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Marilyn Arsem (USA), Marking Time IV, Future Of Imagination 9, Singapore. Photo by Jason Lim
Marilyn Arsem (USA)
Marking Time IV,
Future of Imagination 9, Singapore
September 6, 2014
Daniela Beltrani

It is 15:00. I enter the space: a long room with a couple of double windows at the opposite end from the entrance. As I walk on to find the best place on the floor to sit, I get a fleeting hint of talcum powder. The floor is made up of dark wooden slats placed parallel to the long side of the room, towards the windows. I distinctly hear the regular ticking of a clock, but I cannot locate it precisely, neither can I see it. This time, so relentless and objective. And I have decided to spend the next six hours of my life in the company of Marilyn Arsem.

A simple black chair is nearer the entrance side under a cubic metal frame light shade; a mysterious and bulky package wrapped in black, silky cloth is resting on it. Marilyn is lying down not far from the windows, less than two hours and a few metres away from the chair: she is dressed in a simple black dress. She is wearing black tights and cotton shoes. Her eyes are closed. Her long hair is tied in a braid. She moves her body slowly. Her eyes are sometimes open, sometimes closed. She is tall and slender, with incredibly long hair, which tapers towards the end. On her left hand two gold rings are in place side by side. I am sure I have noticed it before, but I seem to acknowledge it only during the performance. She sits up. Her upper body is resting on the right arm, as if she was leisurely at a picnic. Her face is serious. She seems so lonely. She occasionally looks at me, but her eyes are silent. She assumes a pose that makes me think of Narcissus looking at the reflection of his own image. She moves again, sitting, hugging her legs bent and crossed. She rests her head on the hands, like a young woman daydreaming.

A chime bell is heard once: half an hour has passed (15:30), the contrasting and objective marking of time for the conventional purposes of common living. Yet, in the room, the signs of time are left by Marilyn moving in the space like the foamy trail left by a slow boat on the tranquil waters off the coast of Maine. I feel as if it does not really matter what she did nor the sequence of actions. Neither does it matter that I report them in their correctly ordered unfolding. She was and I was with her, her witness and accomplice: how to become aware of time passing by sharing our own presences in the same space. She was and I watched her being, whilst being myself, whilst becoming aware of myself through her.

She stands up, facing the audience for a while, then she turns her back and rests on the ledge of the hideously looking sofas at the end of the space. She looks down. She walks back and forth along the short side of the room. She leans backwards towards the wall, then she walks again. Her steps are slow and precise: the tip of one foot brought forward to rest briefly against the heel of the other. She reaches the wall again, this time she seems to almost embrace it, raises her arms upwards, then turns, stands still again before resuming her precise and measured slow journey. At times she seems like an equilibrist on a tight rope, trying not to fall into the abyss under her. Half way through her walk, she encounters what looks like a tiny stone. She picks it up, keeps it in her left hand and continues her journey through time and space.

A set of chimes is heard: another half an hour has passed (16:00). One hour in all. She continues.

She finally reaches the chair, after over one hour. She walks around it several times, her hand resting on its back. She is savouring the moment and not rushing it.

She stops and rests behind the chair.

A single chime is heard (16:30). She sits by the chair and then in front of it with her back resting against it. She then lies completely flat and her head is now under the chair. She then turns around, faces the chair, places her legs under it and holds onto its back. She lies flat on her back, her arms stretch out on the side. She almost hugs the chair. Finally she picks up the bundle and resumes her walk.

A set of chimes is heard (17:00).

She continues to walk slowly. She almost loses balance for a second, but resumes immediately after her swift surprise: walking slowly is far more challenging than walking at normal or fast pace. She reaches the end of the room and eventually walks diagonally from the very last corner of the room towards the chair. The bundle still secure in her arms. She walks around the chair again. She sits on the chair, it is 17:15. She undoes the bundle to release a surprising present, a fragrant cascade: thousands of jasmine buds, slowly, fall all over the floor near her. They look like scented tears. Their fragrance is overwhelming. The soft colour of the flowers contrasts beautifully with the blackness of the cloth and her attire.

As the flowers are mostly piled in front of the chair, she places the cloth that held the buds all over her.

A single chime is heard (17:30).

She now wraps herself in the cloth.

She lies down sideways, near the pile of jasmine with the cloth completely covering her body.

She turns upwards, whilst holding some jasmine buds. She slowly places more of them on her body.

I imagine the fragrance of the flowers must inebriate her with its intensity. But this is not about the flowers only: the objects that contained one another are now separate from one another and she is the fulcrum that brings them alive and together, creating presence and, simultaneously, awareness of that presence, which in turn will become a fading memory.

Another set of chimes is heard (18:00).

She walks slowly to the centre of the room and lifts up the cloth only to let it fall down, in a motion as if to let it neatly onto the floor. Instead she covers herself with it whilst standing up.

She lifts it up in the air again, only to run under it again in a swift motion. Again she stands in the middle of the room, covered with the black cloth. I want to cry and run away, the sadness I feel is so heavy to bear. She makes me call to mind the allegorical marble statues of veiled mourners from 19th century, representing sadness by monumental tombs.

The room is so cold and the light is now very dim with the passing of the afternoon and stepping into the twilight, that hesitant time between day and night. She lies down in the middle of the room, as if she was dead, swallowed by the darkness of the cloth.

A set of chimes is heard (19:00).

She interacts with the cloth over the chair like a matador uses the muleta over the bull.

The air is dense, impenetrable and heavy with sadness, and I am in it, just as if I was moving through a jelly substance, where there is no escape, only accepting what is and going through it.

The chair is now covered with the cloth and she stands behind it, looking at it. The pulling of the cloth over the chair is slow and in the extremely dim light appears even slower.

A single chime is heard (19:30).

Sitting down, unveiled, her hands search through the buds. She leans on the floor and searches, still, flattening the pile of buds with her hands. And that is what she ultimately does: she spreads the buds all over the floor, unintentionally reaching out to the silent, shy and respectful audience.

Five hours in all: I can no longer bear this heaviness and, much like that Titan who tried to escape his destiny by tricking Heracles into carrying the celestial sphere on his behalf, I get up and leave in search of lighter air. Tears roll down my cheeks, as I step out of the room, but I do not wipe them off: I am not ashamed and, after all, the hot air of Singapore can dry them more gently than I. Emotions felt make memories surface to my mind: my mother Luciana’s peaceful and beautiful face as I kiss her for the last time; my dear friend Juliana who passed away only a week prior to this performance. Thoughts ensue: scattered considerations over the nature of who we really are beyond layers of convention and nonsense; the meaning of life; possibilities and choices over what we think is important and essential; authenticity; art; performance art and its essence, its purpose … I gather my feelings and thoughts and return to the space to reconnect with Marilyn before she ends her performance. I felt my temporary absence, a weakness, may end up disappointing her.

I enter the space and the first thing that strikes me is the smell of jasmine. It is very familiar, living in Little India. I often see women dressed in sari walking and leaving behind a scent from their hair where they placed a thread of fragrant buds. Instead, during daytime I place it on my pillow, so that when I sleep I can smell the special flowers.

I find Marilyn in the same dimness as I left her, but now she is sitting on the chair. From where I am on the floor, the regular profile of her open face is set against the faint artificial light that enters from the window.

She moves very slowly and one can hardly make out her movements. The last image I have before a set of chimes is heard (21:00) is Marilyn laying down on a bed of scattered jasmine buds.

The fourth marking of time is complete.