Situated between a vision of paradise and an ascetic ideal, we play with tropes and absurdities of the promises of our respective spiritual and religious traditions. The performance field becomes a model, a challenge and an escape from ideas that inspire the postponement of earthly pleasure, and those that encourage the renunciation of desire to overcome suffering.
Bringing Buddhist practices into conversation with Muslim visions of paradise echo cross-cultural traditions interfacing in a globalized context. We bring these histories into dialogue, and share some difficulties such an effort presents. While both traditions have personal resonance for us, they act on different registers of belief, practice, and the body. This project mirrors contemporary questions regarding religion and the body and the aesthetics of ritual.
The performance opens in darkness with a spoken drone. The content was the front page from a newspaper of record, not sutras, one week after the ISIS bombings in Paris. A screen comes on. I am shown making ritual hand gestures in the style of Buddhist mudras, but of my own invention. There is a mirror onstage, reflecting the light of the screen.
Maryam and I enter. She pushes a cart, covered with plants on top, while I am below. Following a traditional garden design, Maryam moves along a grid, coming to rest center stage. An old-fashioned overhead projector comes on, casting a round yellow light onstage, an iridescent rainbow outlining the light.
Maryam begins a monologue based on the life of her mouth. The mouth becomes a symbol of the decadence characteristic of paradise.
I scrub and clean the floor with a toothbrush.
Taking the mirror in her lap, Maryam gazes at her reflection and the audience, speaks a monologue, and, walking with the mirror, confronts and confuses the audience with mirror light play.
I do a prostration across the stage, licking the length of the floor. I read monologues, Maryam taunts me while eating sunflower seeds and grapes. Gradually the scene disassembles. Pulling on threads of tape, I follow an endless maze. She walks up a ladder to nowhere. Maryam chokes on water. A plant spills and breaks. The elements break down. We hurriedly gather our belongings and leave, but not before bringing the overhead projector into focus, revealing a simple sheet of yellow cellophane that masqueraded as our sun.
A Stranger Place
In late 2008, faced with diminished work opportunities after the Great Recession, I accepted a sub-contract photographing hotels in a re-branding advertising campaign.
I found myself alone, in rooms normally filled with travelers, vacationers, families, business people, and hotel workers. Spaces of public function—banquet halls, conference and meeting rooms, fitness rooms and pools—dictated behavior. I was no longer accountable to those functions; I existed outside. I responded by expressing that freedom corporeally and with constructed narrative, for no one but the camera.
A Stranger Place explores elements of performance, surprise, and transgression. Working covertly in these spaces that were made available to me, I questioned their nature. I responded to what each empty room posed with practices of play, conjuring, call and response. I photographed the rooms as I would for the hotel’s marketing division. They are processed for online advertising standards—somewhat retouched, somewhat beautified. They are simple fictions—sometimes lacking sprinklers, electrical sockets, perhaps stains or peeling paint. Insertion of the performing body into these spaces heightens the fiction. They become a stage.
Buddhi Project Statement
Bud-dhi, the feminized Bud-dha, considers questions of intimacy and contemplation, aggression and surrender. Wordless gesture, ritualized effacement play out through active and passive bodies, asking what boundaries exist within idealized contexts, and where does sensuality end and transgression begin.
This project is a collaboration between the staff and patients of Brevard Health Alliance and myself. It is grounded in the belief that we learn, through our successes and failures, what it takes to achieve goals and how to successfully care for ourselves and others. By sharing how we have been successful we offer experience strength and hope to our greater community, and we affirm the victories over challenges we’ve had so far. Let our experiences encourage you to be successful and healthy, and to pursue all your dreams.
Thank you to Dr. Summer Bartholomew, Monique White and all the staff and patients who made this project. Thank you also to the Brevard Health Alliance and Jill Sonke, director of the Center for the Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida and Ibraheem Youssef, who shared generously of his time and talent.