Stillness Series- Marilyn Arsem

Stillness is defined as a state or an instance of being quiet or calm.  It is also defined as the absence of motion.  Although stillness suggests inactivity, it can provide opportunities for focused movement and heightened sensation.  When contemplating these concepts in relation to contemporary art practices, Marilyn Arsem is one of the first artists that comes to mind.  Arsem has been conjuring thoughts about stillness in her work for over 3 decades, challenging her audiences to consider human and environmental impermanence.  Arsem works with a site-sensitive process, designing each piece for the place in which it occurs.  Arsem takes into account a myriad of contextual information that builds even the most minimal actions into site and time-specific experiences layered with complexities of meaning.



 Wintering Over

From durational performance “Wintering Over” By Marilyn Arsem At the National Review of Live Art Glasgow, Scotland, UK. February, 2007. Photo by Sally Maidment

For eight hours, Arsem lay inside of three tons of rich, fragrant organic soil.  She was in a greenhouse, ‘wintering over’ in the Hidden Gardens at Tramway in Glasgow, Scotland, UK for the National Review of Live Art in February 2007.  Speakers positioned at the entrance of the greenhouse amplified her breath and occasional whispers.  As people walked deeper inside of the space, these transmissions of Arsem’s live sound became inaudible.  Near the pile of earth, the curious noticed a slight rising and falling of the soil, an indication of the body lying beneath the surface.  If they drew nearer they could hear the sound of Arsem sporadically whispering her fears under the mound.  It was a quiet encounter.


“Underneath it was pitch black.

The earth was heavy on me, shifting, settling in to increasingly constrict my body and my breathing whenever I moved.

The air seemed too warm, too still, too thin.

And it was terribly silent.

I don’t remember much.

I had to enter some kind of altered state to stay underneath,

in order to keep at bay the fear of being buried alive.” – Marilyn Arsem



The action of listening carefully for Arsem’s muffled sounds intensified the sonic landscape inherent within the site. The duration of the performance passed through twilight hours into the night, bringing a heightened awareness of natural life cycles.


From durational performance “Wintering Over” By Marilyn Arsem At the National Review of Live Art Glasgow, Scotland, UK. February, 2007. Photo by Sally Maidment


from durational performance “Undertow” by Marilyn Arsem in Ex-Frigorifico at the 1st International Congress of Performance Art, Valparaiso, Chile. November, 2005 photo by Sofia De Grenade

Chile’s International Congress of Performance Art took place in Valparaiso, an active port city on the Pacific.  The festival had access to an old refrigerator warehouse known as the “Ex Frigadator”.  Arsem chose a small room with a trough style drain running down the center as the context for a durational piece.  Inspired by an encounter with a vendor selling bundles of dried seaweed, Arsem decided to fill the room with fresh seaweed collected from the ocean.   Arsem filled half of the floor with seaweed and blocked the trough at both ends so that it would hold water and mounds of salt.  Arsem laid in the seaweed, and allowed her feet to dangle in the trough.  For hours, she rolled through the visceral material that began to engulf her form.  She paused for long periods of time in between the action of rolling, creating an opportunity to witness her body engaged in a moment of stillness.

from durational performance “Undertow” by Marilyn Arsem in Ex-Frigorifico at the 1st International Congress of Performance Art, Valparaiso, Chile. November, 2005 photo by Sofia De Grenade


In both Wintering Over and Undertow Arsem’s body creates images that suggest the ultimate state of stillness.  She engages in various states of burial, addressing the ephemeral nature of being.  As she breaths and whispers with a mound of earth heavy on her chest, she conjures ideas about the afterlife.  The image of her body tangled in seaweed, brings forth sensorial responses that remind us of the shared experience of facing mortality.  Arsem’s work uses stillness as an opportunity to bring forth difficult and complex ideas surrounding the transient cycles of life and death.




Marilyn Arsem has been creating live events since 1975, from solo gallery performances to large-scale, site-specific works. Arsem has presented work at festivals, conferences, alternative spaces, galleries, museums and universities in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Most recently she has focused on creating site-specific performances, often in the context of festivals. These works are not planned in advance, but made in response to a location that is selected on arrival.She is a member (and founder) of Mobius, Inc., a Boston-based collaborative of interdisciplinary artists. As a full-time faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she heads the Performance Area and is a Graduate Advisor.

Bike Series – Lorna Stewart – Knife Grinder

Lorna Stewart

“Knife Grinder is a performance that has developed out of a visit to Buenos Aires.  Lorna attaches a drive-belt to a bicycle  that connects a grindstone to the cogs used by the chain.  With the back wheel off the ground she activates this device which lifts her off the ground, thus supplying her with the armature for a performance and rendering her cycling stationary. ”

“She takes a knife and starts sharpening it on the grinder, which she works by continuing to cycle. The action of her body coordinates with that of the pedals and the grinder; the whole suggesting some fantastic machine such as one might read about in a novel by Raymond Roussel: deviser of cruel, if fictitious, machines, often designed to destroy the body.  However there is also a reference to leading and following – Stewart is motivating the movements of the bicycle.”

– Anthony Howell, April, 2005

Lorna Stewart is an English artist who graduated from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff with a first class degree in 2000.  She won the Helen Gregory Memorial Scholarship in 2000 and received the Arts Admin Bursary in 2003.  Lorna Stewart works both as a solo artist and in collaboration with other artists.  She has regularly performed both nationally and internationally including at the Birmingham Ikon Galley as part of Fierce Festival 2004 and also performed in Nipaf, Japan, in the Recontre Festival, Quebec, the 11th Performance Art Conference, Essen, at The Ocean Club, London, and in The April Festival, Belgrade.  She also performed in a film by Jayne Parker and Anthony Howell called ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ for BBC2’s Dance on Camera season.  Lorna Stewart also dances tango, teaches and has performed for the Tango Volcano band and is a member of Tango Art.

Remembering The Present Tense’s First Patron…RIP Billy Ruane

5 years ago I was walking down the street in Central Square, Cambridge and my eyes met those of a white haired man wearing a barely buttoned dress shirt. He stopped me and asked “What kind of human are you?”.
With a question like that I couldn’t resist a conversation with this stranger. This was a few days before Philip and I were leaving to go to Muenster, Germany to show work at Gallery SoToDo’s 13th Performance Art Congress. I told this man about my artistic practice, my trip, and our plans to produce The Present Tense’s first art event, Activate, upon my return. He offered words of wisdom and offered me $200 in cold-hard-cash. He was so kind, asking me to use it to make the work I desired to make. He asked only that I bring some music back from Germany for him. This was a particularly difficult time for me financially and although it felt awkward taking money from a stranger, my instinct told me that this man was genuine in his offer and that I should take the opportunity presented to me. When I asked him his name, he replied “They call me Billy.”

When I returned, I emailed Billy several times, but never received a response. That $200 saved Philip and I on that trip and made Activate possible upon our arrival back in Boston. I was tremendously grateful for Billy’s generosity, always hoping that I would re-connect with him somehow so that I could show him the work I made, deliver the Cd’s I collected for him and thank him. I never saw him again, until I saw a friend’s update about his recent death on Facebook.

For the past 24 hours I have been discovering that Billy was a legend in the Boston/ Cambridge music scene. He supported musicians by organizing, promoting, and funding their endeavors in addition to sharing his extrordinary energy and dance moves! He first brought music to the Middle East Club in Cambridge in the 80’s. I have learned that he touched the lives of countless creative minds by offering acts of kindness to show his support and belief in the potential of the artistic process. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and inspiration that I was fortunate to have experienced Billy’s magic.

To be frank, it isn’t always easy to be an artist, no matter what medium you choose. My brief meeting with Billy has been the story that I replay when I feel discouraged and it is one that I love to share with people. The money he gave was needed and well spent, but he provided me with so much more than financial relief. This experience embodied the promise of hope. This experience profoundly affected my work as an artist and organizer. I hope that Billy’s memory will continue to energize, inspirit, an empower.

Below are selections from Activate: an evening of Occurrence
This debut event for The Present Tense, hosted at Zeitgeist Gallery wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of Billy Ruane.

Paul Waddell @ Activate 2005 from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Sandy Huckleberry @ Activate from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Bryce Kauffman @ Activate from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Dirk Adams @ Activate from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

Mari Novotny-Jones @ Activate from The Present Tense on Vimeo.