Earth Day Event for Federal Plaza

Mathew Wilson

April 19

Mathew Wilson is a lightning rod for fortuitous disaster. A year ago, on the morning of Wilson’s first Earth Day performance, Richard Nixon passed away; in the middle of Wilson’s event, in which nearly 100 people fell down “dead” for an hour in Daley Plaza, all the flags in the plaza were lowered to half-mast. Last September during Tragedy, his seven-day collaboration with Eduardo Martinez-Almaral at the Blue Rider Theatre, the things that went wrong did so with impeccable timing–the record player broke, for instance, just when the piece needed silence. And an hour or so before his second Earth Day performance last week in Federal Plaza, the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, sending a slew of journalists and television cameras into the middle of Wilson’s unannounced event. As he quipped with grave irony after learning of the bombing, “I always get lucky with some sort of tragedy.”

Wilson relies on fate the way a painter relies on pigment: to add color to an outline. His intrusions into public spaces, both as a solo artist and as half of the duo Men of the World, are typically governed by a set of simple written instructions that leave plenty of room for fate’s intervening hand. In Hour of the 100 Flowers, for example, Wilson and fellow Man of the World Mark Alice Durant told themselves to “arrive at Daley Plaza…and place 100 flowers (red carnations) on one per 3×3 square foot of granite tile. Attached to each stem is the message, ‘We are jewels on a chain.’…For exactly one hour, two men and 100 flowers occupy the public space. Curious passersby are told to take a flower.” The instructions for their wittiest piece, Is Father Dirty?, go: “Men of the World, armed with two paint buckets and soapy water, brushes and cloths, approach various public monuments in downtown Chicago that depict war heroes, patriarchs, founding fathers, etc. Men of the World climb upon these statues and give them a good scrubbing, rinse and proceed to next hero.”

The instructions for the hour-long Earth Day Event for Federal Plaza, commissioned again this year by the Hokin Center at Columbia College, were even simpler. “The Event will consist of approximately 70 performers and…as each individual enters the plaza, at their allotted time, they will slow down, gradually coming to a complete standstill. There, they will remain in place and completely motionless.” While last year’s event was a massive spectacle, with 100 people collapsing on cue, this year Wilson played it cagey, sending his performers into Federal Plaza every few minutes, assembling a work that went nearly unnoticed until it was almost half over.

At 11 AM, a young man in a beige trench coat and long red scarf sauntered into the mostly empty plaza, set his briefcase at the foot of the orange Calder sculpture, and stood apparently lost in thought. A minute later a young woman in a suede jacket walked past him, her stride gradually shortening until she came to a stop. In another minute I noticed at the far opposite corner of the plaza a motionless woman in a full-length black overcoat, salmon rain hat, and bright red gloves, looking like a full-color female version of Jonathan Borofsky’s famous silhouetted businessman figure, which often looms over his exhibitions. A second woman stood staring at a spot where the pigeons near her had probably been a few minutes earlier. Then two men in traders’ jackets stopped beside one of the street lamps along Dearborn–an exquisite detail, I imagined, until a few moments later they continued on their way. Then I realized that the man sitting next to me with the cellular phone to his ear hadn’t moved in quite some time.

After 20 minutes, perhaps two dozen frozen people had spread themselves throughout the plaza, yet only the rare pedestrian noticed anything. With a third of the performers in place, their stillness beautifully highlighted the intricate but unwitting choreography of those who passed by: the bundled-up-yet-terminally-underdressed shuffle, the aimless slouch, and, my personal favorite, the high-assed-both-hands-in-the-front-pockets waddle, a move that can be properly executed only if the heels never touch the ground. One particularly inspired autochoreographer, disguised as a middle-aged businessman in a smartly tailored coal-black suit, walked a long, unwavering diagonal straight through the center of the plaza, never looking anywhere but directly in front of him, as though carving out the escape route unavailable to the performers.

After ten more minutes had passed and another dozen motionless performers had arrived, bemused but suspicious smiles began to appear on the faces of passersby, most of whom, it seemed, thought I was in charge. “What are you protesting?” one woman asked. “Is this part of an acting class?” asked a second. “How much did they pay you?” asked a third. All the while Wilson stood directly to my right trying to maintain a straight face. A teenage boy went around shouting Hey! into the faces of a few performers and then dissolving into laughter. A concerned-grandmother type cautiously approached the performers without heavy coats and asked, “Aren’t you cold?” In one delightful bit of unrehearsed physical comedy a man held forth to his wife and two children about the Calder sculpture while his family feigned interest: as the group walked away, they did an exquisite unison double take, suddenly seeing all the frozen people in front of the statue they had just studied in detail.

Such unexpected and unplannable delights essentially complete the gesture that Wilson and his troupe merely begin: it’s fair to say that the concerned grandmother and laughing teenage boy are the true artists here, for without their interaction the event literally goes nowhere. Wilson has a genius for orchestrating poetic interruptions of daily life, placing ambiguous but accessible images in the paths of unsuspecting people who must decide how to respond. Since Wilson never provides any material that might explain his events or put them in context, only the collision between spectator and performers generates meaning. One woman, after watching the performers for a few minutes, launched into a tirade about welfare cheats, government waste, and bureaucratic indifference. To which a stranger replied, “It’s frustrating, isn’t it? Just like it would be explaining all that to one of those motionless people.” Wilson ought to put that guy on the payroll.

By 11:40 the mood in the plaza began to shift. It was clear to everyone walking through that something was seriously wrong, and they had to know what it was; folks were no longer satisfied to experience the event, to literally laugh in its face. Fueled by the inquisitiveness of a newly arrived gaggle of high school students on a field trip (“There’s gotta be hidden cameras around here somewhere, dude,” one insisted), spectators retreated into clumps where they debated what was going on. The clumps then moved from perceived authority figure to perceived authority figure, demanding an explanation. I told people I had no idea. The lone security guard simply announced cheerily, “It’s Earth Day!” which satisfied no one. Finally the biggest clump flagged three passing cops, one of whom said succinctly, “It’s art.”

It was fascinating to see how upset and confused people became in the face of pure passivity. Sixty people standing motionless, refusing to acknowledge anyone or anything, were almost a personal affront, possibly requiring retaliation. “Go up and take that guy’s hat off,” one student goaded another. “Stick your head under her skirt and see if she moves,” suggested another. I was reminded of a famous New York performance piece from the 60s in which a woman sat passively in a gallery full of people. The audience grew rowdy, hurled insults, and finally stripped off all her clothing. The piece was stopped only when someone put a loaded gun to her head.

But fortunately the art-critic cop happened by, and his simple pronouncement defused the tension. The clumps began to disperse, revealing the extraordinary beauty of the final assemblage of performers. Most of the new arrivals maintained complicated, physically demanding poses: one held a cup of coffee to his lips, a second squatted and twisted to her left as though reaching to tie her shoe, a third froze in the midst of stepping off his skateboard. The suggestion of the doomed, caught inhabitants of Pompeii was unavoidable, and the larger implication of sudden mass destruction seemed perfectly appropriate for Earth Day.

But the performer who added the most profound touch to the event stood almost unnoticed. At the far north end of the plaza, tucked inconspicuously beside a tree, he was staring at his wristwatch, endlessly watching the hands spin. In essence, he seemed to be saying, this event’s focus was not on motionless performers but on frozen time. And what could be more in keeping with the spirit of Earth Day than to invite people to simply stop what they’re doing and slow down, so that the often overlooked beauty of simple human presence can be seen?

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