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LOS ANGELES — If you unexpectedly fall down, the moment passes so quickly that it becomes almost impossible to register. One moment you’re upright, and the next you’re looking at the fresh scrape on the palm of your hand, which flung out instinctively before you noticed it was the uneven sidewalk that knocked you off-balance. There isn’t enough time to fully experience the stomach drop or adrenaline; instead the moment leaves you confused, scrutinizing your environment, searching for clues.
At MOCA Grand Avenue, multidisciplinary artist Xu Zhen chooses to freeze the act of falling. In Just a Blink of an Eye tightly focuses on the moment we’re unlikely to process. Zhen is the mastermind behind the production, though he is not among the four performers who lean backwards, about to crash onto the ground, defying expectations by hanging suspended in the air. Their hands are outstretched, their weight falls entirely on one heel, and the other foot hovers slightly above the ground. For six hours each weekend until September 1, Zhen’s performers defy the laws of gravity.
When Zhen first presented the work in his native China in 2005, the act of falling alluded to the precarity of the working conditions in Chinese factories and the volatile global economy. It was a time when China revalued the Yuan, which made global investors apprehensive. The country, and the world, were unsure how this would ultimately affect China’s labor practices and power in free trade. There was nothing to do but wait; maybe the crash would never come.
But in 2019, staged in the United States with American performers, Zhen’s performance operates in an entirely different worldview. At this moment in time, our country’s economy is growing and unemployment is at a historic low. With this stability in mind, people are less occupied with the value of currency — though economists are predicting another devastating recession is on the horizon — and turning their attention towards social justice issues. There is a crisis at the border, a wave of mass shootings, and a surge in hate crimes, and lawmakers have done next to nothing to solve these problems.
This is just the second performance art piece MOCA has acquired, the first being Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Temperament and the Wolf (2014/19). According to Amanda Hunt, MOCA’s Director of Education and Senior Curator of Programs, who organized the Zhen exhibition, the museum is consciously expanding their performance art collection. “We have a rich history of performance art in Los Angeles, and in California more broadly, that we are planning on tapping into,” Hunt wrote to Hyperallergic in an email. “Performance is as much a part of contemporary art as any other medium represented in museums, so we are making a concerted push in this direction. It’s time!”
Hunt stages the performance a little differently than Zhen’s earlier iterations. His choreography included a mix of positions — some arched backwards, while others leaned forwards. In Hunt’s iteration, all four performers lean backwards, appearing to me as victims of an unseen violence. Should they have tripped on a step, their arms would be launching forward to break their fall. But here, their faces are turned towards the ceiling, their backs almost parallel to the ground. It’s as though they’ve been shoved, or worse, shot.
On the day I visited, one performer was a Black man in a navy hoodie. His wrists hung limp and he stared dead-eyed at the ceiling. I couldn’t look at his body without thinking about unarmed Black men who’ve been shot by police officers; he could have been posing as a substitute for Michael Brown or Laquan McDonald. This connection felt uniquely American and might not have been evoked in Zhen’s original presentation.
The other three performers were white, androgynous, and also dressed in baggy clothes. Their streetwear brought to mind antifa and anarchist protesters who dress in interchangeable anonymity as a way to minimize being identified and arrested by law enforcement. Had they had been knocked down by police in riot gear, or slipped backwards while losing visibility in a haze of tear gas? That my mind immediately went to civil rights issues rather than something innocuous — their outfits and incredible poses also reminded me of breakdancers gathering a crowd in a city park to earn spare cash on a Sunday afternoon — revealed my personal anxiety about the country’s political climate.
With their blank expressions, the performers are ripe for projection. Should someone try to convince me that they were falling because they simply tripped on banana peels, I wouldn’t be able to passionately argue against it. Zhen plays with this ambiguity by making the people appear as sculptural objects, open to interpretation; the performers stay incredibly still, and their oversized clothing hides movement from breathing. Until you see the performer blink, it would be possible to mistake these as hyperrealistic sculptures in the vein of Charles Ray or Ron Mueck. Many of the visitors got as close to the performers as possible, studying them like a vase of flowers at a restaurant: Is this real or fake?
A gallery attendant told me that there are multiple performers in rotation, making it worthwhile to return to the museum to catch other iterations of In Just a Blink of an Eye, which will likely trigger different connections to current events or personal memories. Even on their own, the frozen falls are breathtaking. Take the time to view this fleeting movement before it disappears.
In Just a Blink of an Eye will be performed every Saturday and Sunday at MOCA Grand Avenue (250 S Grand Ave, Downtown, Los Angeles) until September 1. The exhibition was organized by Amanda Hunt.