We gather expectantly sometime before 7pm just outside the Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery the evening of June 8th, 2013 for Joshua Kent’s, The Hand Inside You. We are waiting for that rare moment when we will be in the space with a performance piece. We came to be captivated by the human body moving, doing or simply being. And prior to inhabiting that psychological state, we shuffle our feet on concrete. Within our collective waiting, within this aggregate of awkward silences lie private decisions to be somehow less performative than our respective potentials. We experience a strange displacement of personality and, thereby, construct an unspoken social etiquette, a respect for an unseen, as yet unperformed work.
Then the doors open. We filter past either side of the tall white divider panels, which stand like stately guardians before the inner chamber, positioned, as they are, parallel to the front doors in such a way that the space wasn’t visible from the street. We look past the rows of strictly arranged and identical white benches to find an old quilt, a hand-‐made textile object you might find folded and stored undisturbed for decades in a cedar chest, splayed evenly across the floor, as if it were an intricate work of inlaid and multi-‐colored marble. It looks respectably clean and yet presents an aura of neglectful maturity. No one has protected this quilt with a cedar chest. It wears powerful potentialities like a stain, a scar, or a story.
The quilt is the stage for an array of objects. There are multiple versions within seemingly unrelated categories. There’s used books stacked at the front, tall white dollar-‐store candles, a series of stainless steel cutting implements laid in a row to our right, fresh flowers in vases at the corners, and black and white signs with simple yet evocative words like fearful and weary surrounding the whole.
Joshua adjusts the placement of the flower vases, activating the space. Further preparations are made. Candles are lit, the match extinguished by pinching his fingertips through the flame. He tapes a candle to a wooden armature in the form of a cross, which stands as a focal point, centered, as it is, at the back edge of the quilt. “A Charlie Brown Christmas-tree of a cross,” he termed it in a post-performance Facebook exchange.
He takes up the scalpel. Then incredibly, he raises his left leg chest level. He scores the sole of his foot, which somehow feels more necessary than shocking. An opening to the inside. In that vein he tends to his precise wound, the documentation of his unusual mark-making, by taping sprigs of various herbs to his foot.
His intermittent and slowly evolving movements are focused, peaceful and wrapped within a fluidity that one associates with a diligent yoga practice. I can’t help feeling I’m witnessing a performance of spiritual devotion, although his text is always tied to the secular and communal, even as he admits his exclusion from being able to take up religious orders.
He brings a chair to the quilt and graciously invites any audience member to sit. Or we may leave it vacant as a symbol for our collective presence within the ritual space. A young man is very willing to be a part of the piece. Joshua disarms us all by asking him, “Would you like a glass of water?” The colloquial phrase is just one of many interruptions of everyday life into this carefully choreographed ritual.
We’re learning about Joshua throughout the piece, and I find this conscious presentation of personality somewhat rare in performance art. There’s a dislodging of the normative, as his voice embodies the gentleness of a loving parent, sensitive caregiver or introspective monk even as he cuts his foot, for example. The objects in the space, as well as the autobiographical elements he shares, flesh out a theme of contrasts. The found objects might connote a life of the street and the harsh realities of poverty. Joshua has embraced this appearance within his reclaimed aesthetic, interacting with his collected objects like dear friends. In contrast to the normative expectation that the street hardens a personality, Joshua seems to suggest that he has found a quiet tenderness within himself. In a word, his demeanor is inviting.
Many of us wish that we had taken the seat he offered, I suspect. But here’s where our reserve, the etiquette of being a spectator, cultivated intuitively as we gathered outside the gallery, has prevented spontaneous action. This alert young man must stand in for all of us. Joshua takes up a book on horses. He begins to read how one tames a wary horse. He’s holding the young man’s hand, as they sit back to back. When he comes to the word trembling, in the context of the horse, its shyness and skepticism of the process, I recall the first time a man seduced me.
I had traveled to England to stay with him in Plymouth. He is a successful musical director and composer. I am an awkward undergraduate in English. He sat at my feet gentle and close, unwinding my fears as I blushed. In watching Joshua and the young man, I could see the beauty of that moment as if from a distance. I felt the muscular restlessness of a wild horse within my sexual tentativeness. And this gets to the core of what Joshua presents us in this work. It’s in our vulnerability that we find a contrast to power. There’s no reason now, the contrasting relationship established, that we couldn’t embrace our own sense of powerful presence, taming and nurturing it through tender engagement.
Photo by Natalia Nicholson
Natalia Nicholson is a performance artist, currently working on her MFA at The School of the Art Institute. She earned her BA in English from The University of Iowa. She’s an Illinois native, living for the first time in Chicago. As a writer, she’s published poetry in the Prairie Light Review and blogged for City Phish. Most recently she’s working with a podcast series of performance artist interviews, for FNews.