Huffpost Arts
Lia Chavez Headshot

Performance Art Notes From Assisi

Posted: Updated:
Print

It happened while I was in a seated meditation one evening during a recent visit to a mountain villa hovering above the medieval city of Assisi, Italy. As I meditated in a dark room, I heard a voice clearly pronounce the words, "Open up." To my astonishment it was not the voice of a human being, but that of a small water fountain in the corner of the room. Shockingly, the water had spoken, as definitely as any human being.

Perhaps I would have been persuaded by my inner skeptic to doubt this incident had even occurred if it weren't for the hyper-realness of that voice. Those two words -- waves of sound, waves of water -- were uttered in a such way that they spoke to me not merely on a conceptual level, but on the level of sensible form. The water's voice seemed indistinguishable from its form, and of course, it was. Language, in light of today's string theory, is not designed to be held as distinct from form. Word, insofar as it is a vibration or "oscillation" (to borrow a term derived from the theory), gives form to substance, quite literally holding it together. To grasp such a concept with the mind is one thing, but to experience such a knowledge in its embodied form had a transformational effect on my thinking.

In October, I traveled to Assisi, Italy to mark the inception of a month of meditation for my current 90-day endurance performance, True Light -- a performance art piece exploring the effects of fasting, prayer, meditation and silence on the phenomenon of artistic inspiration. I spent my time there deep in meditation, studying the history and mythology surrounding the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and creating new performance art work. My special connection with Assisi originates from an interest in the contemplative practices and performative interventions of Saint Francis -- one of the most significant performance artists in history.

Through his life of utter surrender, Francis mapped out a model of dynamic art-making premised on offering forth the entire substance of one's being to the creation of performative "lifework." Due to his utter dependency upon Divine inspiration, Francis was not only performing, he was being performed. Francis built upon a rich tradition of socially-transformative, prophetic performance art practice exemplified in historical figures such as the Hebrew prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah and Hosea -- a story of radical art-making so elaborate and mystical that its description is best left to the original Old Testament source material.

Throughout the course of this internal adventure of becoming increasingly aware, I have often pondered the analogy of tuning oneself as one would tune a musical instrument. My friend, the renowned contemporary harpist Bridget Kibbey, tells me, "Tuning is aligning one's instrument to something that is eternally fixed, allowing for the clearest expression. For musicians, we tune our instruments to A440 Hertz, like the A one hears at the beginning an orchestra concert." Indeed, this journey has led me through a progressive process of converting each element of my life into art material and thus becoming more available and willing to follow through with to the Muse's (often wild) directives. As this openness has grown, I have experienced the indescribably peaceful sensation of my entire life entering into alignment with a larger "note".

One evening in Assisi, I stood rapt in a shower, naked and frozen in awe. I found myself immersed in a joyous song articulated by what seemed to be a chorus of thousands of whistles. As preposterous as this may sound, the water was singing. Was I hearing this song with my ears or with my skin? Or something deeper than either? The water surrounded my body with its life and resonance. The voices of the chorus filled what felt like a broad bandshell within me which enlarged to cradle the epic sound. Some notes in the chorus were so high that I found myself having to close my eyes to soften the glass-shattering intensity of the song's uncontainable joy. Amazingly, when I finally had the nerve to turn off the shower faucet, the chorus continued to brightly sing. In fact, as the days went on, I found that I could hear the song any time I tuned into it. On every hill. On every stoney pedestrian thoroughfare. In every cathedral. In every garden. In the car...the bathroom. The song was everywhere, I only had to be still and tune into it. And somehow, in locating the song once again, I was greeted by a deep peace and love and simply resonated with the beauty all around me.

What is this song? Is it surrounding me or is it within me? Or both somehow? With the chorus still following me everywhere, these are the questions I currently explore back in my New York studio where I'm on the last leg of the True Light performance. And the task of this last month? Silence, if you can believe it.

Over the course of a month of meditating in October, I learned a few precious lessons. Firstly, that silence is the altar of God and that this altar resides within each person. I learned that deep listening is the beginning of saying and living "Yes." I also learned, through experience, that there is a music throughout creation so painfully beautiful that one can hardly bear to listen to it, but in order to live, one must listen.