Finding Water

Mathew Wilson and Max King Cap

at Link’s Hall, February 10 and 11

No other performance artist I’ve seen in the last four years has been quite as prolific as Mathew Wilson (except perhaps his diametrical opposite, Paula Killen). He works in a tradition considered by some to be more European at this point than American, more influenced by Joseph Beuys than, say, Laurie Anderson. Like many other young artists, he’s a neo-conceptualist, weary of overtly dramatic or expressionistic art. He might have found a comfortable niche in the world of conceptual performance in Chicago during the mid-70s–alongside such artists as Mary Jane Dougherty, Gunderson/Clark, and even James Grigsby in his early years.

Like many performance artists, Wilson was first trained not in theater, dance, or time arts but in two-dimensional art. He came to Chicago armed with a merit scholarship in photography. But once he arrived he found himself spending more time on performance than on photography, collaborating with such artists as Mark Alice Durant, in Men of the World, and Robyn Orlin as well as other art students in site-specific performances.

For his graduation performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago he sequestered his audience in a tiny dressing room/storage space for 15 minutes before escorting them into the performance area, causing a minor riot. Some students shook their fists at him and yelled, “Fuck you!” Others simply walked out. This piece has helped seal his reputation as a controversial artist, a reputation belied by his implacable, quiet, and humble demeanor.

Finding Water is the latest in a series of collaborative works, called jointly “Castles,” that began in 1991 with a collaboration with Orlin (Please, Consider Me a Dream) and continued with Bread. Sculptor and Columbia College faculty member Max King Cap is Wilson’s latest collaborator. Like Wilson’s other work, Finding Water is not done with an eye to a result but for the sake of the action; it’s a walking mantra that lulls the audience into a state of calm and detachment. It’s also oddly, profoundly personal–and more mournful than any of Wilson’s other works.

This hour-long piece begins with Cap sitting downstage at Link’s Hall holding a stack of white shirts and gazing unperturbed at the audience. On his left is a walkway of fabric extending about 20 feet to the rear, and on his right is a line of flour reminiscent of a beach. The space is scattered with aluminum pails, and a large aluminum basin rests center stage. Wilson alternately sits in a chair at the back and pours water into this basin. Both men are barefoot and wear black pants and white shirts and impassive, almost stoic expressions.

Once again Wilson walks forward with a pail and painstakingly pours water into the center basin. Then he lights a lamp within the pail, so that it looks like some high-tech interior-design wonder. The el goes by (as it will at least four or five more times during the performance), and Wilson leaves the space through one of the side doors, reemerges with another pail, and pours water into the basin again, allowing the delicious sound of water striking the metal basin to permeate the space.

At this juncture Cap scoops out a few cups of flour and sifts them into a pail of water, his motions slow and precise. When he’s finished sifting, he throws from the sifter a handful of small nails, which clink and echo on the floor. Cap repeats these motions over and over, sifting the flour into a pail, and later onto the floor. Meanwhile Wilson unfolds the shirts. Each one seems to have a bit of paint, little black finger marks or dots. Wilson bends over and paints each spot white. Back and forth they go, Cap sifting the flour and emptying the nails, Wilson dabbing paint on the shirts, then revealing another stain. Four lights are now beautifully illuminating the Link’s Hall space. For a while I counted the shirts–at first I thought there were three stacks of eight–but I began to fall asleep because of the quiet of the space and the repetition of the movements. When I woke up, Wilson had painted every shirt.

He spreads the shirts on the floor and cuts off all the buttons with a few simple motions, performing this procedure on every shirt. A little mountain of flour stands where Cap has been sifting; some footprints have appeared in it.

Then Cap and Wilson open all the Link’s Hall windows. The audience almost gasp, and little by little many put on their coats and gloves. The performers remain barefoot. Having cut off the last of the shirt buttons, Wilson dips each one in the center basin, carefully wrings it out, and lays it on a radiator at the base of the windows. Steam blows into the space. He performs the same ritual with each shirt while Cap places thimbles one by one along a line of flour in front of the windows. Finally both men lift the walkway fabric and stand on the radiators, holding it up to the open windows. The fabric gives off steam, then after a few minutes they drop it and walk out.

Because the flour reads as sand, the piece creates the feeling of being caught between two shores, between two lines of flour–one place is barren, while in the other there is work but the air is inhospitable, and the work is redundant and soporific. Yet like children on a sandy shore creating castles, the men are engrossed in what they do. In fact each concentrates so hard that he’s oblivious to the other man.

There are several ways of seeing this work. One that came to mind many times is the idea of displacement, of a person somehow out of sync with the rest of the world who performs manual labor in a sort of purgatorial dream. Motions are repeated over and over again, to the point that the original purpose is lost and the motions seem part of some self-reflexive impulse beyond reason. Wilson and Cap bring transcendence to these actions through lighting, ambient and constructed sound, and careful attention to the details of the space. We’re made to see the action from a great distance, as it were, with a kind of Buddhist detachment.

Wilson seems to work best when he creates a moving mandala, in a space that accommodates small,

precise actions and where the lighting is impeccable. He’s best when he doesn’t attempt to “act” or perform, as he did in Tragedy, but creates a spare picture using props, people, backdrop, sound, and light. From that vantage point this new work is brilliant. One feels the influence of Wilson’s background in photography in his attention to light and his manipulation of composition and the natural world. Finding Water is stunning, strange, a little lonely and sad, yet calm–a walking mantra.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Donald McGhie.