Photo Essays

In Performance About Anxiety, Willow Smith and Tyler Cole Spent 24 Hours In a Box

Visitors viewed the pair through a glass wall, as they cycled through the eight stages of anxiety, including rage, numbness, euphoria, and acceptance.

Willow Smith and Tyler Cole’s 24-hour performance at MOCA Geffen, Los Angeles (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — Inside a 20-foot box, stretched across a couch, the floor messy with spray cans and Just Water cartons, lay Willow Smith, absorbed in a blue book entitled Oneness. The musician and daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith was joined by her creative collaborator, Tyler Cole, who paced the space between them, one minute chucking a paint can, the next adding a red smudge to a wall already doused in urgent questions (“Why Are We Here?”), colorful art, and soothing affirmations (“Nature heals”). Cosmic music filled the space. Dressed in black overalls, Cole and Smith engaged in conversation with each other, and took turns reading aloud from various texts.

The duo spray-painted questions and soothing affirmations on the box’s walls, like “What Inspires You?”

The creative duo premiered their newest project, “The Anxiety,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary, where they spent a day locked inside the box, from 9pm Wednesday until 9pm Thursday. The exhibit — a 24-hour durational performance piece inspired by their personal experiences with anxiety — was not a part of MOCA’s programming; Smith and Cole rented out the Geffen. Free and open to the public, visitors viewed the pair through a glass wall, as they cycled through the eight stages of anxiety, including rage, numbness, euphoria, and acceptance. Each cycle lasted three hours and was accompanied by a representative color. Using the other three walls as their canvases, the room transformed into a living testament of their progression from blank fear to vibrant reconciliation.

Spectators at MOCA Geffen on Thursday morning

“It’s beautiful,” said Shelby Maxine, a student I met while visiting the performance on a rainy Thursday. The pair was in the middle of their sixth cycle, strong acceptance. This was Maxine’s second viewing; she had attended the opening with two other friends the night before. A fan of Smith’s music for years, she did not know what to expect. Opening night attracted a rush of people, devotees, and bystanders eager to satisfy their curiosity. For Maxine and her friends, the energy within the space was otherworldly, as if they stepped through a cathartic portal.

The event was live streamed on Twitch for those unable to attend in person. Beginning with paranoia, the duo leapt over furniture, stomped, trembled, and rolled into fragile balls in between art sessions. At one point, Cole attempted to take Smith’s photo with a polaroid camera; she avoided his gaze, cowering in a corner with her arms up. Songs from their debut album, also titled “The Anxiety” (the idea for the performance bloomed during recording sessions) played on a loop, scuzzy punk anthems veering into psychedelia and lo-fi electronica, with titles like “Fight Club,” “The System,” and “After You Cry.”

Willow Smith reading

The rabid-fire chat room on Twitch revealed a range of reactions, from earnest users sharing their own fears to comical critiques (“I love Will but, what is this??”) to some users pointing to the musicians’ cushy lifestyle and various privileges.

My late morning visit on Thursday was less frenetic. About 20 or so people gazed silently. Some quietly whispered to their companions. I couldn’t detect any derision or irony. There was the usual flurry of iPhone snaps and covert selfies, but for the most part, the group I sat with gave the duo their deep, abiding attention.

One fellow visitor, Cheyenna Wallen heard about the event through her mother, who loves Smith’s music. As Smith and Cole debated each other on the couch, Maxine, Wallen, and I traded our feverish impressions. I appreciated our spontaneous chat. It reminded me of another component from the exhibit: before entering the space, visitors passed through a white room covered in drawings, confessions, blessings. Sharpies were strewn about the floor, an invitation to unburden yourself. It felt calming to be cradled in the words of strangers and new friends, a momentary respite from the uncertainty raging outside.

Tyler Cole holds up a sign: “When you practice patience, you are emulating the very spirit of nature.”

Willow Smith and Tyler Cole performed “The Anxiety” at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 N Central Ave, Downtown, Los Angeles) from 9pm on Wednesday, March 11 until 9pm on Thursday, March 12. 

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