Small remnants of performances past and future lay scattered on the gallery floor at dc3 Art Projects. Electrical cords, tumbleweeds of hair, and a clean white pile of salt were some of the obstacles visitors navigated around as they moved throughout the gallery on Thursday evening, May 16th. This shifted once Rebecca John began her performance; suddenly both her body and the mound of salt crystals became a mobile unit, pushing into viewer’s space, moving around and being moved around for a tiring two hour durational performance.
Blocking out the bodies around her, John spent the evening on her hands and knees laboriously pulling and sweeping the substantial pile of salt over the hard concrete floor with a loosely woven cheesecloth. The sheet of fabric being so porous and fine ensured that her repetitive action would not be one of ease and speed. Slowly she moved all over the gallery, readjusting the cloth as it slowly deteriorated from being pulled over the gritty saline crystals and floor. Whether for physical relief or a way of punctuating her performance, John would stop moving every so often and sit upon the pile of salt staring off into space. Like a statue she would stay, sometimes with crossed legs, other times on her knees, the shifting and sharp pile of crystals melting beneath her.
John’s expressionless face never gave away the slightest hint of discomfort or fatigue, even though I could see her bare hands and feet turning purple due to the cold floor, circulatory strain on her legs from her position, and the chemical reaction of the salt on her skin, vessels beneath contracting. Raw fingers wrapped in cheese cloth unceasingly pulled, scraped, unravelled and rebound. I wondered if her hands were burning from the salt or if they had become completely numb by that point. I started to feel sad and helpless watching her work while people stepped around her, watched her, or ignored her.
In a room full of bodies it was like John did not even exist. As I moved between performances inside and out of the gallery, I wasn’t really surprised when each time I came back to visit John I would find her just as I left her, although never in the same spot. I knew that I could leave the space and not miss anything, and I knew everyone else felt the same, but at least I had a reason to leave. In a culture of anticipating climactic moments and shock factors, the monotony of her performance piece simply took up space, but did not beg attention or acknowledgement. I wanted her work to be noticed and the pain I knew her body was feeling to be acknowledged. But she didn’t seem to notice, and so like everyone else I left once again.
Her performance conclusion was no different than the rest. There was no grand finale, just an end signified by her lack of presence. It was as it had been throughout, with the exception of a pathway of fine salt dust that remained on the ground, leaving the first trace of evidence of her movement in the space. Intentional or a result of the cheesecloth having barely any substance left to it, I’m not sure.
John’s piece resonated deeply with me while I worked to process the life of performance art after the last week. Why salt? Why cheese cloth? Symbolic of something bigger I was missing? History or labour? Or maybe a metaphor for the ephemerality of performance art; the inability to quantify it or assign it a fixed physical space in time; the contrast between physical art objects moulded by the artist’s hand, and the conceptual and immaterial nature of performance art. I finally understood that trying to formulate a specific set of rules or guidelines for performance art would be as futile as trying to build a sculpture out of John’s pile of salt crystals. Some things are better left outside of the box.
Written by Brittany Snellen.
Brittany Snellen has a master’s degree in art history from the University of Alberta. She’s spent the last five years facilitating collaborative exhibition projects between art historians and artists. In her spare time you can find her photographing births and writing about art.