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A Performance Artist Makes Space for Silence in an Oversaturated World

Ahead of her performance there, Meredith Monk gave a lecture at the University of Michigan outlining her approach to performance as an opportunity to break out of our chaotic visual culture.

Meredith Monk plays Jew’s harp during her Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker lecture, “Pioneering Performance,” at the Michigan Theater. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — “Art is addicted to distraction.”

That was a bold statement near the conclusion of a lecture by Meredith Monk, part of the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series sponsored by the Stamps School of Art & Design at University of Michigan. Monk’s talk, “Pioneering Performance,” offered an overview of her dynamic 50-year career in discipline-shattering multimedia performance art, a few snippets of live performance, and primed the audience for a staging of her newest musical theater work, On Behalf of Nature, which will take place on Friday at the Power Center. On Behalf of Nature was released by ECM Records in November of last year, and this month is the fourth anniversary of the debut performance of On Behalf of Nature.

In the part of her lecture that focused on this most recent work, Monk drew together some of her overarching themes, including Tibetan Buddhism, meditative performance, and the shamanic tradition of giving voice to things that don’t have voices of their own. Within this tradition, she identified two main tenets for On Behalf of Nature: telling the truth, and embodying forms of nature. Because the musical components of the work are incredibly complex, Monk described developing the choreography of the accompanying movements as “giving myself courage to have those elements be simple.”

“Be playful, Meredith,” said the speaker, in elucidating some of the touchstones of her working process.

“We’re a visual culture,” said Monk, “so if there is a visual accompaniment to music, it becomes the focus.” To counter this, Monk sought to create a visual layer that was as minimal and transparent as possible — part of what she sees as the antidote to a culture that increasingly clamors at every turn for our attention. As viewers, we are prone to give this attention, because, in Monk’s words, “Filling space is a powerful addiction.”

If this constant dependence on filling space is an addiction, the counter-movement is to create space, and Monk is one of many artists within various disciplines who have cultivated a practice based in meditation and mindfulness. In Monk’s work, the space is just as critical as the content; within the brief performance on a Jew’s harp that concluded her lecture, her pauses for breath held equal weight with the bouncy notes and vocalizations. Some of what is so arresting about Monk’s gift of using her voice and body as an instrument is her ability to produce multiple sounds — singing a tune at the back of her throat while creating a rhythm section of mouth clicks, for example — but the most human moments are those when the performance is broken so that she can breathe. Monk spoke of the virtues of live performance, characterizing it as a time when the performer is at one with her material. There is something tremendously powerful in witnessing art that is so embodied in its maker, knowing that it truly only exists in the present moment, and based on the energetic exchange between performer and audience.

Monk was unflaggingly upbeat during a Q&A that followed the presentation.

As the art market continues to cater to those who seem determined to amass ever more wealth, regardless of social cost; as our society is categorically stripped of the tools of education, access, reproductive freedom, and critical thinking in the service of creating as many mindless consumers as possible; as technology increasingly dissolves the boundaries that enable us to create space and experience its benefits, Monk’s work is touchingly human, and more important than ever.

A performance of On Behalf of Nature will take place on Friday, January 20 at the Power Center (121 Fletcher Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan).

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