A conversation between artists Daniel Embree and Marilyn Arsem
Marilyn Arsem is the first performance artist to receive the prestigious Maud Morgan Prize from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. A defining figure in the field of performance art, she has performed for over three decades over 180 works around the world, influencing generations of artists in Boston and internationally. 100 Ways to Consider Time was a daily, live performance at the MFA from November 9, 2015 to February 19, 2016.
Daniel: Welcome back to the US. I hear you’ve just returned from Chile, what were you doing there?
Marilyn: Performing! It was a really interesting project. I was there for 2 weeks, but I was in Patagonia at the very southern end of Chile. We went to Tierra del Fuego and drove around to see different parts. We were right on the Strait of Magellan, but we did not go further south. I didn’t see penguins sadly, because it’s winter there.
D: You didn’t jump across the water to Antarctica?
M: I’ve always wanted to go to Antarctica and I’ve applied to residencies there twice. There’s a program for artists and writers in Antarctica, but when you look at who they accept it’s generally painters and photographers and writers, not performance artists. Maybe next time I’ll apply and get the residency.
D: A few years ago when I first met you, you told me that you do most of your work in international performance art festivals and rarely make work in Boston. Since then you’ve performed many times in the greater Boston area including at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Cyclorama, the Boston Harbor Islands, and at the Contemporary Arts International (CAI) Quarry in Acton. What changed?
M: I didn’t have the invitations back then. The work that I had done in Boston up to that point had been primarily at Mobius, and at Mobius I self-produced the work. There is the group to help me, but still I have to produce it to make it happen. It’s a lot harder to just go ahead and decide to do work than to answer an invitation.
D: I imagine there’s more accountability when you’re answering an invitation than when you’re producing work independently.
M: That’s actually the reason I started Mobius—to have a group who would hold me accountable.
In the beginning all the work I was doing was there. We would have monthly art meetings to talk about projects and help each other develop them. I had ideas, and rather than sit at home and think that they were impossible or crazy or strange, I would go to Mobius and they would be supportive, encourage me to do the work, and then hold me accountable.
D: Let’s talk about 100 Ways to Consider Time. For six hours a day, every day, for 100 days, you were in the gallery performing an action or series of actions relating to time. Each day the action was different, and you never repeated an action.
How was performing a work like this at the Museum of Fine Arts different from performing at Mobius?
M: Unlike Mobius, where work is more self-produced, the MFA has a whole staff tasked with making the exhibition happen. There are a lot of offices and departments, conservation, PR, the preparers for exhibitions, the graphics team, the lighting and technical media staff—I don’t even know all of the titles of the many people who helped.
I worked with really wonderful curators at the MFA, Edward Saywell and Liz Munsell, and they managed all the internal processes, much of which I was probably unaware. They recognized that showing performance art challenged some of their normal practices of showing work.
I think the Museum staff were surprised I wanted to be so involved in the installation of my work. After they chose the gallery, I asked for benches for the public and I proposed that one of the benches have a compartment to keep things in. I also asked to be able to control the audio from inside the room. They were thinking that the staff would be handling the turning on and off of sound, because that’s how it’s normally done in a museum.
D: Historically a driving element in your work is that it is site specific and that it deals with political or social issues related to the local community, wherever you happen to be making work. Was this work site specific?
M: I would absolutely call this work site responsive. The materials that I could use had to be approved by the conservation department, for example. One of their big concerns is insects getting into their storage. It’s not just paintings and sculptures in their archive. They have wood, fabric and clothing, historical artifacts—they have to be careful about what is allowed into the system.
I couldn’t use food. The only liquid I could use was water. Any fabric I wanted to use, I had to freeze for 24 hours before I could bring it in. The flowers that I used were purchased through the museum. Even though we talked early on about using flowers, it wasn’t until day 100 that they got there.
When I chose my materials, I had already recognized the limits on what they would approve, and really early on I made the decision that I would not accumulate things in the room. It would be cleared out and brought back to neutral and the end of the day.
D: You removed the residue, but was the room really brought back to neutral every day?
M: No, it wasn’t brought to neutral, but the physical evidence of the previous day was minimal.
D: This touches on something I’ve wondered from the beginning. Was this really one long performance—your longest performance to date—or was it a series of performances around a theme, like an anthology of works?
M: Yes, it is a question of which it is! When we were working on the ebook, which includes some of my previous works, Edward and Liz did a lot of research and looked at a lot of material. I made a list of every performance I’d ever done. Prior to this work I’d made something like 187 performances—all of which I remember. (That’s scary!) So does 100 Ways to Consider Time bring the total to 188, or does it make it 287? That’s the question.
What I’ve also realized is that in doing 600 hours of performing, I actually performed more hours than I had performed in my entire career up to that point. 600 hours is a long time! (laughs)
D: Well you did give each day its own title, so maybe it is 100 individual performances.
M: I did that partly to be able to distinguish and remember each day. If I don’t give it a title, I can’t remember each one. It is 100 ways to consider time. Each day is a different way.
It was a way to keep track of what I was doing. I have a list of the days in chronological order, but I also made another list after I finished, which organizes the 100 ways according to the type of research that it was. I consider this performance a series of experiments or research on time. What is a minute? What is an hour? How do clocks work? What is a second, really? I looked at different scales of time—space time, the scale of time in the universe, the end of time.
D: The first time I experienced 100 Ways to Consider Time, you weren’t in the gallery. Instead there was a recording of your voice describing the previous day’s action. I imagine a lot of people only experienced your work through these daily recordings that played when you weren’t in the gallery. I believe it’s important to experience performance live. Why did you decide to include the recordings?
M: The recordings were an answer to a concern that the museum had. They didn’t want there ever to be an empty gallery.
At one point they asked me to consider having an object from the collection in the room with me, which would also be there in the gallery when I wasn’t. I did look at their collection of 18th Century grandfather clocks, but what I understood immediately is that anything I would have performed would be in response to that particular object.
So that’s when we came up with the idea of the audio, and very quickly we understood that the ephemerality of just having a voice was appropriate to the work.
And as soon as I started making the recordings I realized that it was a very interesting way to document the work. Even though I wrote about it in my journal, there’s an immediacy in the voice. I was making the recordings only a few hours after I finished each day. There was a residue of the day always in the recording.
D: You used the word “document” just now in talking about the recordings. Are they documentation of the work, or are they actually a part of the performance?
M: I think both. They were documentation, but I created them so immediately afterwards that they did retain vestiges of my mental and emotional state after that day, so they were also extensions of the performance. But you tell me.
D: The first time I heard the recording, it felt like I was experiencing the action—or at least like I understood the action—even though I hadn’t been there to see it. On the other hand, your recounting of the action was so different than my own experience of your action. You were also very forthcoming about your intentions and thoughts in the recording, which was very different from when I was observing the action in person.
In addition to the actions and recordings, the audience participated in this work through cards that that were available in the gallery. On these cards, you invited the audience to write how they considered time. Did you read what your viewers wrote each day, or did you wait until the end? If so, did what people wrote impact your actions?
M: I did read the cards, but it didn’t really impact my actions. People wrote about their own lives, and their own notions of time. It was very interesting to read them. People wrote poetry, drew pictures. I intend to build a website that has all the material so that you can see each day, read my description, hear my audio recording, see images, and then read the audience responses from that day.
D: You would include all of the responses?
Yes! All of the responses are really varied, and if I make a selection, then I’m imposing my reading of the work on it. I solicited those responses; I asked the audience how they experience time. It’s part of the research that I was doing, so of course I want to include them all, including the one that said, “This is bad art, and you’re a bad artist!”
D: You aren’t the first performance artist to hear that I’m sure, and I know sometimes people see performance art and think that it is easy. Was this work easy?
M: No. I felt like I was going to die after the first week.
On Day 4 and Day 5, I tried to be as still as a rock. The first day I was on the floor, which was really painful, so I decided to try sitting in a chair the next day, which was also painful. Holding your body still no matter whether you are sitting or lying down is hard to do.
Doing a single action for 6 hours every day without a break—I never walked out of the room once I started—was physically exhausting. So what looks fairly simple to someone coming and sitting down for three minutes is really different when it is done for six hours. A lot of viewers didn’t stay long enough to understand the significance of time and the impact of sustaining the action. And I can’t blame them; during the first week I also didn’t fully understand the significance of sustaining an action for six hours every day and having to come back the next day with hardly enough time to recover.
D: Was it important to you for people to know the level of exhaustion and hard work that this was for you?
M: I guess that is a dilemma in the work. I operate on a human scale with everyday materials. Activities that might appear simple can actually be read in deeper ways. Aspects of the duration change the reading, and contextualizing the action with how it might relate to time changes the reading. I feel sad when someone is dismissive of my work because they look at it for two seconds and don’t think about those things. A lot of audience members didn’t take the time to ask themselves “What way of considering time is this?”
Understanding performance requires work on the part of the audience. Some people come to the museum not knowing how to look at art. They don’t know how to make meaning out of the work for themselves, and that’s what this piece required.
I understand that while I might assign particular meaning to an action, the audience often has another interpretation. I’m willing to share ownership of how to interpret my work. I’ve never been intent on communicating one singular meaning.
D: Tell me about your dedicated viewers. Some of these are people who knew you; maybe others were people who became introduced to you through this piece.
M: For sure, it was a combination of the two. There is one staff person at the museum who saw —I think she said 65 of the 100 days. She would come up on all her breaks.
Obviously there were people who knew me or performance artists who knew my work who came regularly, and they were the ones who spent the most time there—tens of minutes to hours —to really experience the physical duration. Contrast this to most viewers who were coming to the museum to see art and were used to walking through galleries and spending seconds in front of a painting. So for them to spend even a few minutes with me was a significant investment of their time when you consider how much time they planned to spend in the museum.
I did recognize people and get to know people who I hadn’t known in advance but who came regularly to the performance. I was always really happy to see repeat audience members. I often heard them telling people in the audience something about the work or something that had happened on another day. I also felt that those who had been there before would recognize if something were not right and would do something about it. I thought of them as my support system, including you.
D: Did you ever have to call upon that support system?
M: Most people were pretty cautious and took time to figure out what the rules of engagement were. They would sit on the bench and watch for a while and see how other audience members engaged with the work before they did.
There was one time during Day 98, Orbits. I was doing a very concentrated action with the rock, carrying it, orbiting into the center of the room and then crawling around it. While there were many days where I interacted with the audience, this was not one of them.
One young woman had been told by the guard, incorrectly, that everything was participatory. So she came in and started crawling with me. I turned to her and said, “Please leave,” and then I went back to what I was doing. She kept crawling, so I stopped again and said, “Please leave,” but she didn’t. So I left the action returning to my chair along the side wall.
That’s when another performance artist who was there, who was more familiar with the work, decided to help and go over to the girl and explain that it wasn’t a participatory piece that day.
I found that there were occasions where I needed to be quite direct with the audience—and directive. There are a lot of different kinds of people in the world, and there’s a wide range with how they interact with others. I think it took every skill that I developed between performing and teaching for 40 years. I could not have done this work 20 years ago.
D: One recurring theme during the 100 days was death, which is a theme I’ve seen in your work before. I’m thinking about your first performance at the MFA in 2013, With the Others, when you lay under a bench in black, unmoving, in the Ancient Egypt gallery and Edge, which you performed at an event titled Near Death Performance Art Experience at the Boston Center for the Arts. In that piece you slowly pushed two glasses of water off the edge of the table—an action that took 7 hours. Do you want to speak about the theme of death in this work?
M: It can’t be helped! Do I want to talk about that? You can talk about that.
I will say that on Day 97, Planet Earth, I was reading out loud from The Life and Death of Planet Earth by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee. The bulk of the reading that day was a very explicit description of the demise of the planet and all the life forms on it as the sun increases in heat. The sun is becoming increasingly hotter over its 11 billion year life cycle, and we’re about at the halfway point of that. Eventually the heat will destroy all life on the planet as we know it. By the end all of the water will evaporate into space.
The description is amazing —detailing what kinds of plants can grow given the kind of chemical balance in the air and then what happens when the temperature increases and those plants die and decay and shift the chemical balance so that a different set of plants can actually grown. But then they die. The animal life also changes in each phase. It’s a fascinating description of the death of the planet.
I chose that book because I wanted that description of the demise of the world.
M: Because I wanted to talk about another scale of time. It is a scale of time over billions of years. I think in doing this project, I really do understand time differently. On Day 56 when I dripped water from an eyedropper onto a large granite rock, I learned that it could dissolve through weatherization in 10,000 years. That’s not very long! Even after 6 hours there was evidence of erosion. There were grains of sand in the dish underneath the rock. That was when I recognized that I understood time differently, when I thought “only ten thousand years.”
D: You wore black every day except for one, Day 99, Salt. When I walked into the gallery that day and saw you in white, I gasped not just because the visual was so beautiful, but because I was surprised. What went into that decision?
M: I had to wear white that day. I was lying next to my body’s weight in salt. It would not have made sense to be dressed in black next to the salt.
D: So by dressing in white you were making yourself more like the salt and the salt more like you.
M: Yes, you could say that.
D: I’ll tell you how that choice impacted me. By wearing black clothing every day, your clothing became a constant—a non-choice—that didn’t assume significance for me as a viewer. When I was viewing your work, I tended to focus more on the variables, such as your materials for the day, the pace, sound, your decisions to directly engage or not engage the viewer, the configuration of the room, and things like that.
Choosing to wear white on day 99 made me reevaluate all of the other days when you wore black. Instead of being a given, wearing black became a decision that you made each time. The realization also made me reevaluate other aspects of your work that I had taken for granted as constants.
The question really isn’t why did you wear white on day 99, it’s why did you wear black on day 36? You could have not!
M: (laughs) I could have not, you’re right. You know, the black dresses I wore were different every day—the styles changed. Some of them were more formal, and some of them were more casual. And some of them might have made me look younger, and some of them might have made me look older.
D: So you were making decisions about what to wear every day.
M: Yes! I was. During those last few days, many of the materials that I had ordered earlier were actually just arriving, and I had a sense of what those actions would be, but I had to choose the order of them. So I had to ask myself, is Day 100 going to be Salt? That would have given the 100 days a much different reading.
D: It would have indicated you had arrived at something new.
M: Or being on the other side of life. It would have implied a death of sorts and moving into another state.
D: So instead, on Day 100, Flowers, you watched nine tulips in vases as they opened. I have to admit, while I was watching them, I couldn’t see them opening, but after I left I compared a picture that my friend took later in the day with what I remembered, and there was clearly a big difference in how open the flowers were.
M: Yes. It was Day 100 and there were so many people who had come to watch. I was just sitting there thinking, “The flowers aren’t opening! What am I going to do?” and then I said to myself, “Well Marilyn, that’s what this is about: being willing to wait and see something really incremental unfold.”
It was really wonderful on that day to have people stay an extended time to sit with me and watch. That day was important to me because by staying for so long, many people were experiencing more of what I experienced: how time can seem like it’s standing still; that things are changing but you can’t see it when you’re looking. It’s often only when you look away and then back again that you do see it. One audience member said she went out of the room and then came back and only then could she see a difference in the blossoms opening.
I was really happy that day to have everyone with me.
D: Were there other days when you were lonely?
M: Yes. But life is like that.
D: That’s something that you said after Day 31, Dust, which was particularly meaningful to me. On that day you ground marble rocks into dust with a three-pound sledgehammer. Every time you hit the rocks it made a very arresting sound that filled the gallery. The action was in some ways destructive, but it was also constructive because you created this beautiful marble dust which you painstakingly collected with a brush in a little jar.
As you were performing, a teenager came up to you and asked what you were doing. You explained that you were grinding the stones into dust. He asked, “Why?” You responded, “Because life is like that.” That response touched me.
M: You know there were some days when I thought that no one got it, that no one understood what I was doing, but then I would read the cards and see that what I was doing was meaningful to someone. Day 18, Moving Backwards, is a good example. While I was performing, I assumed no one noticed that I was moving. I was doing a really intense action, moving minutely backwards away from the other chair, and someone started a conversation in the room about some other work I had done. I tried to ignore it. But it was really distressing, because not only were they not watching me, they were disturbing someone else in the audience. I should have paused and said, “Please have that conversation outside of the room,” but I didn’t.
So between moving so slowly I thought no one had even noticed and being frustrated by that distraction, I thought no one had appreciated the work. But that day someone wrote in one of the cards how intense it was watching me and how they thought that I was levitating. It was a beautiful response to what I was trying to do, so it worked for someone!