When I close my eyes I am transported back to the night of May 17th, 2019. Stepping outside of the Spazio Performativo in the heart of Edmonton’s Little Italy, I join the collection of bodies that gather around a lonely figure perched in a chair. Atop the thin body of a women clothed in satin undergarments, a massive black orb sits where her head should be. Thick string digs into the crisp, charred surfaces of bread that create the surface of the orb. Like an unconventional experiment in papier mâché, the bound sphere threatens to crumble under the tension of the string. It strikes me how suffocating it must be underneath the layers of burnt bread that compress the head within–the sharp, dried faces of each piece pressed against tender skin. The overwhelming smell of countless slices of black, charred toast smothering and infiltrating any air inside. The disconnected aural experience compromised by the layers that build into this giant sphere.
In silence and stillness, Alexandra Zierle sits upon a tall bar chair on the sidewalk. Surrounding her is a graveyard of objects. A large white dress shirt, porcelain swans. On her lap a heap of black matter sits. At first I assume it is crumbled pieces of burnt bread. Then, as Zierle takes a deep breath that moves her torso, the heap seems to suddenly move with life, and realize she cradles a massive pile of dead bees.
Slowly, a hand lifts and fingers run through the pile of bees. Tenderly she scoops the pile closer to her body before filling her hand with bees and holding it out in front of her. Blindly and at the same all-seeing, Zierle sits with her arm stretched out, pieces of bees occasionally escaping her fist and falling weightlessly onto the cold concrete sidewalk. As if waiting, her fist remains suspended in the air for a few minutes before she opens her fingers letting the rest of the bees fall to the ground. Some of their sticky bodies cling to her hands and I keep doubting my observation of their lifelessness as they quiver with each of her movements.
She scoops another handful of bees, and pulls it to closely to her womb. Like a mourning widow, the most visceral silent sob I’ve ever seen rocks through her body. The massive lump in my throat makes it hard to breath and her whole body shudders in pain and with grief as she clutches hundreds of little bee carcasses to her belly. Once more she holds out her hand, eventually letting the bees fall to the ground. She repeats this action until only a sprinkle of bodies remains in her lap.
Zierle’s durational piece lasts throughout the evening. We follow her inside where a series of actions evoke questions of human impact on nature. Pressing her oversized globe of a head to the wall, she starts to roll her body, the crunch of the dried bread echoing through the space like breaking bones. Like ash, the crumbs fall to the floor, and black smears and scratches mark the walls she has crushed her head against, slowly breaking free of her claustrophobic crown of charcoal. Sharp pieces digging into her face like bee stings.
Her performance is haunting and beautiful. A stunning visual, and evocative act, her gold leaf-covered face reflects the small amount of dim light as she dances with a large branch adorned with glass tea cups. The mesmerizing aesthetic reawakens the moral anxieties of my own body’s contribution to the destruction of our planet into my brain. The sound of tinkling cups touching as she drags, swings and shakes the branch leave goosebumps on my arms. My senses are overwhelmed as she starts spitting out what looks like pieces of bread and gold after over a half an hour of not once opening her mouth. She finds the hand of a fellow artist and slowly, with his acceptance spits into his hand a large golden, sputum-like lump. He holds it for the rest of this funerary piece. She lights a candle before moving on.
The final part of her performance returns outdoors, where she remains for the last few hours. A wine cup full of honey, and table set for a fine dining experience. A juicy, red pomegranate symbolizing fruitfulness, fertility and life tops the table. She ritualistically cleanses her hands and starts to paint the window of the Spazio Performativo with her lips. With a mouth full of bees and honey, she starts to transcribe a message. Inside the building, people watch as her lips, nose and chin press the bodies of bees into the layer of glue-like honey. Pieces of wing, leg, and fuzzy, prickly little bodies stick to her lips. Through the glass dozens of faces get up close to watch Zierle in action, yet the artist never breaks concentration. A mournful ceremony with her bees; bare feet turning purple against the cold concrete as the sun goes down; isolated in her performance and surrounded by dozens of viewers watching every move. Some faces smile, even laugh as her face contorts against the window. Some show disgust, imagining the bees in their own mouths. Some look almost as pained as the energy around Zierle feels. But the show must go on and people eventually move on to watch the next performance, leaving Zierle alone with her bees.
Bee bodies dust the sidewalk for many meters outside of the Spazio. Occasionally coming to life as a breeze blows over them, they keep Zierle company as she labours to relay their message: “Nothing real can be threatened.” Mother of bees. Bee keeper. Queen bee. She is an advocate of the many who’ve fallen silent–who never had a voice even in life. And though she speaks for them now, in silence and self-flagellation, I feel through her suffering the gripping fear that we are too late.
Performance title: Black Clouds Falling
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.