The Present Monument IV: Performance

What is performance but our best rebuttal to mortality? — George Sheehan

after 'Grian' by Julie Speidel

Monuments give a voice to time. Some speak of inspiration and perspiration, of a momentary vision followed by an interval — days, years, or in nature even eons — of skillful construction and consummate craftsmanship. These monuments speak to us as seemingly finished products, and we visit them in expectation of re-living something known and perhaps even well-understood. No matter that it is the first visit or the thirty-first, we still hear the clarity of Lao-tzu as he declares that he has “just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion”; the inventiveness of Alexander Borodin in juxtaposing the exotic and the lyrical in his B minor symphony; and the serenity of Maya Lin in the dark slash of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into The Mall in Washington.

In the best designs, the artistry and the message are closely tied together, but they are not identical. The medium may be the message, but both are distinct from the moving strokes of a pen or brush in the artist’s hand. Some monuments speak largely of such actions. Their voices are inspired, but they resonate with spontaneity, opportunism, improvisation, and play. We visit these monuments knowing that they are works in progress, knowing that we will hear their voices, but not knowing what they will say, because our moments of listening will be precisely coincident with their moments of creation. This is going to the theater as much to see how Patrick Stewart will create Prospero that night as for the words from Shakespeare that he will speak. It is appreciating Sonja Blomdahl’s art as much for her physical manipulation of molten glass as for the beauty of the cooled forms on her studio shelf. It is being pleased at a soccer game as much for my daughter’s sudden, impossible horizontal propulsion of her body across the goal as for the final score of the game.

Links between the staid and the spontaneous are forged by our memories. We tend to think of this first as looking backward and forward on our individual strands of time, as remembering and anticipating. Very often we recognize that our strands are closely entwined with those of others and therefore that a feature — some “bump” or “hollow” — in an adjacent strand makes an impression in our own. But the truly spontaneous, the surprising, by its very nature seems to come from somewhere else. If time is the gathered fabric of our collective lives, it is as though a wind blows through this fabric, rippling it and allowing adjacent folds occasionally to touch. In these “moments,” as they appear to us, the expected and the unexpected are joined, we learn and grow, and we face life and death.

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