A shiny black leaf blower sits on the floor of Defibrillator Gallery, awaiting activation. 3 moveable white walls have been placed behind the leaf blower. The artist enters the space, wearing black pants and a white buttoned up shirt. This black and white motif is a foreshadowing of the shades of grey that Polish artist, Arti Grabowski will explore throughout this piece.
Grabowski asks the audience to gather around and ensures the safety of the people standing directly in front of him. The next action is subtle. He moves his neck around suggesting discomfort caused by the tightly buttoned collar of his shirt. Using an index finger, he pulls the collar away from his neck and begins to cough. He then spray-paints the finger bright pink and proceeds to repeat the action, transferring the color onto his skin. His coughing grows more aggressive as he mists his mouth with breath spray. This action of pulling at the neck and coughing with varying intensities continues throughout the piece. It becomes something that we can rely on.
In the action that follows, Grabowski uses a lighter to blacken the buttons on his shirt. The threads that attach the buttons to the fabric catch fire, small flames dancing up his torso. He continues to cough and fill his mouth with breath spray. He moves closer to the audience coughing onto us. The smell of burning thread mixes with the artificial smell of the spray that’s purpose is to mask an underlying odor. Grabowski intensifies this masking by spraying air freshener into the leaf blower, pointing it at the audience. The absurdity of this action causes the audience to erupt in laughter. The laughter quickly transforms into fits of coughing as the room fills with the oppressive artificial fragrance. It is so strong that we can taste it. Grabowski pulls at his collar, we are now engaged in a collective act of, choking and coughing together. We find ourselves united in the harsh environment that Grabowski has constructed.
The artist points and looks up at the ceiling where a large fan rotates above his body. For the rest of the performance this pointing action will follow each time he pulls at his collar and coughs. From this point forward, Grabowski needs only to place his finger on his collar, an unspoken directive for the audience to cough on command, a collaborative and visceral sonic experience.
With the same bright pink paint, he sprays 3 2 1 on the movable walls behind him before he drinks out of a flask. He stands behind a wooden plank that is leaning against the wall underneath of the number 3. After hiding behind the plank for several moments, he flips it around, revealing an arrow pointing upward. At first glance the arrow appears to be drawn onto the surface of the plank. When Grabowski pulls out a lighter and lights the arrow on fire, we discover that the arrow is actually a fuse. Grabowski stands behind the plank and shakes it aggressively, moving from the position 3 to the position 2. Smoke travels around his legs as his gestures humorously turns this seemingly mundane piece of wood into a stick of dynamite. When Grabowski reaches position 1, his movements become more chaotic. He is a rocket about to take off! This stops rather abruptly, Grabowski holding the plank in front of him for a moment before letting it fall to the ground. He stands on top of the wood, smoke rising beneath his feet. He returns to the action of pulling his collar, coughing, and pointing to the sky. The familiarity of this action cycle and the memory of the artist guaranteeing our safety from the beginning somehow make the presence of the smoking fuse feel less dangerous.
He points the leaf blower back at the audience. The residual air freshener mixes with the smell from the smoke. All senses are engaged. He takes another swing from his flask and crouches down, points up at the fan, a reminder that the air is circulating, and an acknowledgment of the often-underappreciated space above our gaze. He then straddles the wooden plank and nails his feet to it with the back end of an ax. The audience reacts immediately. The room fills with gasps that turn to laughter once Grabowski has shown us through body language that the action is under control. Throughout the performance, Grabowski utilizes actions and materials that are perceived as dangerous, yet he never allows it to get ‘out of hand’. It almost feels like watching a cartoon, where sticks of dynamite and falling anvils are merely inconveniences.
Once Grabowski is successfully nailed to the plank, he chops the wood down the middle. He touches the collar. Collective coughing fills the space. He points up. Then he crouches down and begins to ski. He catapults his body to an erect posture, stretching his arms as wide as he can manage. We laugh at the absurdity. Although he is “pretending” to ski, this is enacted with such authenticity that it does not matter that were in a room with no snow or hills. For those moments, we watch him soar through the air in some other place, in some other time, perhaps even in some other body. After the piece, I learn that this action was a reference to Polish national hero and Olympian, Adam Małysz, known for his ski-jumping career.
With exaggerated facial expressions and arm movements, Grabowski transforms from an athletic champion into a bird. This representation of human flight appears to send the artist into a state of ecstasy. This action shifts when Grabowski begins jumping up and down, the planks making a jarring noise that evoke frustration. As Grabowski stamps his feet, we are reminded that he can’t really fly. We can’t fly. We are confronted by the restrictions of the human body. He releases his bare feet from the shoes and collects his skis like trophies. At this point, he addresses the incessant documentation of the piece. He poses in a statuesque posture for one camera in the audience. He smiles for another. He holds a peace sign and smiles goofily. This action takes us back to reality. We are back in a gallery, at a performance art festival, trying to document the un-documentable.
He pulls his collar, coughs, and points before slapping himself across the face 4 times. With the leaf blower positioned below him, Grabowski begins to embody another cultural hero. The song “Beat it” begins to play while Grabowski unbuttons his shirt. As the fabric and his hair catch in the artificial wind, his heroic and dramatic gestures evoke the late Michael Jackson. As the artist undresses, a second white button-down shirt is revealed and then a third. Once the 3 shirts have been shed to reveal his bare chest, Grabowski holds the leaf blower to his face, the force of the air distorting his mouth and folding his eyelids backwards. This image is reminiscent of photographs taken of skydivers in their moment of free fall, yet another reference to the human desire to fly.
The audience laughs and sings along to Jackson’s lyrics. It is impossible not to deconstruct the perceptions of maleness within the piece, but when I find myself getting lost in reading the actions and symbols in this way, Grabowski brings the performance back to the collective body. He picks up the shirts and implicates the audience in a game of catch. Using the leaf blower, he throws the shirts into the audience. We obediently throw them back as he tries to catch them with the forced air, making them soar like birds through the space.
After the game is over, Grabowski gestures to his bare neck as if he is still wearing the collar. He begins to pull the skin on the front of his neck before pulling a bucket of grey paint into the space. He dunks one shirt into the paint and rings it out onto the second shirt. He rings the second shirt out onto the third, each shirt catching the drips of its predecessor. He then takes the ax to the wall, creating a hole below the pink 3. He stuffs the shirt he had immersed in the bucket into the hole; it hangs as a small puddle of grey accumulates below. He hangs the other 2 shirts in this fashion, apologizing publicly to Joseph Ravens, Defibrillator’s Director in the act. Like Grabowski’s acknowledgement of the documenters in the audience, this public apology brings us back to the reality of the situation. This primes us for the next action.
He finishes his flask of vodka before bringing out a small circular mirror attached to a microphone stand. He marks the floor with pink paints, points to the sky, and sticks his finger on the floor to retrieve one of the buttons that popped off of his shirt. He presents the pink button to the audience, pinching it between his index finger and thumb. He approaches the mirror and proceeds to use a needle and filament to sew the button onto the place on his throat that he had previously pulled. He is without a shirt but the button serves as a reminder. The shirts still have influence. They are still choking him so to speak. He gives the needle to someone in the audience.
Standing beneath the number 3, he engages in aggressive jumping, his breath indicating the level of his physical exertion. For all of the theatrical strategies we experienced until this point, this is very real. Under the number 2, he repeats the action but it is scaled-down. Although he goes up on his tiptoes, his feet never leave the ground. Under the number 1, he simply stands, his eyelids are heavy and he looks tired. In this final action of the performance we watch the artist let go of his dreams of human flight. We witness him surrender to his body.
The piece was dynamic. Each action was created with precision and can be read in infinite ways. Political overtones in the work left me contemplating the potential innate in the medium of performance art to inspire social change. Grabowski activated a sense of urgency, invigorated a sense of empathy, and using a corporeal dialogue, found authenticity in the artificiality of his materials.
Photo by Sandrine Schaefer
Sandrine Schaefer is a Boston-based Artist, Educator, and Independent Curator. Sandrine has exhibited her work extensively, nationally and internationally. Sandrine is a Co-Founder and Director of The Present Tense, an art initiative that produces and archives live art events, festivals, exhibitions, and exchanges. Through her curatorial endeavors, Sandrine has exhibited over 300 artists from around the globe. Her writing on contemporary experiential art practices has been published in several international online and print publications and she is a Contributing Writer for Big Red & Shiny. She teaches performance art practices through the Interdisciplinary Department at Montserrat College of Art and through the SIM Department at Massachusetts College of Art.