Reflections from an Eternally Open-Ended Art Piece

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Linda K. Johnson + Matthew Shyka unearthed a memory from the catacombs of my consciousness. Around the age of eight or nine, I was fortunate enough to witness a professional dance performance in an ultra-luxurious Manhattan venue. It should have been quite the dazzling experience for those of us lucky enough to be there. But at that age, due to my arrogance, naivety and stubbornness which comes from still being practically a baby, I refused to see any merit – physical or artistic – in the performance.

“Anyone can do this. It’s not that hard.”

As I declared this at the Manhattan show back then, I distinctly remember the expression on the faces of the older couple seated next to me. They were not particularly offended by the statement. From what I remember (which at this point is obviously a projection, but I’m telling a story here, so let’s accept it as fact) is that their expressions resembled something between understanding, sympathy, and disappointment. I was so young and essentially an ignorant individual, and they understood that. But meeting advanced children is a delightful experience and I sense they were a tad disappointed that I was not enlightened enough, or capable of appreciating the dance.

I also remember this experience embarrassing my mother. “You know that was a very narrow-minded thing to say, son,” she said, or some version of that which relays the same information.

The memory stuck with me throughout the performance and continues to do so now as I write. This event was assigned to me as a “dance show,” but very quickly I realized how that was not the case exactly. It is not a dance show as I conceive of them, but I do not mean that in any form of slander. All I am saying is (Un)Made #3 is a performance-conceptual art piece, my first direct and live experience with something of the sort, so by general principle, I am stoked that I got to be there.

I feel confident in saying it is a performance-conceptual art piece for a lot of reasons. One, there really is no dancing. And two, it came across to me that the performers were conveying themes and ideas through their movement, and not necessarily the other way around.

The thing with conceptual art or any form of performance art is that often times, they appear or just simply are completely and eternally open-ended, and this performance was no different. My opinion on the piece is not the important thing here. The simplest explanation for my feeling this way is explained best by the presenters themselves.

At the Performance Works Northwest space in Portland’s Foster-Powell neighborhood, where the performance was held in an intimate setting (for me it was almost claustrophobic) a white paper pamphlet was given to everyone. It succinctly read,

“On the back of this card feel free to leave any responses/reflections/associations in words of drawing. Not opinions but a replay of image, thought, or feeling.”

This is a revised and edited version of my reflection:

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But that might not be sufficient for this review.

First off, I felt that this show was thought-provoking. The first obvious level of this performance made me question, What the hell is going on here? I would like to believe that this was not coming from my arrogant eight year-old self from the New York show, as I genuinely was trying to logically deduce, understand, and predict the behavior of the performers and not outright refuse whatever merit they were trying to offer, like I had eleven years prior.

Matthew Shyka in (Un)Made #3, photo by Takahiro Yamamoto

Matthew Shyka in (Un)Made #3, photo by Takahiro Yamamoto

The performance was done in two acts, Matthew Shyka and Linda  K. Johnson respectively, with each act presented as different versions of the same show. The two performers throughout this production bizarrely glided, stumbled, and pantomimed through a room of seemingly random objects placed throughout it. Some of these objects included a ladder, a small platform of steps with jingles on the edge of these steps, little dolls with faces, and/or a hodgepodge of toys like basketballs or something as unorthodox as plastic sheets. Also, surrounding the perimeter of this room were black curtains that both performers would occasionally rip off in accordance with a timer that would sometimes go off, exposing the plain white wall behind them.

Mysterious notes posted on one side of the wall with simple words like ‘love’ and ‘skin’ also hanged ominously, but unfortunately I do not wear the glasses I should be wearing, and the majority of these words that the performer flipped through at seemingly key parts during the performance, I missed altogether. While this was happening, I was worrying that I was missing a key, elemental aspect to this performance and that perhaps the only way to understand the show would be to have a conceptual understanding of the words on the wall and their meaning and correlation to the performers’ movements. In retrospect, I am less confident in this idea, as I believe that I may have missed out on an aspect of the piece, but the show was too deliberately mysterious for a single element within it to play such an important role that leads it to define the entire show.

Eventually, these thoughts started to diverge in a bit of mind wandering, but still within the context of the show, I began to legitimately question whether or not I was smart enough or at least disciplined enough as a thinker to understand or follow something as conceptual as this. Then I started looking around at the audience wondering if they were wondering the same thing. A quizzical (to me) but common response to a lot of the behavior of the performers was simply laughter. And though I could argue that the second performer, Linda K. Johnson, played up to this laughter, it still made me question why people were laughing, which made me think that perhaps they were all laughing because there is no other way to actually respond to a lot of the show. Were they supposed to be laughing, I contemplated.

Every time a cackle broke the air, I would immediately look at the performer, hoping or assuming I would find some hint that the laughter was bothering them. But the performers remained cold-faced and unreadable every single time, perfectly encapsulating the stoical performance, and it acts as a projection or Rorschach test to the audience.

The performers have to know what they are doing is indefinite and strange, that any possible reaction from the audience has to both be welcomed and accepted, I started to think. However, I was still uncomfortable every time people laugh. Because what if these performers were not intending on making something to be laughed at? Are we hurting their feelings right now? But alas, these thoughts were eventually silenced when I realized that I can’t know the truth of these performers’ intention, so to assume their reaction to our reaction is a waste of time.

I attempted to write these fleeting and cluttered thoughts in a notebook, worried that if I did not, my attempts to write something about this opaque piece of art will yield nothing. My brother, who had accompanied me, looked at what I was writing and very quickly grabbed my pen, then wrote down his own note.

“What is deliberate?”

This question at this time absolutely floored me, not because I had the answer, but because I was astonished that I saw such a clear contrast between what I was thinking about and what he was thinking about. I had no frame of reference on what he was referring to, but it excited me that this piece in front of him had started a completely different train of thought in his head. Maybe this was a product of the show, or maybe this was just the product of how individuals intake any experience or any information and relate to their own individual, unique life. I do not know.

But by the end, the entire experience perplexed me. The side of me that is relentlessly logical and tries to find the balance and meaning and purpose and opinion in everything was annoyed. I cannot necessarily come to any conclusive viewpoint on a piece that was so mysterious. This added mysteriousness was compounded also by the fact that I came into this performance with almost no context about it.

Maybe the best way to respond to a piece of art like this is to just observe your thoughts as you are concentrating on the movement of the piece, much like meditation: by just recognizing your thoughts as thoughts and seeing what exactly your thoughts are. I, being introspective by default, take this as an opportunity to not only observe my mind but to try to and analyze or imagine what exactly that says about me as an individual.

No easy answers with this kind of piece. I have never been to something like this. It opened my eyes of what can be done with an art performance and an art space.




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