If on a winter’s night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave—What story down there awaits its end?
Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler
On a winter’s night last week, an alien landed on earth. Specifically, he landed at Neoterismoi Toumazou, an artist-run project space in the old city of Nicosia, Cyprus—an unusual occurrence since aliens usually land in New York or another such art center. The alien (aka performance artist Patrick Cole) flew down from the mezzanine to the ground floor in a small flying saucer, accompanied by the soundtrack of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and landed on a slightly raised stage placed at the center of the space.
The landing site is a strange graveyard—a group of small gravestones strewn across a platform lined with what appears to be vinyl. It’s the kind of red-and-white checkered vinyl used to cover kitchen tables. A table that serves graves. And flies. Several flies rest on the gravestones while a thin pole with a torn piece of black cloth attached on it acts like a post-apocalyptic flag, overseeing the graveyard.
The alien/artist wears dark blue work overalls and has a small head flashlight attached on his forehead. Like another Ulysses, he begins to tell us his story, a re-enactment of his experiences on earth. He came to earth, he tells us, to study us and our culture. His goal is to get to know and understand us. He speaks rhythmically, with long pauses between phrases, as if reciting poetry. He is something between a storyteller, an anthropologist, and, considering his overalls and head light, a miner. He also has a sense of humor and makes us laugh—or maybe it’s us earthlings that find his lack of common earth knowledge amusing. In any case, he has my attention even though I’m freezing. I’m sitting on the floor with my back against the front window of the space. I cannot see outside but I wonder what people walking in the street will make of the alien/artist.
His method of research begins by following the “fly on the wall” approach (or, rather, the fly on the gravestone), observing from afar without participating. He describes the experience of seeing a woman talk on a cell phone while having a beauty mask on her face (probably an exfoliating mask given that, as the alien/artist tells us, the texture of her face is rough). He soon gives up this approach and chooses to engage in participant observation, actively becoming involved in life on earth and experiencing things for himself. This observation is non-methodical and seems to be driven by curiosity—seeing things that intrigue him and reaching out to touch them, listening to music coming out of a place and going inside, seeing a ball and running to get it.
At one point, the alien/artist sees a long object lying on the floor. He does not know what to make of it. He takes it and begins to explore it. It’s soft and malleable but does not come apart. It also has an opening on one of its short sides. The alien/artist steps inside and pulls the object up to his waist. He steps outside and places his head and shoulders in the hole. He begins gyrating his head and upper body so that the object spins around him, tracing circles. He moves faster and faster, making even bigger circles with the object. The space is too small for him. He should have been running like that up and down the street. The earthlings standing close to him are concerned—the accelerating flying sleeping bag (for, we earthlings know that it is a sleeping bag, we’ve known all along) might hit them in the face at any moment. They try to step away but there’s nowhere to go. The space is too small.
As the gyrating continues, the sleeping bag and the alien/artist combine into something else—a different creature/object. Almost a kind of Deleuzian deterritorialization—forget preconceptions, forget normal functionality, forget everyday rationality; break the object down, down to its smallest bits, to its molecules; feel the color, the material, the shape, as if for the first time; feel it and feel it intensely; study it, wear it, play with it, dance with it; turn it into something else and become something different, something other, along with it. It feels as if I am witnessing such a change.
The alien/artist’s will to know and understand is admirable but his method of participant observation gets him into trouble with people. First, he gets into trouble with the referee of a football match when he rushes in the field to take the ball. He gets called a “hippie.” I imagine he gets called a lot of other worse names by the football fans. Then, he gets into trouble with people dancing at a disco. They yell at him that he is “doing it wrong!” In his attempt to learn how to dance, he moves around frantically. Again, the space is too small. And he tries, he really tries. But apparently he’s “doing it all wrong!”
Disappointment leads him back to the graveyard—his landing and departure site. He wants to go home. He does not belong here. The lights are off and the alien/artist’s head light is shining straight at my face. I squint but cannot see what he is doing. I can only hear his voice. He is talking to/about the flag. He observes it moving in the wind (his blowing breath). I cannot see this but I imagine the flimsy black cloth shaking.
Eventually, the flying saucer is lifted up onto the mezzanine and the alien/artist follows, up the stairs. And then he’s gone.
. . .
If a visitor goes to the space before February 13, she will come upon the remains of the performance—what might be called an art installation. This will include, among other things, the blue overalls and head light hanging on the back wall, the sleeping bag laid out on the floor, and the raised stage with the gravestones and flies. A rather strange installation to be sure, especially if the visitor is unaware of the story behind the objects. But perhaps if the visitor can forget that she is looking at a sleeping bag or a pair of overalls, perhaps if she looks at them like an alien/artist, as if for the first time, wanting to know and understand them, she may then arrive at another story. A red-and-white checkered floor, a group of small gravestones with plastic flies resting on them, a makeshift flag, a sleeping bag, a pair of used overalls and a head light. What story down there awaits its end?
PS. If the visitor ventures up to the mezzanine, she will be able to watch a recorded documentation of the alien/artist’s story, as he told it to us before he left.