On Ivana Muller’s “While We Were Holding It Together”

September 25, 2008

I was scheduled to begin a sitting meditation retreat tonight; I went instead to Ivana Muller’s performance, While We Were Holding It Together, co-presented by DTW and FIAF as part of the Crossing the Line Festival.

Instead of practicing letting go within a monastery, I sat in a theater and watched five performers hold it together.

The five performers sustain the same positions for Muller’s entire 67 minute piece. Their eyes move. They quiver out of muscle fatigue. But it is primarily the movement of their voices and minds that we follow.

(Ivana Muller’s While We Were Holding It Together)

(Sitting Meditation Retreat -Sesshin- at Zen Mountain Monastery)

From their frozen tableau, Muller’s performers talk: “I imagine we are all beggars asking for money.” “I imagine we are the last creatures on earth. We’d like to touch each other.” “I imagine I’m an oak tree, and winter is coming.”

Each time the performers make a statement, I see their shapes, their stillness, as something different. My perception of the very same picture shifts enormously. What was a hand becomes a branch or a bus pole or a microphone stand.

The performers imagine things funny, raunchy, tedious. And also big: “I imagine this body doesn’t belong to me.” “I imagine not being able to imagine anymore.”

In a blackout they leave the stage. From offstage we continue to hear them, “ Are we now only thoughts?” “No, we’re still an image…”

Muller looks at the existential questions I grappled with in an apricot tree hideaway as a kid, those same questions that bring me to Zen practice and art practice as an adult. She looks at nothing less than the nature of experience.

The last words we hear, in the black, from offstage, are these: “I imagine we are in this all together.”

And that is why I go to theater.
And that is why I will go to my meditation retreat tomorrow.

At the monastery, I’ll sit still, among other people, and watch the movement of my thoughts and emotions and fantasies. I’ll be asked to question what my body is, what death is, who there is to die.

At least that’s what I imagine I’ll do.