OCTOBER 16, 2017
ANNA MARIA MAIOLINO will perform a piece from 1981, Entrevidas, with her grandson, Gabriel, at 7:00 in the evening. The performance will occur during the opening of a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the first in the United States to feature the Brazilian artist, whose work combines the minimal with the surreal, everyday life and the uncanny, in a range of materials. Beneath Nancy Rubins’s sculpture of airplane parts permanently installed on the Brutalist concrete expanse of the upper plaza of the museum, hundreds of white ovoid forms dot a large rectangular area. They look like eggs: Are they eggs? A field of Brancusi eggs? An audience arranges itself around the rectangle, which a few guards, who may be unnecessary, patrol. The separation of audience from performance space takes on an unaccustomed charge: the rectangle with its scatter of fragile objects suggests a very real potential for damage, however minor. This is not the theater’s fourth wall but a practical, if puzzling, divide between the audience around the perimeter, with its drinks in plastic cups and its talk and its cell phones, and the rectangle with its arrangement of delicate matter. Entrevidas, between lives: for the audience, the only way to get to the other side would be to walk around the space. The eggs do not appear to be aware of the audience, and yet there is that live divide between these things and us.
From the side of the rectangle beneath Rubins’s looming collage of junked airplanes, Gabriel, a young man with dark hair and a trimmed beard, wearing a dark green button-down shirt, black trousers, and black canvas sneakers, begins to shuffle lengthwise across the rectangle. He holds his hands before him as if he might any moment encounter a wall, or as if were sleepwalking. His eyes are closed. This voluntary blindness evokes a whole history of minimalism’s embrace of constraints: the rule of the game is to disable the sense that would appear, along with balance, to be essential to avoiding breaking eggs. Through his canvas shoes, moving carefully, he feels the eggs and senses the spaces between eggs. Some spectators shush an elderly woman, dressed all in black, with close-cropped gray hair, who follows Gabriel around the perimeter and makes occasional bird-like noises of warning. It may dawn on many, at roughly the same time, that this is Maiolino herself, coaching her grandson from the wings; no one shushes her anymore. He is performing a piece she made, and performed herself, in 1981, 35 years ago. He does not look old enough to have been alive when she first walked among the eggs, and yet there is something different from that clichéd gap between generations here: this difference does include space and time and sheer absence — he was not there — but this difference and distance does not for all that constitute a rupture.
Gabriel’s eyes are open, and a new game begins: he moves among the eggs with astonishing speed, deftly negotiating the spaces around them. The eggs become an obstacle course of a different kind: eyes open, he runs between the eggs with rapid steps, still seeking not to break them, moving as quickly as possible. (To make a performance, it is necessary not to break any eggs.) These are no longer the ordinary eggs of everyday life, but eggs made more precious through the exercise of skill and grace with which he avoids crushing them.
The piece continues with one of its small shocks: Gabriel invites a woman standing on the periphery to enter the rectangle with him. She wears a stylish jumpsuit, long verticals of black and white. They move together with adeptness so startling that one wonders if she has been planted among the audience. They miss the eggs and their movements become dance, verging on flamenco. No egg breaks. It almost looks too easy, as if dancing among eggs were a standard practice of their everyday lives. But this practice includes a constant, if enigmatic, threat. The MOCA website links the piece to a common English idiom: “Originally performed by Anna Maria Maiolino in 1981, Entrevidas was a literal manifestation of the expression ‘to walk on eggshells.’ The artist covered the ground with dozens of chicken eggs, scattering them in the street, which she then had to navigate.” “Literal” is the wrong word here: the point of the constraint is not to walk on eggshells but, indeed, to “navigate” around them so as not to damage them at all. Linking the piece to the phrase does, however, capture the elaborate techniques of the body that Entrevidas evokes and invents. On the one hand, this minefield of eggs produces unanticipated, sometimes elegant, sometimes comic, even slapstick, twists and turns of avoidance; on the other, the everyday connotations of the simple, sculptural eggs may also suggest (in the words of another work about another everyday, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) that it is “very, very dangerous to live even one day.” The virtuosic navigation of the eggs simultaneously suggests the beautiful absurdity of an outlandish constraint and the everyday bodily negotiations of a difficult world.
The woman in black and white is not Gabriel’s last partner: he also dances with another woman, in a skirt and heavy boots, and then with somewhat heavyset and graceful man, on whose belt some keys and other gear hang. As this man first moves, a plastic cup he had shoved into his back pocket pops out. Gabriel grabs it and hands it to someone on the edge of the rectangle. They continue with a mock waltz, arms outstretched, torsos meeting; there is some laughter. Again, no egg breaks, and again one must wonder if the second woman and the man were planted there and had practiced among the eggs before. If so, why did the man have that obtrusive cup in his pocket? Gabriel may have chosen him at random, and we may, as a rule, be better able to dance around eggs than we expect, or eggs may be more resilient than we fear. Or maybe the Maiolino family knows how to spot the graceful few in a crowd who will avoid smashing eggs.
An egg does break. Gabriel holds one in his hand, deliberately crushing it. The audience gasps: any residual doubt vanishes: these are eggs, and the yolk and white of the egg make a mess of his fingers. From the side of the rectangle where the Rubins’s sculpture looms, Anna Maria Maiolino hands him towels, and the audience watches him clean his hands and hand back the paper towels. This broken egg feels like a break, maybe even an end: once an egg is broken, can the show still go on? It continues for a while yet, though: Gabriel, in roughly the center of the rectangle, picks up an egg, cleans it with his shirt, puts it in his mouth, and walks around exhibiting the egg half inside and half outside of his mouth. He approaches the woman in the elegant jumpsuit; she tries to take the egg into her own mouth, like a kiss. He pulls back with a wagging finger; he takes the egg out of his mouth, gives it to her, and she puts it in her own mouth. This comic ingestion without eating is the prelude to a moment of declaiming that seems an unnecessary supplement to the eloquence of the previous acts without words.
When this Entrevidas in Los Angeles does end, Gabriel and Anna Maria embrace, and this embrace movingly captures distance and closeness, familial and artistic intimacy, and yet also the time between this performance in a safe courtyard and the place conjured by photographs of the event in 1981 hanging in the retrospective below. Those photographs, a triptych, show the rough cobblestones of a street with several eggs; then, that street with Maiolino’s bare calves and feet, the sole of her right foot exposed to the viewer; last, from the same position as the second photo, the road and intact eggs and her feet a few steps further along. The bare feet and the roughness of the surface convey vulnerability and also a toughness greater than that of her virtuosic grandson.
Maiolino and others have connected Entrevidas to life under the Brazilian dictatorship. Maiolino has even suggested that you “can construct an analogy between the repression and the menace of the feet and of the dictatorship,” with the eggs symbolizing the affirmation of life. Gabriel’s feet did not seem menacing. Further, the privatized space of the museum plaza contrasted with the rough pavement of the street where Maiolino performed. In 1981, that Enetrevidas must be an allegory of the menace of dictatorship may have been the first thing on the minds of spectators. Entrevidas, a piece with a continuing history, is itself between lives. If, on a Saturday evening in Los Angeles, an allegory offered itself, that allegory seemed to have to do more with the elaborate bodily practices necessary to avoid violence than with the idea that the walker and dancer was an agent of violence. To practice the avoidance of violence with such deliberation, such elaborate choreography, is also to be aware of the many everyday occasions for complicity with a violence one swerves to avoid.
Martin Harries is professor of English at UC Irvine. The author of Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship, he is working on “Theater after Film,” a book about the impact of mass culture on postwar drama.
Image: Anna Maria Maiolino, Entrevidas (Between Lives), from the Fotopoemação (Photopoemaction) series, 1981, gelatin silver prints, 56 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (144 x 92 cm) each