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.
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.
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.
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.