dead, disappears – Heather Kravas

dead, disappears invites the audience to view the performer as simultaneously woman and object – and to see their own observation as completion of the artistic act.” – from program note.

Photo by Jason Starkie

Photo by Jason Starkie

She is rolling with a pillow.

Pillow heaved over body and thrashed against floor. This sequence on repeat, this incessant rolling with a pillow. Now comes the exhaustion, hers and mine both. Surely more than this rolling with a pillow could actually generate. Her heavy breathing, her frustrated heave intensifying. Rolling with a pillow. My bottled frustration. Her trapped activity, there’s nowhere to go. This ritual of effort. This rolling with a pillow. Stop this rolling with a pillow, please, end this now.

Why one seemingly arbitrary action in a catalogue of many should cause such hostility, while another causes pleasure; this question of subjectivity feels entirely relevant to Heather Kravas’ affecting and methodical work dead, disappears, which had its New York premiere at American Realness.

Citing Richard Serra’s 1967 Verb List as a catalyst, Kravas performs a series of choreographic actions; to stamp heels in a precise number sequence; to walk a fine line on tiptoe, shrouded by garbage bag, shouting “Bimbo” repeatedly (Kravas’ voice so wonderfully brash, so Jennifer Jason Leigh); and to roll, with a pillow.

We discourage each other from assessing art in terms or liking or disliking, or at least from only thinking in those terms. Any unreasoned response then feels shameful, incorrect, something to be kept private or disguised with foyer phrases that begin with “I’m just interested in…” My physical act of watching takes on an object quality, a mirroring-back of the ubiquitous contemporary object performance.

Kravas, “simultaneously woman and object,” complicates this relationship, presenting herself as both an object-body, complicitly executing the roster of tasks in the prescribed order – sometimes literally reading them off the wall – and as a woman pushing back against these self-imposed limitations, full of frustration, absurdity, and power.

There’s a masochistic pleasure to be had – a rebellion against my own object-hood – when finding myself in a state of anger over something as inconsequential as rolling with a pillow. Kravas inflicts her own flagellating ritual by rolling with a pillow, and I inflict mine while watching it.

If my observation is the “completion of the artistic act,” surely I have to accept this generous invitation and observe all my readings, however inappropriate, including my unaccountable disdain for this rolling with a pillow. Kravas herself, in a piece she penned for Movement Research’s Performance Journal #45, talks of her “hard-won lesson of incorporating “truth” into art, whether that truth be boring or angry or lethargic.”

Each of Kravas’ actions are self-contained. The space between is a jump-cut, an A-to-B. My sense of time keeps refreshing, fracturing my impulsive habit to connect the images, to follow some kind of holistic logic. Instead, Now this, let’s look at this. Look closely. Now forget that, what about this?

Kravas exits the room and re-enters, bearing a tin bucket and wooden pole. The pole is tossed to the floor, the absurdity of the immediate discard acknowledged in the flourish of Kravas’ wrist, “Ta-da!”

The bucket is, unsurprisingly, for peeing in, which Kravas does. The predictability gives new life to the act, embracing a contemporary cliché, now stripped of any shock (dead), and dissolving into the rest of the actions on the list, (disappearing).

Kravas ties the aforementioned pillow to a chair and metronomically beats it with the aforementioned pole, while reciting, alphabetically, a lengthy list of verbs. The virtuosity of the task – the fastidious recitation coupled with the violence inflicted on the pillow – brings the two performative proposals, the object and the woman, into their greatest tension. She is sustained by the thankless task, wielding her exhaustion like a weapon. The collective desire of the audience to drive this action together with Kravas was palpable. And that pillow had it coming.

“Women are not objects,” an unimpeachable maxim, and one that Kravas now momentarily disrupts, confusing my perceptions somewhere between the troublesome, the funny, and the commonplace. Who wields more power in this exchange? Is it me; observing through my “male” gaze, sitting cross-legged, arms folded, vainly qualifying her actions? Or is it she; owning and subverting her representation, offering equally the “woman” and the “object”, and leaving us to grapple with the responsibility of that dichotomy? While tempting to arrive on the Kravas side of that coin, it never actually lands resolutely, such is the potency of Kravas’ rich dilemma.

Serra Verb List

Richard Serra. Verb List. 1967–68. Graphite on paper, 2 sheets, each 10 x 8″ (25.4 x 20.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist in honor of Wynn Kramarsky. © 2011 Richard Serra/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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