This sculpture is sensual, erotic, dark. The curves drift between male and female body parts, and exploring them with my hands borders on graphic. As it builds, my hands capturing the energy, quivering, probing, I work to keep my facial expression plain and detached from anything untoward. Out of the churning crowd a noisy form penetrates my awareness and resolves into a figure approaching. His words are directed at me.
“-- du Deutsch?...Parlez-vous français? Do you speak English? Hello…?”
An older gentleman. There’s no type. Anybody could do it. For whatever reason. The tallest tower is downstage left of the major hub. Caress, gather the base with my left hand, accentuate the shaft’s height. Guy comes around upstage right. Close.
“What are you doing here? What is this?”
He’s looking at me, not what I’m doing. He should look at what I’m doing. I’m looking at what I’m doing. Everything we’re wearing is so carefully white, except for the gloves. Look at the gloves, man. Trace rear humps coming around right for hole finale. He leans in, jaw clenched.
“I do not understand the purpose of your performance.”
He walks away. Finally notices the take-away info sheets that held his answers. Almost takes one. Blurs back into the stream of people as my awareness of the crowd re-seals shut. The purpose of my performance? That’s heavy, man. What’s the purpose of anything? Life, even. (Yours.)
As I finish my survey of the sculpture, I notice the solid wall of curious, respectful onlookers, and remember that man was the rare hostile exception. I catch my facial muscles and suppress the smile but my brain drops the dopamine anyway. Forgot about my eyes. Spine tingling, I notice the new shift of mimes already at work over on the Henry Moore, so I step away from the pedestal and glide backstage to go slam a coffee.
As far as I can tell from the inside, there’s not much to “get” -- except that you take the time to stop and observe us, and just play along. When pressed, artist Davide Balula can be very articulate about the ideas behind his installation, but I think we all prefer the audience to stop thinking and just imagine what we’re creating -- and it seems they do, too.
The effect of mime installations at art fairs has been fascinating to watch this summer, and it actually didn’t start in Basel for me. When I told Geri in May in a Midtown bar that I wanted to see her Zurich show back home, I had no reason to expect that I would actually end up in Switzerland for these couple of weeks in June. But it turned out that by chance this summer, mimes were a pretty hot commodity in conceptual art installations around the world.
Pastoral Pantomime, Fairly Unfair
More so than many other performance traditions, mime artists tend to be soloists. I wouldn’t go so far as to say lone wolves, but the nature of the medium does lend itself to the mime monologue. You can conjure objects, people, environments, and tell the grandest of stories with a single body.
But the secret, as we’ve found with Broken Box, is that multiple mimes only amplifies the magic. An audience can share the imaginary world of a single mime, but as more points of reference and attention are added, the world becomes all the more rich and concrete. And as performers, working so closely in this parallel dimension has made us sensitive to the whole story we’re telling with our movements, and also practically psychic with each other on stage.
Which is why it was perfect when Broken Box was approached this past spring to be part of Frieze Projects, at the FriezeNY Art Fair on Randall’s Island. Frieze Projects is a program of installation works produced to accompany FriezeNY, curated by Cecilia Alemani -- and along with a live donkey, a reverse-pickpocket, and some other wonderfully bizarre acts, we really helped bring the “fair” atmosphere back to this gallery- and market-driven fine art event.
The project, called “Kar-A-Sutra”, by London-based conceptual artist Anthea Hamilton, is a reinterpretation of a design project done in 1972 by Italian architect Mario Bellini. Bellini’s original prompt was to create a utopian environment for a MoMA exhibition, and decided the future was mobile. Auto-mobile. He staged a series of photographs of inventive ways his utopian vehicle could be used, portrayed entirely by happy hippie mimes. It’s idealistic, naive, wonderful, impractical, and you want to crawl right in with those fools of the future. And we got to recreate it amongst the gallery booths and crowds.
With research compiled by Anthea, and a fully mobile replica of the bizarre green retro-future-car, we set out on an imaginary journey to evoke the feelings of the photographs and the lofty notions behind the design. In the days before the event as art was being hung, we had long conversations as a team and under Anthea’s direction did extensive improvisations, giving each other feedback about things we noticed and enjoyed as we conjured landscapes, activities, and characters.
Then, for the next five days, for the entire open hours of the art fair (less lunch break), our band of beatnick mimes lived on that car in a parallel dimension. We were surrounded in close quarters by amazing and diverse art, hordes of onlookers, but in our minds we lounged in fields, went fishing in lakes, watched stars and had picnics. Most of the time our car was parked to the side, but every few hours we’d activate and journey through the space, disrupting the flow with a light narrative.
Despite the designed irreverence, we had to be respectful of the nearby galleries and ended up dialing back our performances, but we couldn’t control the crowds who found themselves slipping into our universe. On our end, we basically pretended we were on retreat, which winded up working beautifully with Anthea’s concept for the performance.
The Space Between, to Breathe and to See
The two experiences, thousands of miles apart, were connected by some unseen bonds. The thing that struck me most was the way it captured the crowd and held them. There’s something to be said for live performance, which I suppose is why we mimes work in theater. But I think the flights of imagination we inspired also came as welcome relief to art fair attendees who were hyper-saturated by the myriad contemporary artists all vying for their attention.
In Davide Balula’s Mimed Sculptures, some audience members made a game of matching the silhouettes on the info sheet to the mimed pieces manifesting before their eyes. Children who had no attachment to the famous names attached to the sculptures stared in rapt attention, one girl exclaiming, “Do I really see it? I think I see it!” At the very least, empty pedestals with cow-eyed crowds gawking at empty air was worth a chuckle for the cynics who blew past. The Emperor’s New Art Movement.
And back in New York, the crowd could immediately sense our contentedness and ease, smack in the middle of the noisy bustling fair, and couldn’t help but want to hang out in our imaginations. Whether they came along the whole journey with us, or just slowed as they passed to catch a few moves of mime chess, or watch a mime pretending to sleep -- sure, pretending -- for a time they were sucked into our simple, blissful world. They returned to the fair ready to absorb more challenging art, maybe a little wistful.
And as we performed, we intentionally blurred the lines, too. Though never appearing to, in Basel I usually made sure Giacometti’s “Le-nez” got in someone’s way. And though we never acknowledged the audience members taking photos of our picnics, it always “just so happened” that someone would pull out a mime Polaroid, and we’d pose for that. We were cuing the audience that though we passed within inches of them without “noticing” them, we were fully aware of them and actively playing with them. This kept the audience pressed against a living membrane separating our world from theirs, peering in.
As a performer, these were naturally technical challenges in terms of endurance and consistency. But to that extent it just felt like really fun training -- framing The Keys to the Given should be a classic mime hand exercise, and spending hours, days, in silent conversations with my fellow Broken Box mimes was a truly wonderful bonding experience.
In the end, I’m just glad that mime artists are continuing to pour out of Pandora’s proverbial mime box on the street and into galleries, theater spaces, and other venues, where audiences are re-learning to appreciate this magical and powerful art form that seemed to have fallen from favor for decades.