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The Visual Grammar of Suffering
Pia Lindman and the Performance of Grief
Pia Lindman is perhaps best known for her Public Sauna at P.S.1 in 2000, where she installed a working sauna in an artspace and invited the audience to join in the performance, defying the taboo of nudity in American culture and foregrounding the centrality of the human body in art. Like Public Sauna, her more recent work belongs in the tradition of minimalist and community-oriented art. Site-specific in nature, it concerns the relation of the body to public space in everyday life and the broader socio-political issues inscribed in those dynamics. Lindman provokes us to think about how everyday interactions with bodies, architecture, media, and public art affect our sense of self and our experience of social space. By drawing attention to how social interactions are themselves performative, her work also reveals the inherent performativity of making and experiencing art.
Her recent New York Times demonstrates the tensions between human gestures of private suffering and the political motivations for monumentalizing personal grief. Lindman has performed New York Times in Mexico City, Tokyo, Helsinki, Vienna, Berlin, and most recently at Battery Park, the Vera List Center, and the Luxe Gallery in New York. The actual performance is the last step in a long and complex process of tracing out the mechanics of making and publicizing gestures of grief. Lindman begins by videotaping herself re-enacting some of the 600 photographs of Afghan, American, Iraqi, Sudanese, Palestinian, Israeli, Balinese bodies in pain collected from The New York Times from September 2002 to September 2003. She then sketches out her re-enactments (with particular attention to facial expressions and hand gestures) and shares this set of drawings with the audience at the beginning of each public performance. The drawings outline the bodily gestures of grieving captured in the photographs, but are devoid of any feature that would indicate where the image comes from, or whom it depicts. By exhibiting her own sketches of her own re-enactments of the images of grief from The New York Times rather than those images themselves, Lindman demonstrates that gestures are not forms of pure expression but interpretations meant to frame information.
On one occasion, Lindman begins her New York Times performance dressed in gray and carrying a gray flag to lead a group of spectators through Battery Park, stopping first in front of the National Museum of the American Indian. At the foot of the [End Page 77] museum's marble steps, she pulls out the sketchbook and places them on a simple stand in front of her. Without speaking a word, she then selects one sketch and carefully reconstructs the gesture. First she poses her torso, her head, then her facial expression, and finally her hands, slowly freezing herself into a pose. She spends about ten minutes striking three poses in front of one of the four monumental sculptures that watch over the entrance to the museum. In her third pose she kneels before the statue to the Americas—a colossal feminized gray granite figure that sits with eyes closed and hands peacefully resting on its lap. This monumental woman dwarfs the three figures that crouch alongside it (a Cherokee, an Arawok, and an African-American slave). The juxtaposition of stone and metal sculptures, concrete pavement, and granite buildings to Lindman's gray attire suggests a visual metonymy, yet one that short circuits at the sight of flesh. Lindman bows her head, holding her heart with one hand and stretching her other hand up along the pedestal of the sculpture, as if trying to touch something entombed inside. Just as her hand touches the monument, security guards approach to remind her that this is a federal building and it cannot be touched. The audience reacts with a serious, moving silence, as if somehow they were directly witnessing someone else's pain. But it is the...