With the Day

Matthew Wilson and Eduardo Martinez-Almaral

at N.A.M.E., January 28

By Justin Hayford

The alarm went off at 4:30 in the morning. I stumbled into warm clothes, including long underwear and two pairs of socks, packed a double lunch, and headed out to the car a good hour before the sun was due on the horizon. No, I wasn’t on my way to a weekend ski chalet or a private audience with the pope–about the only two things that could conceivably get me out of bed at such an hour on a Sunday. I was headed into the south Loop to see a performance piece scheduled to run from sunrise to sunset–in a gallery, I’d been warned, that had no heat until noon.

As my ten-year-old Dodge Colt lurched crankily, I realized that I’d been covering the Chicago performance scene for nearly a decade. When I was fresh out of grad school, unfinished loft spaces in deserted parts of town where fashionably miserable devotees of obscurity pass the crown of misunderstood genius back and forth held some romantic allure, but the charm faded a day or two after my 30th birthday. To make matters worse, the duo I was to see this morning, Mathew Wilson and Eduardo Martinez-Almaral–aka the Chicago Tragic Company–had mounted a seven-day piece called Liberty just a few months ago that was so excruciatingly aimless I only made it through the first three days–and that only through an enormous exertion of will.

When I pushed N.A.M.E.’s intercom button at 6 AM, a recorded voice told me the gallery was closed. A sane person would have headed straight back to bed. But few sane people made it through the duo’s breathtaking 1994 debut Tragedy, their first seven-day collaboration, perhaps the most profound artistic experience I’ve ever lived through. Liberty may have had all the excitement of damp cheesecloth, but at least Wilson knew it, vowing never again to do a weeklong piece. Ten and a half hours didn’t seem so bad. I pushed the intercom button again. This time, Martinez’s sultry Cuban purr greeted me.

Up in the fourth-floor gallery space, Wilson and Martinez puttered about silently, preparing for the piece, seemingly uninterested in each other let alone me. At least the heat was on, much to everyone’s surprise. When I asked Wilson how he was doing, he answered, “Questioning my sanity.”

For the first five hours of With the Day, their audience consisted of one person: me (with the possible exception of a long-suffering gallery employee who wandered in and out). Shortly after the performance began, the company photographer–Wilson’s wife–fell sound asleep. People didn’t start trickling in until noon, and by sunset there were no more than 20 of us. As the piece concluded, I remembered standing alone on a soccer field at summer camp one August afternoon two decades ago and watching an unearthly ball of fire glide a few hundred feet above Keuka Lake before disappearing behind a bluff. Something extraordinary was happening, I was its sole witness, and I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me.

Explaining the magic of Wilson and Martinez’s work is like praising my mother’s meat loaf. Enumerating the ingredients explains nothing; you have to taste it. Like that dish, With the Day was made up of wholly ordinary stuff: two guys, two chairs, a table, a mirror, a tiny electric organ, a record player, a tape measure, and a book or two (not counting the nearly nonstop stream of cigarettes and coffee the performers consumed). The performance style was superficially bloodless; they recited brief vignettes in matter-of-fact tones, moved bits of furniture back and forth, read academic texts, and generally proceeded at a contemplative pace. Neither got excited, talked loudly, or walked quickly. Ever. Like their tiny organ, with a keyboard spanning less than two octaves, the pair played within a very limited range. But just as that organ sustained haunting chords for hours at a time–thanks to the judicious application of masking tape–these two maintained a steely intensity, rescued from pretension by their absurd, self-deprecating sense of humor. True minimalists, they allowed themselves nothing but the orchestration of minute details. True postmodern vaudevillians, they worked those details into an achingly funny existentialist comedy act.

Wilson and Martinez began by introducing the half-dozen half-scripted scenarios that formed the foundation of the piece. In one, Wilson identifies himself as a map collector and asks Martinez where “the manager” is. Wilson explains he has to give his maps to the manager, but since they’re not maps of the area–in fact, Wilson has no idea what part of the world is on the maps–he wants to warn the manager to ignore his advice. In another, Wilson says he requested a room downstairs but was told by the clerk that there were no keys left. Wilson wants to change rooms because every time he returns to his current one, all the furniture is different. Martinez offers him his own keys, pointing out that “all keys open all doors.” In a third, both men explain “the proper method for the consumption of venom,” namely: “Drink a glass of water, take a short walk, write a letter to your landlord and apologize, do not explain your motives to your neighbor, do not doubt that your choice is the right one and”–most important–“always wear a tie.” These deadpan sketches, circling around images of displacement, aimlessness, and despair, are the duo’s trademark.

Like their alter egos Peter and Roy in Tragedy, stranded on a train platform and calling out names of cities in hopes of hitting upon an interesting destination, Wilson and Martinez in With the Day are eternally stuck on the threshold of departure. And while in Tragedy they spent much time hoping to escape by train, this time they wait in hopes of taking flight. Now and again Wilson reads a section from The Wonder Book of the R.A.F., a British World War II manual that leads the novice fighter pilot through his first training flight. In preparation, Wilson puts Martinez through a series of exercises designed to strengthen his arm-flapping abilities.

As in Tragedy, proceeding together in unison is a near impossibility. They are in a competition, they repeatedly remind each other, but each says emphatically that he does not intend to win. Yet “a gentleman would never throw the competition,” and each feels he must see it through to its resolution. Of course they’re really talking about trying to perform a daylong piece with only a few fragments of prepared material: every so often they admit that they’ve “reached an impasse,” and the only solution is to slowly separate and start again.

For the first half of With the Day Wilson and Martinez simply circled back to the same vignettes again and again, and with each return a tiny variation appeared. At first Martinez suggested that the manager Wilson sought would soon arrive. Then he admitted that he was the manager. Martinez said he wanted Wilson’s maps to help him figure out where to move the building–he was looking for a spot where an audience was waiting. Wilson declared that he grabs a random map each morning and uses it as a guide while walking the streets of Chicago (reminiscent of Yoko Ono’s famous Fluxus piece from the 1960s in which she instructed people to make an imaginary map and then follow it in a real city). The maps do just fine, Wilson insisted, because all cities and all maps share the same features: a church, a library, a city hall, and a factory. “I must say,” he concluded, “I’ve never walked down the same street twice.”

In essence With the Day is a room in which new metaphorical furniture appears every time you turn around. Like the streets Wilson walks, these brief scenes are never the same twice. The stories are familiar, asking fundamental questions: who am I, who are you, and where are we? Yet they’re also mysterious in their childlike, surreal illogic. The performers can’t help but return to them, hoping to clear up yet another ambiguous motive. But as the details emerge bit by bit, in the manner of a mystery novel, the performers get no closer to reaching any conclusions. Instead, they find themselves in more and more elaborate predicaments.

Soon these beguiling vignettes began to overlap and intertwine, and various elements from them started to appear in Wilson’s dreams–which he told to Martinez, referring to him as “Doctor.” In an early vignette Wilson told the classic blind men and the elephant story (although in Wilson’s version the elephant, stuck in a dark room, grows so agitated at the blind men’s fumblings that it turns on the light). Later almost all of Wilson’s dreams somehow included elephants–and flight. In one, he saw the entire city as a runway full of elephants trying to gain enough speed to become airborne. In another, he was an elephant in a fighter plane taxiing for takeoff who had to throw everything out the plane’s window–including the plane itself–to become light enough to fly. Finally he was left galloping down the runway flapping his ears.

This is a world of intriguing setups, of engrossing first chapters: the full story doesn’t seem to interest these performers, but rather the narrative impulse that sets a story in motion. And that impulse is rooted in endless rearrangement of details. Their tales move forward incrementally, imperceptibly, like the sunlight creeping across the city, visible through the huge bank of windows on the gallery’s back wall. Trying to bring these fanciful stories to a conclusion is not only impossible but irrelevant. With the most magnificent narrative of all unfolding all around the performers–namely the world’s spinning from dawn to dusk–of what use are mere human endings?

With the Day is a direct descendant of Michael Snow’s seminal minimalist film Wavelength, in which for 45 minutes a motionless camera zooms almost imperceptibly in on a photograph on the wall of an 80-foot New York loft (with its long wall of windows, spartan furnishings, and hardwood floor, N.A.M.E. looks very much like that loft). People appear parenthetically in Wavelength, in four disjointed “tiny human events,” as film historian Amos Vogel describes them. These events culminate in a murder, but compared to the titanic zoom of the camera even homicide seems incidental. As Vogel writes, “The real protagonist of the film is the room itself, the private life of a world without man, the sovereignty of objects and physical events.” Similarly, Wilson and Martinez invited an audience to witness a day sweeping through a room, a story with more suspense than anything they could muster.

But in truth the passing of the day isn’t a narrative. The day doesn’t “start” or “end” at any distinct moment; it cycles endlessly, just as the performers’ vignettes loop back upon one another. Human stories, which head in one direction–toward resolution–are ludicrous, pitiable acts of self-delusion. The world tells us in no uncertain terms: everything will run in endless circles whether we’re here to appreciate it or not.

Human beings tell stories for the same urgent reason that Wilson imagines people keep changing the furniture in their rooms: “To keep things lively.” So much of life is mere “consumption of venom”–a continual act of self-contamination, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual. Wilson and Martinez are right to insist we always wear a tie when drinking poison: like Shukhov in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, who won’t eat his gruel without removing his cap, we should at least meet our ignoble fate with decorum.

In the second half of With the Day Wilson and Martinez gave the day center stage. Wilson began by pointing out the four great urban landmarks he imagined to be visible from the window–the church, the library, the city hall, and the factory. For the first time he consciously included the outdoors in the piece, and at that moment the day’s first ray of sunshine shot through the room. White bedsheets covering the top row of windows were ripped down, making more of the day visible. Eventually the sheets ended up draped over everything onstage–including the performers, who nonetheless continued their vignettes–again suggesting that the only performance worth watching was the day itself unfolding.

For five hours the performers receded into the background. Their vignettes became briefer. They spent more and more time lying on the floor under the sheets. Throughout this period they tended sweetly to each other, always obliging the other’s whims. Late in the piece Wilson and Martinez stood leaning together with their heads on each other’s shoulders for a brief but transcendent moment. Then they tucked the sheets delicately around each other. Lying on the floor under white sheets they looked like corpses, and the true nature of their competition became clear. They weren’t competing against each other; they were competing against the passage of time, armed only with a deep affection for each other. No wonder neither expressed a desire to “win”–such a victory would be meaningless–or to throw in the towel. We cling to life, Jean Anouilh writes, “even when the game is lost.” And love, like art, is one of the few things that transcends time, stamping our impressions indelibly on an unfeeling universe, like the chalk handprints Martinez left on the windows before covering himself with a shroud.

Leaving the gallery in the gathering twilight, I realized two things. First, when I began writing about performance almost ten years ago, schlepping my way to far-flung urban outposts, I was looking for work like With the Day: evocative, elusive, elliptical, and engaging. In recent years much of the mystery in other “performance” has disappeared: every other autobiographical monologuist now seems to wave the banner of “performance art.” A dwindling few on the scene these days appreciate the poetry of puzzlement.

Second, living through With the Day left an indelible handprint on my life. I couldn’t recall ever having known an entire day in such intimate detail. Whether I’d left an impression on it or it had left one on me was unclear–and immaterial. As Wilson told me in the darkness before the piece started, “It’s a funny thing about watching the sun come up. The rest of the day is uniquely yours.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Margorzata Gizella.