Joanna Tam: 3 years + 360 hours + 107,594 + …


A Written Account of

3 years + 360 hours + 107,594 + …

Joanna Tam



I wrote the following piece of writing as a reflection for my year-long actions almost a year ago. I told myself I would burn all the index cards and throw away the two broken printers, the used pens and the books. I only wanted the photographs, the text and my voice to be the evidence of my original work. Yet all the index cards, the printers, the pens and the books are still sitting in my studio …

November 13, 2013

[Note] 107,594 is the estimated number of Iraqi civilians who died from violence since the US-led invasion, as of October 29th 2010 (Source: Iraq Body Count). I want to embody the magnitude of this number by writing the information of the victims on index cards. I began this project on November 19th, 2010 at Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn. From that day onwards, I had been writing the cards at home every day for an hour. I finished a year later. Go to my website to view the documentation of the original performance, 107,594.


Is one year too long or not long enough? I had been doing the writing an hour a day, every day, for more than a year. All right I skipped 12 days. So I did it for 360 days or 360 hours.

I started this year-long project about 2 years ago and finished last year on December 2nd. I don’t remember too well about what I was thinking when I was doing it anymore. The idea that my memory of this daily action is fading so much quicker than I expected haunts me.

When I first decided to do this project at the beginning I wanted to embody the magnitude of the destructions of the Iraq War. To me 107594 is a number too huge and too abstract to comprehend. It is a number that could only exist on computers. I thought by writing down the information of the Iraqi civilians who were killed in the war, I could somehow connect myself to this horrifying event that was so far away yet so real at the same time.

At the beginning the writing did help me understand the situation over there a bit more. When I saw a big block of victims died in the same location on the same day, I would look up the Internet to see if the incident was reported. I wanted to know more about what happened to them. However after couple of weeks, this project had soon transformed to one that addressed time and labor. This project had become a burden in my life. There were 2 days that I was running out of index cards to write on because they were on back order. I was thrilled that I had a legitimate excuse to not to do the writing.

Putting aside an hour a day for this project had become a duty to me more than an act to commemorate the Iraqi people. This project was neither about the war nor the Iraqi people anymore. It was more about me instead. It was about examining my physical and mental commitment in a durational work as an artist. At the end the only reason I still continued the writing was because I had gone too far already that I was not willing to quit. Yes that was the only motivation.

Sometimes I feel ashamed when I tell people about this project. I feel ashamed because I am using a topic that is so politically charged for my personal artistic development. If I wanted, I could easily exhibit all the cards by putting them on walls. They could easily fill up many huge rooms and I could make it an impressive project. If I wanted, I could also make a beautiful argument about the result of this work by connecting the cost of the war to the kind of time and labor that I have invested on this project, not to mention the amount of money that I have spent and its environmental implications.

But doing so would be dishonest and almost hypocritical. What I found out was that I actually did not care much about the people over there as much as I thought or as much as I wanted myself to be. What I cared the most was when I was able to finish all the writing. And this took me a year to find out …

December 27, 2012



Joanna Tam is a Boston-based visual artist. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including venues in York, UK; Istanbul, Turkey; Cusco, Peru; New York; Brooklyn; Boston among others. Joanna’s work has also been awarded Best Art Film at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival (2012), People’s Choice Award (Sub-Category) and Third Prize (Sub-Category) at the Prix de la Photographie, Paris (2009). She is the recipient of the Transitional Artist Residency Award at The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City and was the Artist-in-Residence at The Center for Photography at Woodstock in New York. Joanna holds an MFA degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Tufts University and has participated in the IPA Istanbul Performance Workshop with Roi Vaara.

Sweat: Sarah Hill

“The performance I’m Fine is deeply concerned with moving the audience into a state of feeling, through anger on the part of the performer. In this way I view my practice as cathartically dialogical. When I say catharsis I mean: To purge. An emotional cleansing and sweating that can be experienced as therapeutic but never therapy. In other words, a strong laxative, that allows one to shit out what is no longer necessary. This extreme change in emotion (on the part of the performer) is where the audience could potentially become activated by his or her own catharsis. I’m Fine as been performed at Grace Exhibition Space, and Lumen Festival in New York as well as Hillyer Art Space in DC. ”

I’m Fine Le Lieu, centre en art actuel, Québec, Canada, Documentation by Patrick Dubé from Sarah Hill on Vimeo.

“Gender confusion is a small price to pay for social progress. I define social progress as the visible presence of transgendered bodies in my work. I am aware that others may not read my body as transgendered when viewing my videos or performances. However, this is how I choose to define my body and gender. People can learn to work around my definitions of gender because I have spent my life working around others’ definitions. I have the right and ability to exercise complete control over my flesh. It’s mine. I live here. I don’t rent. I am not borrowing it. My body belongs to me and I am going to do with it what I choose until I die. My work becomes the performance of reclaiming psychological space.”



Sarah Hill received her B.A. from Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa and recently received an MFA from the Museum School in partnership with Tufts University. Sarah has studied with Black Market International, Festival of live Art in Glasgow, Scotland. Sarah has also performed at Mobius, Proof Gallery, and Grace Exhibition Space in New York. She has worked on projects with William Pope. L (Cusp) and Roderick Buchanan (Swim). Sarah was a graduate and post graduate teaching fellow for the performance department as well as a graduate fellow for the Artist Resource Center. She will be showing with Anthony Greaney, Boston and Le Lieu, Center en art Acuel, Canada in the spring of 2013. In July, she was featured in a blog about performance art on



“Go with your gut…every single time.” an interview with EJ Hill

Back in October, I had the pleasure of meeting and seeing the work of LA based artist EJ Hill.  We both were representing Defibrillator Gallery at the MDW Art Fair in Chicago.  In the midst of the bustle of the art fair, EJ stood as still as possible for 3 hours.  I instantly fell in love with his piece and his demeanor.  The Present Tense is thrilled to share a recent interview we did with him!

"Drawn" 2011- EJ licked every wall of the exhibition space. After a few minutes, his tongue was rubbed raw and left a trail of blood. photo by Matt Austin

TPT: Who are you?
EJ: Ah! Such a big first question! I’m still working on that one. I haven’t quite resolved that one yet…



TPT:  How did you find live art?  How did live art find you?
EJ: I guess I’ve always sort of been interested in extraordinary experiences or circumstances but I didn’t really come to understand those as art until I found myself hanging out with other weirdos at Columbia College in Chicago. I thought I was going to learn to draw and paint when I got to art school, which, you know, was definitely there, but once I figured out that other things could be art, that experiences could be art, I hit the ground running in a different direction.



TPT: Tell me about one experience that has influenced, inspired or affected your work.
EJ: When I was about 6 or 7 years old, my only neighborhood friend was the kid who lived next door. He was about a year or two older than me and his family pretty much gave him free reign. My family was the exact opposite; I was so coddled and sheltered growing up that I wasn’t even allowed to go past our driveway onto the sidewalk alone. So I never really got to venture out and play with the other kids. Because of that, my friend knew a whole lot more about things than I did but he was always getting into trouble for one thing or another. So one day we were playing in my backyard and he told me that if I put my mouth on his penis that it would feel good. So not knowing what any of this was about but curious to try it, he pulled out his penis, put it in front of my face and I did what I always did when things entered my mouth… I bit down. Hard.

"Suck and Blow" 2009 blow dryer, vacuum with hose attachment, performance duration: 7 minutes, photo by Tannar Veatch

TPT:  In October 2011,  you made a piece where you stood still for 3 hours for the MDW Art Fair in Chicago. Can you talk about the intention behind this action?
EJ: I think I was just tired of performing at that point. I felt that when people showed up to see one of my performances, they expected me to make some intense, hyper-aggressive, balls-to-the-wall piece where I sweat and cry and freak out. And I don’t ever want my work to become predictable. Ever. So I was thinking about ways to perform, without actually performing. So I thought, “What if I just stood still and did nothing for as long as I could?”


TPT:  Can you describe your process for realizing this work?
EJ: Yeah, so after the “What if…” thought, I decided to try it. The fist time I tried it, the plan was stand still for 24 hours and see what happens. I was working late in the studio one night and I asked my friend Dylan Mira to take one photo of me on the hour every hour. So I set up the tripod and camera and just stood about 20 feet away from it. That night, I only made it to 4 hours, but those 4 hours were so crazy! By the end of it, snot was running from my nose, my shoulders sagged by about a full inch, my feet were swollen, and I couldn’t really see because my eyes had been tearing up for the last hour or so.


TPT:  What were some of your expectations/ hopes (if any) of your audience?
EJ: I had hoped that whatever meditative, out of body, mindfuck that I was experiencing could somehow be transmitted from my body to anyone else who encountered me. I wondered if whatever energy that was flowing through me while I was in that altered state could be felt by others.


TPT:  Were there any moments that surprised you?
EJ: I think it was somewhere around the last hour where another piece in one of the other booths at MDW sent me flying somewhere else! It was a sound piece that could be heard throughout the entire floor. It was a continuous low drone that layered and got louder and more complex with time. I noticed that the whole time I was there, no one really engaged with me for longer than a few seconds but when the sound piece started to affect me in this hypnotizing way, people started to gather around and just watch. I’m not sure what I looked like but I think it was at that moment that I tapped into whatever I tapped into that first night in the studio. People stood around, and just watched. Just watched me stand.


TPT:  Why did you choose to create this work over the duration of 3 hours?
EJ: I planned to go for longer, but shortly after the low drone of the other piece ended, I just didn’t want to continue. After the sound stopped, I felt like I was doing that thing where I was performing. I was only continuing for the sake of the audience and it began to feel really insincere.


TPT:  How did the piece evolve for you over that time?
EJ: It was painful. Ironically, standing still takes a lot of hard work, tons of stamina. The soles of my feet were killing me, my back and shoulders were hurting from the weight of my arms. Physically, it wasn’t very pleasant but psychologically, it was almost euphoric.


TPT:  How was performing in Chicago different from making work in other places?
EJ:Well, I went to school in Chicago so I had a few years of developing a practice or a working method. I was comfortable. And I think toward the end, other people were comfortable with what I was doing and expected me to deliver a certain type of work. So any time I got the opportunity to travel and make work somewhere else, it was exciting. I could go and make my work with an entirely new audience who didn’t go into it with any preconceived notions. Chicago also has this very impressive “get off your ass and make it happen” kind of attitude. If it’s not being done, and people want to see it happen, someone will make it happen. People are grinding hard and not so much because of market pressures as is the case in some other cities, but because they really believe in what they do. It’s phenomenal. It’s beautiful. It’s so fucking REAL.


TPT:  How did the context of an art fair inform your piece?
EJ: I knew it was going to be busy. There was going to be a lot of people, a lot of action, a ton of art. I wanted to contrast the usually overwhelming nature of art fairs.


TPT:  Do you have an ideal context for your work to be experienced in?
EJ: Yes. That moment when you’re least expecting it.

(photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images North America)

TPT:  You were one of the performers who participated in Marina Abramovic’s piece for The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’ annual Gala. How did this situation challenge your perception of stillness?
EJ: That one was weird because there were so many other things going on at the time (the Debbie Harry performance, the tiff between Yvonne Rainer and Marina Abramovi?) so it was really difficult to even think about stillness with so many distractions on and off court. And we were all supposed to rotate on lazy Susans beneath the tables so we were still, but only kind of.


TPT:  How has this experience informed your creative process?
EJ: The MOCA performance itself, the action, sort of left as quickly as it arrived. But I still find myself asking questions regarding power dynamics in the art world. I haven’t unlocked any secrets or answered any questions definitively, but I’m thinking a lot more about work ethic, compensation, celebrity/art stardom, creative impetus, the role of the wealthy in the production/consumption of art…


TPT:  What are you currently studying?
EJ: Love.


TPT:  Who/What is inspiring/ influencing your work presently?
EJ: Mark Aguhar, Frank Ocean, Anderson Cooper.


TPT:  Any words of wisdom?
EJ: Go with your gut. Every single time.

Stillness Series- Philip Fryer

Wall Melody from The Present Tense on Vimeo.

In September 2011, I was invited to be part of an exhibition titled Time Body Space Objects, curated by Alice Vogler. For this exhibition, each artist was allotted an hour of performance time, on the theme of ‘commitment’. I wanted to create something that challenged me to commit to an action for the full hour allotted to me. I had been thinking a lot about John Cage at the time, and about his experience in the anechoic chamber at Harvard. Expecting to experience the ultimate silence, Cage was confronted by the sound of his own blood flowing in his body, and thus the impossibility of silence. I wanted to make a commitment to the omnipresence of sound, by way of introducing a single tone, generated by a keyboard. For one full hour, I stood in a corner and held one note. The chosen note mimics the drone of our blood flow, and gives us the opportunity to meditate on our own audio output. The commitment of this performance is its stillness.  Like Cage’s anechoic chamber, this stillness provides an access point for the nuances of the sound, which present themselves over the course of the hour.

Philip Fryer is a performance, sound and video artist living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. His work is a meditation on mortality, chaos/order, and the body as a circuit. His recent exploration has been focused on using lo-fi technologies such as circuit bending and cassette tape loops, both as individual pieces and as elements of performances and videos.

photos by Sandrine Schaefer

Stillness Series- William Skaleski

William Skaleski’s practice centers on the idea of being alone.  An aspect of loneliness that fascinates Skaleski, is the human instinct to seek comfort and feelings of safety in places or objects.  Skaleski creates performances that bring situations of loneliness into a public setting. Skaleski also uses movement as a way to externally convey internal emotions.

In his piece Anticipation, 2011 Skaleski presents an intimate struggle of getting from one side to another.  The piece includes live action and a video projection that allows this action to be viewed from multiple perspectives.  This composition challenges witnesses to consider whether or not the artist is succeeding or failing in his task, or are both perspectives equal to eachother?

There are few moments of physical stillness during Anticipation.   However, the piece requires a level of patience that can be equated with stillness.  Although Skaleski’s intent is to seek comfort,  this piece can be uncomfortable to watch.  The artist is engaging in an action that seems simple, getting from one point to another.  His process of doing this is anything but simple.  Skaleski’s gestures are so physically vulnerable that there are moments he transforms into a child engaged in an act of learning how to move his body.  This exercise in embodiment presented with the inverted projection of the act, brings to mind a quote from Stan Brakhage:

“How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the ‘beginning was the word.”

Anticipation, on a basic level seems to be an attempt to unlearn what is known to unlock possibilities for new understandings of the complexities of the human psyche.

William Skaleski is a working artist in Brookfield, Wisconsin. He has earned a BFA in Art & Design concentrating in Digital Studio Practice in the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His practice centers on being alone, being able to perform concerning both positive and negative aspects. Both the concepts of performing and being alone is a fascinating combination to him; bringing the situations of loneliness in a public setting can always make for an interesting experience to bring the two opposites together. He has exhibited around the Milwaukee area as well in New York. 

The Present Tense’s Top 11 of 2011

As 2011 comes to a close, The Present Tense shares its reflections on the year!  2011 offered countless moments for performance art that The Present Tense found inspirational.  Here are 11 of them, in no particular order:


Sandrine & Phil performing "This is an Archive of...." at MEMEENDS

1.  MEME ENDS– After 2 years, MEME Gallery in Cambridge, MA announced that it would be closing its doors.  Being one of the only spaces in Boston dedicated to showing experiemental and time-based work, the fate of the MEME space created some anxiety among Boston- area artists and art enthusiasts.  Would the small storefront revert back to a travel agency, stay vacant, or perhaps get redeveloped into housing?  The space had been passed to MEME folk in 2009 by another group of artists who were using it as a studio and gallery space.  Following this tradition, MEME passed the charming white cube to Mobius Artist Group…but not before celebrating MEME’s life with an art party to be remembered!


2.  Over the past year, The Present Tense’s friend and colleague, Joseph Ravens has been creating  innovative opportunities for performance artists across the planet at his space, DEFIBRILLATOR Gallery in Chicago.  Something that stands out about this artist/organizer is his ingenuity and open-mindedness to share his vision with the world.  This summer, Ravens brought performance art to the stage of America’s Got Talent at the Atlanta Auditions.  Although the bewildered judges immediately eliminated Ravens, this performance became an internet sensation!


Amanda Coogan performing "The Passing" at MFA 2011


3. Not only did Boston’s MFA open its anticipated Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art this year, it included performance art at its opening!  With multitudes of Boston performance artists hailing “It’s about time!” The Present Tense is excited for what opportunities this may bring for artists working within this medium.







4.  Over the summer, Boston’s art scene staple, Aliza Shapiro was admitted to the hospital after having a stroke caused by a cerebral hemorrhage.  Aliza has been prolific in her work as an event producer, artist, and activist in the Boston music and queer arts communities for over 15 years and like many artists, she is self-employed.   Aliza has neither employer benefits nor deep resources to support her rehabilitation.  In an effort to raise funds to help her through, a group of Aliza’s friends created  Aliza’s Brain Trust.  Through this effort, over $40,000 has been raised to date!  Many artists and self-employed individuals could find themselves in Aliza’s position.  Aliza’s Brain Trust is an inspirational example of how communities can come together in times of need! It is unlikely that Aliza will be able to work for a long while, so please consider donating to help her out.




5.  Marina Abramovic’s recent performance piece for the annual gala of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in November, created quite a scandal after choreographer Yvonne Rainer wrote a letter addressed to MOCA’s director, Jeffrey Deitch, calling Abramovic’s work exploitative to its performers.  There have been countless accounts published in response from artists who participated, people in attendance, etc.  This performance piece has created a fervid dialogue around the ethics of art making, while simultaneously contributing to the widespread understanding of durational performance art practices.




6. If you find yourself in Brooklyn, NY, visit our friends at Grace Exhibition Space.  Grace Exhibition Space opened its doors in 2006 and is the only gallery in New York City devoted exclusively to Performance Art.  They present over 30 curated live performance art exhibitions each year, showcasing new work by more than 400 performance artists from across the United States!  In addition to running an incredibly active space, the team at Grace has become seasoned in bringing performance art to the Art Fair circuit.  They have participated in major art fairs across the country.  In early March, Grace brought Infiltrate  to the Fountain Art Fair in Manhattan on pier 66 on the historical lightship Frying Pan.  What an infiltration it was!  There was the collision of performance artists and commercial artists and gallery owners involved in the strategic dance of selling work.  There was seasickness caused by the rocking of the boat and the constant sound of sledgehammers hitting one another.  There was rain that accumulated and flooded through the tent-like structures that sheltered the temporary booths built for the fair.  The fair ended with a frenzy of artists and gallery owners hurrying to protect their art from the rain,  a performance art piece beautifully enveloping over time amongst the chaos.  A weekend to remember.

Travis McCoy Fuller and Arianne Foks @ Infiltrate, NYC 2011

7. Every September, the landscape of Boston changes dramatically with the influx of college students inundate the city.  This past fall, artist, Alice Vogler organized a performance art event at The Distillery’s Proof Gallery that provided much needed consistency during Boston’s annual population shift.  Vogler invited 12 artists to participate in “Time Body Space Objects”.  Each was given 1 hour to create a piece around the theme of “commitment.”  The work varied over the 12 hour event.  Some pieces were meditative, some were narrative, some were even aggressive, but as a whole, the event exemplified the Boston flavor of performance art.

Phil Fryer "Wall Melody" @ Time Body Space Objects 2011

8.  Perhaps its because many artists are questioning the boundaries and potential of the physical body that performance art lends itself to investigating metaphysical concepts.  For the month of October, Montseratt College invited 14 artists to participate and collaborate in organizing HOLY GHOST, a month long program dedicated to exhibiting performance art.  Each week, the 301 Gallery turned over and exhibited a new group of artists working with ideas about belief and spirituality.  The Present Tense was fortunate to participate in the final week of Holy Ghost “Personal Piety & Alternative Belief Systems”.  Holy Ghost was noteworthy for many reasons, but most importantly it expanded the network of artists working in performative practices!

Exhibition shot of Sandrine Schaefer "Moving Matter" and Philip Fryer "Drift" @ Holy Ghost 2011

9. 2011 introduced Total Art, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to interdisciplinary arts.  Total Art is “committed to nurturing new ways of understanding and interrogating work that crosses the practice-theory lines endemic to traditional academic and artistic worlds.”  This online platform documents new ways of making work and investigates the intersections between art/life, theory/practice, and academia/activism.  From essays about how technology is changing the human body, to manifestos, to live streamed performance happenings, Total Art promises to be a staple in the developing discourse about contemporary art practices.



10. 2011 also introduced THE ACTION BUREAU, a curatorial collective dedicated to connecting contemporary and historical performance art.  Founded in Los Angeles, the group aims to re-establish the boundaries between the specific discipline of action-based, body-centric performance art and those of the performative arts.  The BUREAU invites dialogue about these ideas on both locally and abroad, through the production of live-art events, exhibitions, lectures, print and multimedia publications, and their tumblog.  The Action Bureau has already produced several “Free Clinics”and has ignited curiosity and discourse about performative practices!


11.  You can’t talk about 2011 without acknowledging Occupy.  As this movement has unfolded we have seen strategies utilized that are familiar to various live art practices, strengthening the connection between performance art and activism.  The Present Tense’s favorites have been “Mic-checking”:


and “The Human Red Carpet”



The Present Tense wishes you all a happy and productive new year!










Ego Shadow- a performance in 5 parts by Vela Phelan

The alchemists believed that extensively cooking all alchemical ingredients to a uniform black matter was the first step in achieving the “philosopher’s stone,” a substance used for rejuvenation and immortality.  This “blackening” was considered a ritualistic cleansing and was named Nigredo. Jung, a student of alchemy, further developed Nigredo through his work with analytical psychology.  Jungians interpreted this “black work” with the process of an individual confronting the shadow within to balance the conscious and unconscious.  The shadow is sometimes hidden, repressed or rejected by the conscious ego.  Confronting the shadow is a complex process, an exercise in humility, vulnerability, and patience.  The outcome, however, establishes equilibrium and creates a deeper sense of the authentic self.

Vela Phelan participated in this “black work” over 5 weeks at Close Distance, at Boston’s Mills gallery.  Close Distance, curated by Liz Munsell, exhibited Boston-area Latino/ Latina artists working across diverse media and national borders. As anticipated, much of the work on view at Close Distance addressed multiple concepts around identity in relationship to place.  Vela did this as well; creating a sacred space within the gallery that housed a series of his assemblages, his body, and an audience to witness his creative process and the relics that this process yields.  

Let’s start with the clandestine space.  When I use the word space, I’m usually referring to the concept of place, but in this case, “space” means something in between “place” and “outer space”.  Vela began with a black void that he entered through a triangular door.  A bell hung at the doorway, a sonic signal that an activation was about to take place.  Within the black void, Vela’s assemblages looked like planets.  They were absurd, yet familiar; planets ruled by ET, Mr. Burns disguised as a Mexican Wrestler, a blackened Big Bird hanging upside down by an extension cord.  In the center of the space, Buddha sat on top of a structure made of golden bricks, cradling a gilded Baby Jesus.  The heads of both figures were cloaked in black fur. We learned early on that this Buddha/ Jesus fusion was the most powerful planet, besides Vela himself.  Together they create a trilogy of sorts: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. 

Ego Shadow generated notable departures in Vela’s work. The most apparent being the shift in the relationship between Vela and his objects.  Vela’s assemblages and his signature objects used in performances have always felt like an extension of his body and being.  Over the duration of Ego Shadow, these objects seemed to inhibit his movements.  The abundance of black clothing, mirrors, the countless sound producing devices, the idols, the carefully chosen smells of anise, tequila, rum, and crushed chili peppers became cumbersome.   When he entered his sacred space each week, his messenger bag and the objects it contained compromised his ability to fit through the opening. Once inside, his actions fluctuated between curiosity, menace, labor, and prayer.  He seemed to be involved in an attempt to take on the identities that the objects conjured, in an effort to transcend them. 

Each week Vela repeated the action of pouring rum or tequila over himself or over Buddhesus.  Over the weeks the smell accumulated and became oppressive, causing fits of coughing.  He would suck the liquid off the ground.  He would drink the liquid that would collect on the objects ritualistically placed at the feet of Buddhesus, appearing to ingest the idol’s piss.  During the 2nd performance, he took in the liquid and released his own.  He used the force of his breath to sound the bell at the entrance of his sacred space.  These were existential moments, relieving the perceived functions and obligatory preciousness associated with these objects.  But is expropriating an object’s identity enough to transcend it?  Each week, Vela would threaten to destroy Buddhesus, holding a baseball bat in a ready to swing stance.  He would hit the idol just hard enough to produce a sound, but never enough to break it.  Over the weeks these actions became empty threats.  Buddhesus had a unique hold over the artist.  Week after week, Vela would somehow end his performance engaging in actions with Buddhesus that demonstrated his devotion.

Another notable departure in Vela’s work happened in the first week of Ego Shadow.  Vela surprisingly left his sacred space during his performance to interact with the galley’s architecture.  He mimicked the placement of Daniela Rivera’s sculpture, leaning head first into a column that supported her form. 


He stood in the doorway that led to a room housing Ricardo De Lima’s videos.  Vela transformed into a sculpture as Ricardo’s videos of different locations near Boston poured over his body.  The other work featured in Close Distance stayed within its designated space.  Using the transient nature of performance art, Vela infiltrated his colleagues’ work, giving the audience the opportunity to witness the work with another dimension.  Even the work he didn’t directly interact with was affected by this choice.  Raúl González III’s multimedia drawings and his collaborative sculptures with La Die took on new meaning when experienced as a background to Vela’s actions.  Mariá Guest and Rafael Rondeau’s sound and video installation that was projected on the gallery’s windows provided a gentle transition from Vela’s performances back into the “real world”.

The same sensitivity was given to the neighborhood during Vela’s “artist talk”.  Vela held a speaker that amplified a recording of his voice speaking about his work and his connection to the color black.  Vela’s past work has found equilibrium within the black void, however he spoke of a soul mate in this recording.  He explained that the performance that was about to occur required balance that only this soul mate, dressed in white, could provide.  The black and white figures carried Buddhesus out of the gallery and into the plaza in front of the gallery.  They engaged in a series of cleansing rituals.  They burned incense, washed the idol with red wine, milk and finally, they sprayed Buddhesus with a fire extinguisher.  The wind carried the white dust through the plaza wafting around a child hopping over puddles of wine and milk and drifting between the legs of onlookers desperate to capture this moment with their iphones. 

During Ego Shadow, Vela painstakingly cooked his identity and we watched it melt beneath him.  We spent 5 weeks involved in the anticipation of how this process would unfold and whether or not he would ultimately destroy Buddhesus.  During the final week, he finally struck the Buddha’s head.  The head anticlimactically tumbled to the floor and it was over.  No explosive sounds, no shards of ceramic flying through the air threatening injury, no signs of the annihilation we were secretly hoping for.

It was in this moment, it became clear how profoundly mundane this performance was, despite the beauty of the objects and the ritualistic nature in which Vela interacted with them.  The decapitation broke the spell.  Vela’s ego had been exposed and confronted.  Those of us, who accompanied Vela on that journey, were left with a piece of this transcendence.

-Sandrine Schaefer

Vela believes in magnifying the energy of objects, sounds and actions, blending subconscious with spirit and allowing the unknown to present it self. He enjoys transforming & altering modern and ancient energy’s into a new unknown universal existence. Vela’s art embodies many methods, he considers himself a outerdiciplinary artist, always shape shifting and adapting to his instinct and the unknown. From performance art to VJing, to animated gifs and assemblages,  he has been activating and creating since 1994, both nationally, internationally and in the World Wide Web. 

To learn more about Vela Phelan’s work visit Temple of Messages


photos by Bob Raymond