the artists’ reflections and the friendships formed—illustrated the vast and significant strides taken during the months leading up to the performance.
The audience sat in a semicircle, gazing into the floor at the center. People shuffled and switched seats, testing their viewpoint after the first performance. The light dimmed, and Fana stood by the spotlight, fitting color filters. However, the light stayed colorless. Music played—a basslike booming indicating a sci-fiesque genesis or apocalypse—and Jasmine read what suggested a birthing. I turned and saw Jasmine behind a row of seats next to the sound system, speaking poetry. Fana entered as if birthed by the poetry.
I went into the evening with a blank slate, envisioning nothing, but I wondered if this—Fana’s movement and Jasmine’s voice—was the format of the performance. Then Jasmine entered, and the lights changed. I sat fixated on the wall at the gap in the semi-circle because Jasmine and Fana’s silhouettes stood in opaque pink and green, dancing side-by-side.
Birth and death mirror each other. I think about this as I watch Fana and Jasmine dance across from each other, their motions responding to the music and each other. This moment is a sly swaying at the bridge of the performance, and I have a hard time grasping why I feel—in the depths beneath my consciousness—that this dance is a conversation between two people about the births and the deaths that cycle through every moment. My presence was fragmented because I started graduate school, and I have spent months in the practice of thinking concretely: what is, what is said to be, and what we see. I sit comfortably in this kind of thought, and it takes me a moment to rest within changeable concepts. I have spent months unlearning this kind of ample thinking, and this dance transports me, extravagantly, into the creative mindset. I feel before I understand. I feel how the music aligns with the lyrics and movement, subtle in tone and far-reaching in the subject matter. I see the subtle movement that barely mirrors the other, but Fana and Jasmine’s silent communication with each other, through glances and smiles, feel like a mirror of a mirror. A reflection of a reflection.
There was light, and there was technicolor.
There was unveiling and ungloving: hands removing hands, and a platinum reveal. I decide not to tell you what this means.
I was in the midst of the performance, watching their muted movements: arms at their sides with every sway and glance ultrafine. Then the motions suddenly changed as Fana moved toward a member in the front row, dancing with them. The audience jolts with happy surprise. And then Jasmine runs, then falls, and then mimes a birthing as Fana assists:
Birth and death mirroring each other, until there is a cosmic birth a
that leads back to subtlety.
The first performance of the night began with Annie standing, buried beneath a pile of cloth. Against the wall, she pushed up against the collection of cloth with her back to the audience. She fell and pushed up, fighting against the burdensome weight. Her movement, arms up and fighting, demonstrated tremendous struggle. The audience, who had been whispering as they settled into the night, fell silent. I could hear the echo of quiet beneath the music, vibrating beneath my skin. And then Sok spoke, explaining that her mother cleaned for a living. Her mother wore a uniform: her work clothes and a recited smile. Sok then spoke of how her mother wore a sarong when she was home and described tying it. She stood on the stage floor, off-center, pacing. She talked about how her mother cleaned the floors at home in her sarong, pushing the cleaning cloth around the floor. As Sok spoke, Annie pushed the pile of cloth in a circle at the center of the floor. Her movements—hands to the floor against the pile of cloth, legs upright and running, face pinched in the effort—show struggle, pushing with great effort, only to make inches across space. Annie pushed the cloth in circles around the floor, cycling into herself in the neverending chore, as Sok spoke against soft music: all layers of the performance prompting nostalgia and heartache.
The start of the performance offers a parallel to the last part. At the end of the performance, Sok sits on a chair and speaks parts of Annie’s adoption documents. The first part provided insight into empathy: reflecting on a mother’s experience and looking back in time to switch perspective. As Annie moved, Sok stood and paced, a partnership of embeddedness like the relationships gathered through motherhood. A child, if loved, lives amongst the obstacles of life and is subtly impacted by the challenges that come with systematic struggle. However, it is another facet of the story to reflect on the mother’s perspective. The last part is a conversation on bureaucracy. It struck me as a commentary on the bizarre practice of filling out a form announcement of a traumatic experience and how the adult, now moving before an audience, may reflect on it.
The midpoint of the performance centered a poem Annie and Sok constructed together. I described the introduction and finale first to emphasize how this poem, in between, was a startling convergence of the two in retrospect. The first called attention to the quiet and grand experience of Sok’s mother, and the last called attention to the insight gathered ex post facto. The midpoint described how creation and reflection are possible now. Upon reflection, I felt it was a heartening look into ongoing moments, signifying both the importance of history and expression.
During the artist discussion before the performances, I learned that the poem was a compilation of Annie’s journaled writing gathered by Sok. The poem, “Soft Landing,” describes the severity of self-criticism and the dissension/harmony/necessity of nurturing the brutality within. What I walked away with was the need to acknowledge brutality to gather a personal history and move within the current moment.
A first step in the healing process.