Mathew Wilson and Eduardo Martinez-Almaral
at Blue Rider Theater, September 5-11
“In what appears to be its unlimited development of material powers,” the great quantum physicist and philosopher Werner Heisenberg wrote in 1958, “humanity finds itself in the position of a captain whose ship has been built so strongly of steel and iron that the magnetic needle of its compass no longer responds to anything but the iron structures of the ship.” In other words, the needle continuously points in the direction the ship is already heading, and the captain, delighted with the precision of his steering, will sail in self-satisfied circles forever.
We Americans have turned what a more reflective people might experience as despair into complacency. What might have seemed aimlessness is replaced with the comfort of placelessness. Drive across the country and try not to run into a Taco Bell, Walmart, or 7-Eleven. Try not to hear the same 25 songs on any radio station you pick up. Try not to find the same processed food simulacra on the shelves of every indistinguishable roadside convenience store. Try not to end up in Anywhere, USA. If every place looks, sounds, and tastes alike, we can never be lost.
In the seven years I’ve been watching Chicago performance, I’ve seen many artists unwittingly sail in Heisenberg’s imaginary ship, lamenting the cool, indifferent directionlessness of our culture with cool, indifferent, directionless work. I’ve even had people tell me that it’s impossible to be original when confronting the postmodern void. Little wonder my interest in performance has waned substantially over the years: only a few artists have had the courage to navigate beyond the eddying doldrums of the performance scene.
But Eduardo Martinez-Almaral and Mathew Wilson, in creating their original seven-day collaboration Tragedy, attempted to sail far beyond the safe harbor of fashionable angst. Both artists committed to living and performing in the Blue Rider Theater in Pilsen for seven straight days, September 5-11, bringing along only a few hours of prepared material. The rest, it was hoped, would come from somewhere. Anywhere.
When I met with Wilson two weeks before the project, he seemed plagued by doubt. Would they be able to collect admission if they were always performing? How would they secure the space at night while they were asleep without locking out the occasional 4 AM audience member? What, for God’s sake, would they do for a week, and who would want to watch them do it? To top it off, Martinez had threatened to speak only Spanish for the week. Would I be interested in coming to see it?
I had seen only one of Wilson’s pieces in person, on a day last spring when a hundred people lay down “dead” for half an hour in Daley Plaza, but I’d seen quite a few on tape and been impressed. These ambiguous public performances as half of the duo Men of the World were not only evocative but meticulously orchestrated: shaking hands with another man for half an hour in front of various Chicago “sites of power,” lying under the gargantuan Indian statues on Congress near the lakefront on the day before Thanksgiving, placing a bundle of nine white shirts and nine bars of soap on the bottom step of the U.S. Supreme Court building. What was he doing heading off without a compass?
His meager press materials suggested the piece would be about “sexuality, ethnicity, intimacy, and language.” But describing the seven-day lockup of a straight Englishman and a gay Cuban as being about sexuality, ethnicity, intimacy, and language is like saying Hamlet is about iambic pentameter.
Still, I agreed to see as much of the work’s proposed 168 hours as my day job, my circadian rhythms, and my sanity would allow. I trusted Wilson. And I needed my faith in performance restored.
Had the artists entered the project with any notion of its ultimate scope, they probably would have stayed home and rented a few videos together. That experience too could be about sexuality, ethnicity, intimacy, and language, especially if they rented a Latino porn flick with subtitles.
Billed as a “continuous 24-hour seven-day performance event” in which “the domestic lives of the men” would be central, Tragedy seemed born of the “whatever happens is the piece” tradition associated with American endurance art in the last quarter century. Chris Burden lived and worked in a gallery for three days. Ben Vautier lived in a storefront window for a week. Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh outdid the rest and lived for a year tied together at the waist with eight feet of rope. The concept was all; the content, anything. Martinez and Wilson seemed headed down this road. Yet after an initial day of grueling exploration, Martinez and Wilson stumbled upon an honest-to-God theme (how modernist, how outre), a theme so broad and unsettling yet so urgent to a contemporary audience that it demanded a week’s worth of focused attention. It would also threaten to overwhelm them repeatedly throughout the week.
The first day–Labor Day, ironically enough–began unceremoniously, at least for me. Misreading my materials, I showed up at noon only to discover the piece had begun at midnight. I spent a good hour debating whether I should give up on the whole affair, until I realized that missing the first 12 hours of a seven-day event is proportional to missing the first two minutes of Seinfeld. And besides, they’d spent five of those hours asleep. I figured I could catch up.
Like racers bolting out of the starting gate after endless weeks of drudgery in training, Martinez and Wilson ran almost nonstop that first day, throwing out as much material as possible, saturating the space with their unique sensibilities. They even performed while eating their pizza lunch, as though unable to pause for a moment to consider where they might be headed.
The work was tightly formal, even austere, unfailingly precise, and excruciatingly slow-paced. In one section, for example, Wilson sat staring at an end table for perhaps half an hour, adjusting and readjusting its three drawers by infinitesimal amounts while two oscillating fans on the table surveyed his progress. The “action” consisted of Martinez sitting next to Wilson briefly, then turning off one of the fans and walking away.
That day the two of them arranged and rearranged the space repeatedly, discovering the hidden magic in their seemingly pedestrian world. Wilson found that by placing stencils of letters upside down and backward on a mirror on the floor and lighting the mirror from above, he could project words legibly onto the ceiling. Martinez taped down random keys on an electric organ he’d brought from home–though both artists admitted to a complete lack of musical ability–and discovered that as various pieces of the tape gave out, an automatic sound track was generated. Chords unexpectedly changed, giving certain random moments extra significance, sending the performance in new directions. Later Wilson slid the organ sideways, trying to move it to another part of the stage, and produced a bizarre echoing clang that seemed to arrive from outer space (in one of the piece’s many sublime synchronicities, this noise came just as a record describing the Apollo space flights was being played).
Wilson and Martinez also began to develop distinct characters, which became their alter egos for the week. A compact figure with a gaze as unwavering as his concentration, Wilson seemed continuously in motion, driven to make meticulous and meaningful images. Martinez, a hulking, brooding man who moves like a grizzly bear on pointe, seemed to embody patience and incongruity, generally waiting idly for an image to crystallize around him even as his presence rendered the image meaningless. Wilson created; Martinez disrupted. Nowhere was this disparity more successfully employed than in two humorous pieces introduced on the first day (they reappeared, in various guises, throughout the week).
In the first, Wilson read in an utterly clinical tone a lengthy footnote (everything in this piece was lengthy) from Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Thick with quasi-scientific authority, it explained that homosexuality develops when a child tends to identify with the prescribed role of the opposite-sex parent. While the heterosexual Wilson read, the homosexual Martinez diligently served him tea, never raising an eyebrow at Wilson’s patronizing tone. “You didn’t warm the cup, did you?” Wilson accused. “Look, put two tea bags in the pot–one for me, and one for the pot–and warm the teapot as well. Strictly speaking we shouldn’t be using tea bags at all.”
Once the tea was properly prepared–which seemed to take an eternity–Martinez sat motionless in a thick terrycloth bathrobe beside Wilson, in a white cotton oxford shirt, dark trousers, and a crisply pressed Eisenhower jacket, as he continued to read. Then Wilson crossed to within three feet of the audience–in effect stealing every bit of focus–and launched into a long, incomprehensible explanation of the rules of cricket; Martinez watched, poker-faced. Once Wilson had finished and triumphantly exited, Martinez took a deliciously long pause, then drank Wilson’s tea.
This piece, with its devotion to formal structure and careful detail, typified Wilson’s sensibility. The second piece–or perhaps antipiece–typified Martinez’s. After erecting a wooden folding screen painted with pictures of exotic birds, Martinez put on a favorite record and simply sat behind the screen listening, only his jauntily crossed feet visible. Meanwhile Wilson was left standing with absolutely nothing to do.
These two seemingly inconsequential pieces introduced the first tragic element. Searching for a place to start their journey, the psychological equivalent of establishing a core self, these figures seemed unable to get beyond debilitating cultural stereotypes. Wilson became the fussy Englishman, adhering to inflexible rules whether at home with a teapot or out on the playing field with his fellow cricketers (as if to emphasize this point, later in the week Fluxus historian Simon Anderson gave Wilson a book entitled The Law of Cricket, which Wilson proceeded to read as poetry). Martinez sat behind a veil of exoticism, the dark and mysterious Latin man.
Neither seemed willing to present a vulnerable face to the other; they were intimate strangers. Martinez at one point said to Wilson, “I have always considered you my closest and most available coclient.” This sad state was made all the more poignant by another recurring piece introduced the first day, a play in which the two men, as Roy and Peter, confess they’ve arrived at a train station without the slightest idea where they want to go, although they’re certain they must travel together. They decide the only solution is to call out names of cities and travel to the one that sounds most interesting. The cities they call out, however, seem interchangeable. Peter and Roy have no personal connections to the words they utter–they might as well be calling out the brand names of vacuum cleaners or toothpaste.
Despite Monday’s “try anything” approach, Martinez and Wilson had clearly hit upon a theme, crystallized in the train play. So much of what appeared that first day suggested a deep feeling of isolation, of spiritual aimlessness: Wilson describing the banal landscape of parked cars outside the window of the theater they had agreed not to leave, Martinez casting “HEAR OUR VOICES” and then “HEAR OUR NOISE” on the ceiling. The question they seemed to ask was as troubling and resonant as Heisenberg’s despairing metaphor for the postmodern condition: “If we’re unsure of our destination, and equally unsure of our present location since every “landmark’ looks exactly like every other, how can we ever move forward?”
By ten o’clock on Monday night they’d worn themselves to a frazzle, barely able to form complete sentences when I chatted with them. On Tuesday morning, another ugly bit of reality intruded: to perform continuously for seven days would not only disable them but produce little meaningful material. Without time to step away from the work, Wilson and Martinez couldn’t consider its implications, couldn’t chart any meaningful trajectory. And the theme that had appeared out of Monday’s jumble demanded such a trajectory.
A great change seemed to have taken place in these artists by the time I showed up after work on Tuesday. They had hardly performed at all that day. Wilson wouldn’t even call that afternoon “performance,” referring to it instead as “two or three hours of sustained activity in front of one person.” It seemed that Tragedy would no longer continue in the self-referential tradition of endurance art. Rather these artists would use the condition of imposed endurance to create a unified seven-day piece. Continuing to work in a mostly improvisational way, and without wavering from the slow, tight, focused, strictly formal and minimalist theatrical language they’d happened upon, they would take their theme to its conclusion, wherever that might be. They would invent a story worth listening to for six more days.
Armed with a new sense of resolve and purpose, Tragedy went nowhere: the dynamic duo pointed their ship out to sea on Tuesday evening and quickly ran aground. This pattern would be repeated throughout the week, a productive day always followed by a day of artistic paralysis. It probably didn’t help that, while Martinez and I chatted over a piece of apple pie, Wilson projected the word “FEAR” on the ceiling, then lay on the front-row sofa and stared up at his artistic nemesis.
Tuesday was the deadly second scene in a conventional play, when novelty gives way to the nuts and bolts of getting the plot engine started. And Martinez and Wilson had apparently misplaced their jumper cables. The evening started with a promising image: a circus record welcomed us to “the greatest show on earth” while Martinez lay draped across a high end table, as uninteresting as a drugged elephant. But the artists spent the rest of the evening waiting for inspiration to hit rather than pursuing an inspirational idea. The intentional banality of the images presented–two men sitting side by side, for example, one eating a pear, the other holding a pear–seemed to reflect their suddenly plodding imaginations. The ten and a half hours I’d spent with the piece on Monday seemed to pass in an instant, but Tuesday evening’s two hours dragged on forever.
By its nature Tragedy couldn’t always work, couldn’t present finished material. Martinez and Wilson could paint a grand canvas, they just couldn’t erase anything. Patience was essential. I remembered the opening of Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, when the title character asks an older toy how it will become “real.” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” the wiser toy responds. “You become. It takes a long time.”
I remembered a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days I’d seen years ago. In the first act, Winnie, buried up to her waist in the earth, prattles on about anything she can think of, trying to maintain her optimism despite her predicament. The nearly two-hour act is an endurance test for the audience, and though on the night I attended the actress’s performance was brilliant, people walked out in a continuous stream. But when act two began and Winnie was revealed now buried up to her neck, she looked at the sparse audience and said, “Someone is looking at me still. Caring for me still. That is what I find so wonderful.” Beckett founded his second act on the belief that most of his audience would walk out during the first. The play would succeed only if it bombed.
Could anything similar be at work here in Pilsen? Could the boredom and frustration of Tuesday evening become a useful part of the piece? It didn’t matter to me whether Martinez and Wilson had intended to create an uninteresting evening, for it was apparent that in this work conscious intent was secondary to intuition and pure accident. Indeed, both artists had so often capitalized on chance events, from the fortuitous appearance of a phrase on the record player to the unexpected participation of an audience member, that the piece seemed guided by an unseen hand. The same hand, I assumed, that played the Scotch-tape organ with such impeccable timing.
It seemed to me that Tragedy was unfolding like a living tarot deck, full of mysterious images that invite investigation but never fully reveal their secrets. Having worked with the tarot extensively, I knew that sometimes the deck would not speak for months at a time–or at best would mumble–making for unclear, uninteresting readings. The only way out of this dilemma, my teacher had told me, was simply to wait, without letting my faith in tarot slip.
Before I left on Tuesday I considered projecting the word “OPTIONS” onto the ceiling, hoping Martinez and Wilson might take the hint and try a few new avenues. I decided against it. But my faith was slipping. I needed to believe the piece would get back on track. I needed Tragedy to be interesting. I had to watch it for five more days.
When I entered the space on Wednesday evening, Martinez erected an eight-foot-square blank canvas upright at center stage and then projected the word “OPTIONS” on the ceiling. Things were suddenly very interesting.
After two days of feeling like a tourist in Paris with only intermediate French under his belt, I became fluent in one fell swoop. Wilson appeared above the blank canvas in an orange flak suit, just as he had yesterday in a ten-minute segment that barely held my attention. But two subtle changes had occurred. First, the squat pool of light that spilled onto last night’s canvas had grown into a towering monolith, the weightless, white polar opposite of the massive black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Second, last night’s silence was replaced by the sound of a scratchy record, heard earlier but now named: Prelude to the 70’s, describing the history of the Apollo missions to the moon.
Instantly, thrillingly, Wilson became an astronaut floating above an absolute blank. In dreamy slow motion, he began to wave to an imaginary crowd, and we heard Neil Armstrong addressing people who’d turned out for Chicago’s 1969 parade in honor of his first steps on the moon. This powerful image was all the more resonant for having been banal last night. A lungfish is a most uninteresting creature to look at, but when one considers that its appearance in evolutionary history led to the human conquest of the planet, one learns to expect magic in the most ordinary places. It was now clear that Tragedy would proceed at an evolutionary pace, with imperceptible change driven by monumental forces. That blob of light had grown into a tower of enlightenment. As the days progressed, that light would appear higher and higher up the canvas, symbolically launched into space while the forlorn astronaut could only watch and be left behind. Patience, diligence, and, yes, boredom were essential to appreciate the full richness of the images. Only those who have stared at the apparently motionless sun for an hour at the end of the day can appreciate the thrill when it suddenly dives below the horizon during the final 30 seconds of the sunset.
The astronaut appeared at exactly the right moment, not only to draw me fully into the piece but to bring the first three days of Tragedy to a succinct conclusion. The theme of cultural and spiritual homelessness found its ultimate expression in the figure of the astronaut. In American culture, the day of the astronaut has come and gone. Twenty-five years ago, several billion people huddled around television screens to watch Armstrong take his one giant leap for mankind. Today the latest space-shuttle mission has been reduced to a 30-second story about technical difficulties and failures on the evening news, even with full-color images of astronauts working for hours on the edge of the ultimate void. Astronauts, like artists, are no longer heroes.
Wilson’s astronaut seemed defeated by gravity, repeatedly gazing up and shielding his eyes as if longing to once again escape earth’s inexorable pull. For Peter and Roy stranded at the train station, world capitals were little more than words glimpsed in an atlas. The astronaut, on the other hand, had achieved the ultimate global perspective. Now no single spot on the ground held any interest. He would spend the rest of the week wandering about, ending up alone in a mock cafe holding an empty coffee cup for hours. The product of humanity’s unlimited development of material powers, he became the most aimless person on earth. At the end of the evening, in an absolutely heartbreaking section, he too began to call out names of cities, accompanying each with a semaphorelike gesture, as though signaling for help. Through it all Ravel’s Bolero blared, full of the passions the astronaut no longer knew.
Yet from this desperate scenario evolved the triumphant finale of Tragedy’s three-day first act. After drinking a cup of tea and smoking a handful of cigarettes, the artists returned to the stage. Sitting at a table downstage, Wilson said, “Eddy, what should I do?” For two days, this line had been the cue for what Wilson referred to as “blind sections”: Martinez would close Wilson’s eyes, and he would keep them closed, no matter what happened, until Martinez reopened them. Typically Wilson would spend much of the time listening to Martinez move things around, trying desperately to understand what was going on–like the rest of us, blind to where the piece was headed. In Monday’s blind section Martinez handed Wilson a series of fruits and gourds that Wilson, completely confused, could only hand back. On Tuesday Martinez stood behind Wilson and simply showed the objects to the audience, leaving his partner, as usual, with nothing to do.
These sections had been entertaining but seemed superfluous. I couldn’t find a way to weave them into the piece, except through a rather superficial equation of blindness with aimlessness. Martinez, perhaps reading my mind (after that “OPTIONS” episode, I wasn’t ruling anything out), tonight refused to play along. Though Wilson repeated the cue several times over 45 minutes, Martinez merely performed his signature piece, listening to music behind his screen, but with a crucial difference: tonight everything but his feet was visible. Was Martinez emerging from behind his screen of artificial exoticism, presenting a more personal and vulnerable face?
Exasperated (or perhaps because he had nothing better to do), Wilson shut Martinez’s eyes and handed him the very objects he’d been handed on the previous nights. But instead of returning them to Wilson, Martinez named each object three times in an orotund voice, as if reciting some mystical incantation. Wilson went through the refrigerator, swiped objects from the kitchen table, even brought a bar of soap from the bathroom, but no matter what he placed in Martinez’s hand Martinez identified it immediately, as though his three days in the theater had made him completely familiar with everything around him.
Finally Wilson went outside, brought in the welcome mat stationed by the front door, and handed it to Martinez. After running his hands across it for several minutes, Martinez tossed it a few feet in front of him on the floor, stumbled blindly to it, placed both feet on it, and announced three times, “Home.” He and Wilson might have been headed up a blind alley, but the mutual trust they’d developed, evidenced by the beauty and sophistication of the work that day, allowed them to finally feel as though they belonged somewhere. Martinez didn’t discover a landmark; he created one.
The sixth major arcana in the modern tarot deck is called the Lovers. It’s not a card about romance, as the name suggests, but rather about facing a difficult decision. An ancient image of this card depicts a young man confronting an elderly woman, perhaps his mother, and a young maiden, perhaps his true love. The question asked is: Will you choose the comfort and stability of the home you’ve always known, or will you venture into the unknown in search of your heart’s desire?
Tragedy had landed squarely before the Lovers. It had begun under the tutelage of the Magician (card one) and the High Priestess (card two), who represent creative will and deep intuition respectively. The Empress (card three), goddess of abundance and fertility, ruled the first day, as a wild garden of images sprang up. With Tuesday’s discovery of a nascent order, the Emperor (card four) helped weed out the extraneous and unnecessary. Along the way the performers had paid their respects to the Hierophant (card five), honoring his insistence on conventional wisdom; they wouldn’t kill themselves by performing nonstop for a week but would adopt a more realistic project.
Wednesday’s breathtaking conclusion brought the piece to the Lovers. Having finally constructed a home for themselves, would these weary travelers have the courage to leave it behind?
True to form, Thursday began promisingly and quickly fell apart. Under a dramatic overhead light, Martinez showed a series of postcards from what appeared to be various European cities. They all looked exactly the same, as postcards do. Here were the exotic locales Peter and Roy had imagined as possible destinations, and unsurprisingly they were interchangeable.
Wilson, taking advantage of a sudden rain shower, took his umbrella and went out the front door, reappearing ten minutes later in the alley behind the theater. Perhaps he would venture into the unknown some day, but today he was sticking close to home.
As the evening began its inevitable nosedive into crashing boredom, a boredom I could now appreciate but hardly tolerate, Wilson and Martinez seemed to grow apart from each other, performing for hours in turn rather than in tandem, putting the brakes on the momentum they typically found performing together, making Thursday even more unendurable than Tuesday.
Yet this apparent failure provided the emotional foundation for the next day’s moving conclusion. Thursday illustrated a theme that had been bubbling up for days: the isolation of the travelers not only from a world of certainty but from each other.
Wilson and Martinez had performed as something of a comedy team for the first few days (if conceptual performance artists can ever be thought of that way), a dynamic that had reached its peak on Wednesday night. Still determined to explain the rules of cricket, Wilson had mounted a perch high above the floor and directed Martinez to lay out two dozen white dessert plates as if they were cricket players on a field. Martinez, only half interested in the first place, seemed completely stymied when Wilson asked him to put plates in such positions as deep fine leg, gully, and fourth slip. When Martinez had run out of patience, he placed his last player near the back of the stage and went off to chat with a friend in the audience. Wilson surveyed his porcelain team, flipped a few pages in The Laws of Cricket, and announced with British understatement, “The final plate is in the crowd.”
But by Wednesday such routines were growing rare, and by Thursday they had all but disappeared. An enormous gulf seemed to open up between these two, as though constructing a home, or a meaningful identity, was not an adequate barrier against the emptiness of postmodern existence. This loneliness was viscerally present in the static, inert pieces produced Thursday evening, and a single sweeping gesture performed late Friday when no one else was present (but repeated Saturday) gave these pieces an added poignancy. Having sat motionless side by side until everyone had left the theater, Martinez simply opened Wilson’s umbrella and held it above both their heads. As lonely and isolated as they might be, stuck in an ambiguous location they had merely labeled home, they could still offer each other shelter.
Friday’s piece was reconstructed and presented first thing Saturday: “first thing” by now was 4 PM, since the artists had been getting less and less sleep as the week went on. I’d had to miss Friday due to my best friend’s 30th birthday party, but since she viewed it as a tragedy, it seemed appropriate I attend. Saturday afternoon was something of a command performance for me and UIC art historian Hannah Higgins, for we were the only two audience members. We’d both spent many hours with the work, and the artists seemed anxious to bring us up to speed.
Like a soap opera fan who’s missed a segment of his favorite show, I was eager to catch up. Would Martinez finally learn to play cricket? Would the monolith of light fly through the roof? Would the astronaut find happiness? I began to worry about whether Martinez would ever completely emerge from behind that screen. My life had become bound up in the minutiae of an event that most of my friends described as nuts. A colleague called my devotion to the piece “monkish.” He was right on the money.
Saturday’s reconstructed work was by far the most eloquent and captivating so far. They brought three cafe tables from the basement and placed them downstage, setting chairs borrowed from the audience around them. If venturing into the public world was too frightening, they could at least simulate a public environment in their home. Martinez revealed that his postcards were blank on the back, never sent, never received, never having connected two people across a great distance. The canvas beneath the astronaut was removed, revealing the cheap trick that allowed him to float above it: he sat on top of a ladder. So exposed, now barely able to keep his head up, he rode the ladder like a horse while a twanging guitar played, the defeated cowboy riding off into oblivion.
But something bothered me about the reconstruction of the piece. Did they feel compelled to perform it for me? Had I been seeing “the piece” unfold on weekday evenings, or had they been showing me the greatest hits from their afternoon work? Was my presence–or the presence of any other viewer, for that matter–shaping the work unduly? Audience reaction made it clear which material worked and which didn’t. Were the artists simply giving us what we wanted to see? Was I whispering over da Vinci’s shoulder, “I think I’d prefer a frown”? It was precisely this dynamic between the performers and the audience that nearly drove the piece into utter collapse even as it pulled into the home stretch.
“Have a nice kip?”
The sound of a voice jolted me from slumber. I jerked up from my supine position on the front-row sofa.
“A what?” I saw Wilson perched next to me.
“It’s a London colloquialism. A nap.”
I’d been caught. An hour ago the comfort of the couch, the rising temperature of the space, and the rapid approach of midnight had been too much for me. Besides, by Saturday evening I’d racked up five days with the piece, put about 150 miles on my car, and taken almost 60 pages of notes. I needed a break. Fortunately Wilson didn’t seem bothered by what most theater artists would consider the ultimate affront. Martinez purred in his thick Cuban accent, “It’s nice you can sleep.”
But perhaps my descent into unconsciousness disguised a need to escape the piece, which had been stuck in a rut since about eight o’clock. I had heard the same three records for the past seven hours. Actually, the turntable was so worn out by this point that the needle no longer tracked properly, so what I’d actually heard for the past seven hours was a series of skips and scratches. I was so bored I could have spit. I tried to tell myself that the boredom would ultimately be useful. So is riding in an elevator, I responded, but I wouldn’t do it all day.
They had made strides earlier in the evening, particularly in calling out names of cities. Still hoping they might agree on a destination even at this late hour, they took their litany in an unexpected direction. Wilson concluded by saying “New York” twice, his voice echoing with nostalgia. These cities were no longer places they hoped to visit but places they had been long ago. The anticipation of what might yet be was replaced by a longing for all that might have been.
This moving conclusion left the travelers unable to push any farther into the unknown. They seemed intent on staying put, endlessly working and reworking the same images, playing those damn records ad nauseam.
Yesterday, Friday, they’d been sitting at a table covered with empty saltshakers and gradually began to play an absurd game of chess, moving the shakers two and three at a time back and forth across the table. When an audience member put a pair of dice into the shakers, their ruleless game seemed complete. Like Miranda and Ferdinand at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Martinez and Wilson sat on the edge of a brave new world playing the ultimate game of strategy.
Now, it seemed, they had no strategy. They couldn’t stop playing with the empty saltshakers, even though their game was flavorless. And no matter what they did, they seemed unable to perform without a skipping record in the background. Earlier in the week they’d used these records judiciously, either to provide accidental inspiration–they’d spin a spelling-quiz record, for example, backward for a while and then release it so that a single word, maybe “existence” or “efficient,” would pop out–or to provide the backdrop for a character, the way Prelude to the 70’s had done for the astronaut. But now the record player, by Wilson’s own admission during a break, began to take on a life of its own. Nearly every section began and ended in sync with the music. The piece was turning into a string of music videos. Like a pair of Dr. Frankensteins, they had given life to an inanimate object that now threatened to overwhelm them.
But the most disturbing part of this troubled evening was how undeniably entertaining it was to those who’d only spent an hour or so in the theater. Playing to their largest house yet, the performers were hysterically funny, and the audience began to clap at the end of sections, which had never happened before. As one set of audience members left and another replaced them, the lads would repeat their surefire hits like vaudevillians condemned to ten shows a night.
Their desire to keep the ever-shifting audience happy, to make sure that no one missed the good parts, nearly destroyed the work (Martinez later referred to Saturday night as their “Broadway evening”). Yet wasn’t their descent into utter fatuousness the ultimate tragic conclusion to the theme they’d discovered six days ago? What better way to demonstrate the emptiness of America’s endlessly optimistic directionlessness than to simply endure it? The world they’d created for themselves seemed so comfortable and complete, so insulated from the despair that had inspired their journey, that like Heisenberg’s imaginary sea captain they wandered in self-satisfied circles. The journey had become an endless loop. The last five hours had been a brilliant mistake.
On Sunday the mercury hovered right around 90 degrees as Tragedy entered its final day (at least that’s the temperature at which sweat typically begins to appear on my forehead). As I took my customary spot on the sofa, chatting briefly with those few weary souls who had also stuck it out to the end, I saw Wilson walk across the stage, so exhausted he could hardly stay on his feet. As his first action he projected “TMIE” on the ceiling, thinking he had spelled “TIME.” Martinez lay on the sofa to my right, immobilized. Wilson put on the spelling-quiz record, spun it backward, and released it. The single word that issued from the speakers was “ruin.” Everything spelled disaster.
But from this exhausted world, a world that had nearly collapsed under the weight of its own self-indulgence the previous night, the final redemption began to unfold. Wilson appeared center stage with his back to us, motionless, empty-handed. After quite a while Martinez entered and stood behind him, also facing away from the audience. The two remained motionless for several minutes, then exited, leaving only the word “time” slowly sliding down a tilted mirror.
As if renouncing the excessive playground world they had created for themselves, the artists now stripped the work to its essentials. For the next eight hours they mostly placed objects onstage in silence, then removed them. Those props and set pieces that had appeared throughout the week, forming the core of the piece, were simply laid out in front of the audience and then retired. This somber ceremony, in essence an eight-hour curtain call, gently eased Tragedy out of the mythic space it had inhabited. The ladder, the canvas, the mirrors, all of which had been imbued with a variety of meanings during the week, were allowed to return to their natural objecthood. The performers no longer manipulated and transformed their materials. In fact, they hardly appeared onstage at all, and when they did they stayed mostly in the shadows.
But as the mythic waters receded, revealing only stones where once mysterious creatures had been glimpsed through the depths, the magical spirit that had watched over the piece made its presence felt. Wilson sat before one of the oscillating fans that had surveyed the work, always offering the winds of change. For the first time, he used the fan in a purely practical way, to try to cool off. The fan turned lazily to the left, facing the audience, and stopped, as though refusing to blow on him, refusing to return to pure utility. Before inexplicably falling silent, the record player concluded with the word “sufficient.”
Wilson laid out the white dessert plates as his final cricket team, a team spread so wide that it covered the entire space, no longer an effective competitive unit. Instead the plates on the black floor resembled stars in a clear midnight sky.
The rich silence and austerity of this final day could not have been more welcome or comforting. The space became as sacred as a cathedral–though a cathedral built on a human scale. With such spare performances separated by long stretches of stillness, the piece invited reflection, as the mirrors had coyly suggested all week. The artists would no longer make meaning. They would turn that job over to the audience.
I reflected back on the first day of the piece, when one motif had been the impossibility of completing the phrase “This is an act of . . . ” Martinez suggested it was an act of love. Wilson thought it might be an act of dignity. Finally they left the phrase unfinished.
My job was to complete that phrase. As their journey reached its end, a revelation hit me. This piece had not been about an undying search for a destination. The destination was immaterial. Even the direction in which one decided to go seemed unimportant. All one could do was accept the inevitability of the journey, and then decide upon the conditions that would make that journey meaningful, no matter where it led. As Wilson stated in the final recitation of the train play, “I think the cost of the ticket should be our only concern.”
Martinez and Wilson had accepted many conditions for their journey–isolation, austerity, mutual trust. But the principle that always most guided them was simple receptivity, remaining open to what fate might send, aware that it needn’t send anything. When one spins the wheel of fortune, as the tarot card of that name teaches, there’s no telling where it will stop. The challenge is to find the courage to play a game with an unpredictable outcome and far-reaching consequences. Such courage can only be found in faith. Tragedy had been an act of faith.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the loss of faith, a crisis described by countless writers and one particularly poignant to contemporary American life. America seems to lack a spiritual anchor, and one does not seem forthcoming. The most often touted image of the future is the information superhighway, which will grant everyone universal access to everything in a grand sweep of electronic democracy–so long as you pay the substantial toll to get on it in the first place. In all likelihood, we’ll be faced with endless indistinguishable exit ramps, as unvaried and uninviting as those on any concrete interstate. The freedom to do everything often translates into the inability to do anything. As physicist Hans Christian Von Bayer wrote, “In a world where everything is possible, natural law holds no dominion.”
Tragedy plunged into the middle of this spiritual crisis yet always held to the belief that guidance would come from the most unexpected places. Acknowledging their limitations–they could not fashion the piece entirely by their own devices but needed help from an unknowable source–Martinez and Wilson had followed Heisenberg’s ship out of the doldrums. As he concluded in the section quoted above, “The very realization that faith in progress must have a limitation involves the wish to cease going in circles and reach a goal instead. As we become clearer about this limitation, the limitation itself may be considered the first foothold from which we may re-orient ourselves.”
Perhaps the signs Wilson and Martinez received were just coincidences. Can one consider Scotch tape a spiritual antenna? But perhaps they’re all we can hope for in an age when the stars seem to shine less brightly than ever. Perhaps they’re enough, if one knows how to read them. In the final moment of Tragedy, near midnight on Sunday, Martinez and Wilson each rolled a single die and walked offstage. After the house lights came up and everyone began congratulating the artists, I walked over to look at the dice. They had each rolled a two.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Donald McGhie.