If you’ve been through the collection of the Walker Art Center looking for the brightest and flashiest pieces, you would have walked right past Robert Gober’s sculpture, Untitled Door and Door Frame. An ordinary, white painted door frame opens up into a small, fluorescent-lit room, where the companion piece, the door itself, leans up against the back wall. You would walk past and miss it, but it’s worth stepping in to. The combination of the light, the white door on the white wall, the milky translucence of the paint, all lend themselves to a ghostly, slightly ethereal feeling, but the smallness of the room, the buzz of the closeness of your body with others make it a visceral moment.
This is a similar experience to EX, the new work by Charles Campbell produced by Skewed Visions at the California Building. EX is a quiet and meditative work, but one filled with palpable physicality, humanity and significance. The audience is seated in the center of the raw studio space, while the performers – Annie Enneking, Megan Mayer, Billy Mullaney and Campbell – move around the room. The props are simple, mundane – door, similar to Gober’s door, an office chair, a coffee table, a couch, picture frames, a strongbox – but become representative presences throughout the show. The sensation of breathing next to people, with the lights up, the performers’ breathes and footfalls, all of these things come together to heighten reality and our own awareness of our living body.
The impetus for EX came from grief. In the course of a year, Campbell lost his mother to Alzheimer’s and his sister to cancer. But with it’s dance sequences, non-linear or narrative structure and visual gags, EX isn’t maudlin or saccharine. Campbell and his collaborators have a history and trust together that lets them take a light touch with heaviness. There is something important, and lovely, that in a work about personal loss, the performers who helped create the show are trusted, long-standing collaborators, a nod to the families that we make for ourselves to see us through life.
The levity of certain moments, the variations on repeated patterns, silence, they all combine to occasional devastating effect. Mayer* carrying Mullaney, thin, with a shaved head in an oversized white T-shirt may be the most tragic thing you see on stage this year. The refrain of “Get. The fuck. Away!” is resonant as a reaction for self preservation, even from ourselves. The dance sequences of punctuated physicality leave questions about what is and out of frame, how tangled up are we in our everyday things, how do we share with others?
On the site for EX, Campbell has written a few notes about the work:
It’s not an epic story of human struggle.
It’s not a political parable for our times.
It’s not about you and your family.
It doesn’t speak from the heart.
It won’t make you feel better about yourself.
It won’t stay long.
The only one I know for sure is true is that it won’t stay long – EX closes November 1. So make some space for yourself to see the show. Take deep breaths, get into the room and hold it for an hour.
*A previous version of this post identified Campbell as the one carrying Mullaney. I spent a lot of time in show thinking about how each performer was channeling both Campbell and his family at various points, so, mission accomplished, I guess.