Turning Time Into An Object, and Turning An Object Into Time

by Barry Drogin

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I have read enough pieces by students sent out on an assignment to write their first review that I know that the "I arrived at the theater…" opening is inevitably a sign that the reviewer has not only no idea how to write a review, but has nothing to say within the review. But perhaps, when encountering something extraordinary and unprecedented, then an unoriginal and even banal opening of the sort can even be appropriate.

I first met Clara Zinky at McSorley's, at a Founder's Day event for Cooper Union alumni. Seniors are now included as members of the Alumni Association, but it is still unusual for them to attend such events. I have learned much later that Zinky was elected to be a student representative to the Board of Trustees when she was a junior, but through an odd insult to the students, the Board requires them to elect three students and then chooses from amongst, no matter who got the most votes. With no detriment intended to who they chose, they missed an opportunity not selecting Zinky.

As one does with art students, one asks them about their work. Art school is a place for students to experiment, to try out different media, to change their minds. Zinky was a senior and had a senior exhibit coming up in a few weeks time. She said her work involved performance art, and also used a flautist, but otherwise was vague in describing what would happen. As older people will do, I started to tell her about new music theater, including work that contained no singing or text. We were interrupted by the arrival of Paul Garrin, who launched into a long (and interesting) tale about how he managed to meet Nam June Paik. When he was done, Zinky quickly excused herself.

The date of the opening, April 3, 2018, arrived. At 6:30pm, in the 7th Floor lobby of the Foundation Building, a performance of "Weatherproofing," with flautist (MaAyan) Taiga Ultan, was scheduled. Ultan sat on a chair, surrounded by various pieces of paper. Zinky wore a headset with a microphone, and there was an electronic device on a tripod next to Ultan. There was a large tarp on the floor, and a few strings suspended between columns. An audience gathered. Zinky spent time conferring with Ultan, and then the performance began. Zinky started pulling other pieces of tarp, of various sizes, from around a corner. Ultan started playing quite modern music. Unlike the silence that normally accompanies musical performance, the sound of crackling tarp overlapped in random ways with the music. Zinky laid some of the tarps flat; others formed little tunnels. Eventually the original "performance space" was covered with a second layer of flat and cylindrical tarps.

Zinky stopped Ultan and spoke to her, in a quiet voice, about how the tarps were of different sizes, about how it took longer to put out the bigger ones. Although she was wearing a microphone, there were no loudspeakers, no amplification.

When she finished speaking, Ultan returned to playing and Zinky poured paint from a bucket onto a paint tray. Then she took a paint roller on the end of a long rod, dipped it into the tray, walked over to one of the tarps, and painted it. This continued, in variations depending on the size or the shape of the tarp, as Ultan continued to play. Like before, the sound of the paint roller on the tarp overlapped with the sound of the music in random ways.

At some point, Zinky stopped to once again quietly address Ultan. She spoke about how it took longer to paint the large pieces than it did to paint the smaller pieces. This led to the third "act" of the performance; as the paint dried, Ultan resumed playing the flute, and Zinky started to hang up some of the pieces of tarp on the strings, and moved some of the other pieces of tarp out of the lobby so that, by the end of the piece, the lobby was cleared and the sides of the room were left with the sculpture that Zinky had created before our eyes. Once again, the sound of dragging and hanging the tarp overlapped in random ways with the music. And so, when the painting/sculpture was complete, the performance was over.

Any prior category – theater, music, painting, sculpture, performance art – are insufficient to describe what Zinky and Ultan had just done. Zinky had just turned time into an object, into objects. Similarly, these objects were now representations of time. This wasn't action painting – using a paint roller to cover a tarp with paint is not an expressive form of drip art. This wasn't performance art – Zinky didn't face some personal challenge or reveal any personal details about herself. This wasn't theater – Zinky wasn't playing a character, at least not in the conventional way one might encounter. And the painting and sculptures were the leftover pieces of the performance, containing meaning only for those who had witnessed the performance. But Zinky was a "painter," in all senses of the word, and we had watched her paint.

This was music, an act of musicking, but of an extraordinary sort. The pieces of paper that Ultan had scattered around her did not contain a conventional score, but sequences, instructions, thoughts, which Ultan used to improvise to. It was Cage's aleatoric music, jazz, minimalism, extended flute technique, all bundled together in a way that was uniquely Ultan.

Like all performance, and all music, and all theater, and all art, a reviewer's description is no substitute for an audience's experience of the aesthetic work itself. These two, shy, modest students had created something that was both a demonstration of their respective educations, while simultaneously pointing towards something completely original. At Cooper's annual End of Year Show, they scheduled another performance in the lobby of the first floor of the Foundation Building that I was unable to attend. It was called "Flute Concerto; Welcome Banners, Show 2." It had three movements and an interlude. It involved peeling, ripping, and placing tape from a roll onto some material, making it into a streamer, the painting of the streamers, and the hanging of the streamers into banners. I know this because the interlude involved putting out pamphlets, a program, and I have one.

Like much that is new and unfamiliar, many might find this boring or incomprehensible. I found it to be astonishing. In music, time, duration, is a sort of object that the composer/performer manipulates. It is also a collection of sounds that the composer/performer places into aural space. Zinky has a background in theater, and now she has a degree in art, and a musical collaborator in Ultan, who is a prodigy of sorts as a flute player.

Cage and Cunningham would have approved.

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Last Updated: May 26, 2018