More and more these days I’m seeing my performance work as a series of mysteries I’m immersed in. Each new performance project at times seems like something I’ve conjured up with my collaborators, and at other times like something much bigger and mysterious that we are entering into. I much prefer the latter perspective. And when I engage from this perspective of entering a mystery, I think the work that comes out of it is much stronger.
In mystery novels and movies we join the central characters as they uncover clue after clue that leads them onward to some great revelation. This revelation might be the identity of a criminal, or the origins of a powerful force, or the exposure of some ancient lineage that is shaping our world today. Usually these mysteries (when they are skillfully executed) end in a kind of unresolved resolution–the immediate problem is solved but there is much that remains to be discovered. Along the way we empathize with the formal or inforrmal detective(s) through feelings of fear, anticipation, triumph, betrayal, anger, understanding and so much more.
I think these mysteries are potent for us emotionally because of the tension they generate and the ways that this tension brings us into the present moment. If we could just find out “who did it” right at the beginning, we probably wouldn’t care so much. Whatever we already know isn’t the heart of mystery. The heart is what draws us onward.
I remember one of my mentor/teachers Joe Goode saying once in a workshop that if he can already envision the piece he is about to make, then it doesn’t need to be made. I take this principle very seriously. I see all of my performance projects as mysteries that unfold from a particular jumping off point–a theme, story, image, feeling, intent–but then take me and everyone involved on a journey we could never have planned. I believe that the piece itself is always more interesting and complex than what I might have imagined.
Often this means that the product-oriented approach that much of the arts funding and presenting is based on doesn’t translate for what I do. The performances are always just one small chapter in the mystery of each performance project.
Many Buddhist teachers speak about the value of “don’t know mind”–that state of mind in which we hold questions lovingly and are able to relax with the uncertainty of all life. Creating performance works helps me practice my “don’t know mind.”
I am struck in the “mystery” I’m “investigating” right now, Dandelion’s Friend project, with how I’m more patient than ever to let the piece reveal itself to me. I’m finding lots of clues, and then following the leads that these clues offer, to further clues. And at each step I feel I understand what the piece calls for a little bit better.
Perhaps I’m finding it easier than in the past to be patient with not-knowing because this piece is connected to my friend who has passed on. I notice myself waiting for small hints she might give me from the other side, so am more focused on listening with my full being than on trying to figure it out myself.
And perhaps I’m feeling the fruits of my practice of being patient with the questions. This is something that has never come easy for me and so I have practiced it vigorously all of my adult life.
Some of the clues I’ve discovered so far for Friend are:
- My friend Sharon’s metal and wire sculptures–I’ve been using these to develop my own sculptures and also to design the use of space and light.
- A fascination with the brain–Sharon died from a brain tumor and we often talked about the mysteries of the brain. I’m thinking of this piece sometimes as a surrealistic journey into a brain. We’re using MRI x-rays, stories about brains and tumors, inner body imagery and more.
- Music driven creation–Sharon was a wonderful artist, and this came through most clearly to me through her singing. This piece seems to be most strongly driven by sound, which is a new way for me to work.
- Reflections on Friendship–It just so happened that some dear long-term friends have come back into my work for this project, precisely at the moment I’m wanting to explore the nature of friendship. This synchronicity seems like a strong clue.
I believe that I will follow these and other clues with my fellow travelers (a remarkable interdisciplinary ensemble) and that they will lead us to greater insight and beauty and healing of some kind. And I believe that the end of the project will feel unresolved. All my projects do.
And so each project becomes a clue in a way, towards unraveling the mystery of who I am, of what meaning and fulfillment there is to be found in this life, of who my collaborators are, of what our artistic longings are leading us towards.
And then my full body of work (and that of each artist) becomes a clue in some larger mystery about the nature of existence and the human journey towards wholeness.
I’m sure this keeps expanding outwards infinitely in spiraling circles, (and probably inwards too) with each mystery and all it’s clues being one small clue in a greater mystery.
I write all this at the risk of sounding grandiose. My intention is not to assign great importance to my own work, but rather to place everything that I do as an artist (and that all artists do) in a context that feels inspiring and connecting. Thinking about art-making in this way encourages me to both journey forward with great gusto and to let go of trying to figure anything out or get anything done. It makes me want to engage fully and at the same time view my real work as just getting out of my own way so that the art can make itself.
When I look at my current project as a mystery I’m investigating, I’m more open to feedback and the opinions of others. Each thing that each person communicates to me about their experience with the work becomes just another clue. Sometimes it’s an insight or interpretation that helps me understand more fully something we created intuitively. Sometimes it’s a suggestion that doesn’t resonate with me and so validates the direction I’m already moving in. Sometimes it’s an image or idea that I couldn’t have come up with, but that shows me another angle of what I’m working with.
And each obstacle, set-back and seeming failure becomes itself another clue. Investigating a mystery is no piece of cake. It calls forth everything we have and tests us constantly. And I think we get back in proportion to how much we put in. Sometimes what we discover won’t really make sense to us, but could make sense when seen by others from other perspectives.
In this way I like to think of each work as “not-mine.” Perhaps I’m directing it and committing to it’s manifestation in the world. But I’m more of a shepherd for it, rather than owner. I’m interacting with the work more regularly than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean that my ideas on what it’s “about” is right, or that I know more than others about the piece. Sometimes I feel like I know the least about it of anyone, and that I’m just a caretaker, keeping it alive so that others can come and immerse themselves in it.
It’s so exciting to me to witness a work come into being. I still often mistake the performance as the essence of a project, but I’m learning more and more to value the step by step uncovering of each clue.
And when I feel confused, I like to remember that confusion is only painful because I think I’m supposed to know something. From the perspective of “don’t know mind” every confusion can be reframed as an enticing mystery.