Last Thursday and Friday, over a 24-hour time span, performance artist and social choreographer Ernesto Pujol presented a work about “revisiting the collective and individual past, and trying to heal it.” Cuban Art News was there to trace the unfolding of Time After Us over time.
Pujol was born in Cuba and raised there and in Puerto Rico. As a site-specific public performance artist, his work explores concepts of collective identity, spirituality, and the notion of the artist as a citizen and cultural worker. “I believe that everyone has the right to culture,” he has stated. “And I mean critical culture rather than entertainment. Critical culture is a human right.” His performance practice is based on walking—“durational group performances as public art,” as he states in his website, creating “psychic restorative portraits of peoples and places across the U.S.” Most recently, Pujol choreographed a work presented this past summer at the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, in collaboration with Jeffrey Baykal-Rollins and the Silsila Collective.
Time After Us was presented as part of “Crossing the Line,” an annual festival of interdisciplinary and performance art presented in New York by the French Institute Alliance Française. It took place in Saint Paul’s Chapel, one of the oldest churches in New York, which opened for Episcopal services in 1776. “The chapel feels like a little island within the larger island of Manhattan,” Pujol said in an interview with arts writer Juliana Driever. “It contains an amazing statement about mortality, with its green graveyard.”
Saint Paul’s Chapel sits directly across from the site of Ground Zero, and was a primary refuge and relief center for first responders after 9/11. Pujol has said that “there is no intended connection” between Time After Us and Ground Zero. “It is not a performance about loss and mourning,” he told Driever, “although a viewer may contribute that reading out of their own life story.”
Inside the chapel, the periphery of the space houses an exhibition about 9/11 and the church’s part in the rescue and recovery efforts. During business hours, a steady stream of tourists visit the chapel to see the exhibition.
“For the past two years, I had been quietly envisioning a performance that was constructed like a vortex, with performers walking a circle backwards and counterclockwise,” said Pujol, “combining vulnerability with the notion of the natural passage of time, time past and time to come, coexisting simultaneously in the now.” This concept became the basis for Time After Us.
The performance began at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 3. Pujol stands quietly at the back of the space, rings a small bell to announce his entry, walks into the space, and begins to walk backwards around a smooth stone placed at the center of the floor. (See first image, above.)
As Pujol begins performing, the atmosphere is dominated by the crowds of chatting, photo-snapping tourists who continue to flow through the space. Gradually, Pujol’s deliberate movements and relaxed concentration bring an expanding sense of serenity, slowly claiming the space for the performance.
At 11 a.m., a second performer rings the bell, enters the space, and begins walking with Pujol. Performers continue to enter at timed intervals.
By mid-afternoon, ten or more performers are moving through the space, their movements deliberate and their gazes downcast. Others take short breaks, seated around the periphery of the space. Below, Pujol himself is seated at left. Tourists, worshipers, and audience members continue to come and go, but the atmosphere is focused and serene, with conversation at a murmur.
By 8 p.m. Thursday evening, the tourists have departed and the space is fully occupied by performers, who continue their deliberate backward walking. The vortex that Pujol envisioned is a little haphazard, with individual paths varying widely through the space. But there is an air of quiet concentration; perhaps everyone is not graceful, but everyone is mindful.
On Friday morning, as the performance enters its final hours, an atmosphere of mindfulness and deliberate gesture continues to pervade the space.
Shortly after 10:30 a.m., the final performer leaves the space, ringing the small hand bell to announce her departure. All that remains is the stone at the center of the chapel. Slowly the atmosphere returns to normal as performers, now in street clothes, gather to say their goodbyes and other visitors arrive.
The tourists and worshipers who are the chapel’s usual visitors gradually fill the space, and the atmosphere returns to its everyday bustle. Pujol, now in street clothes and glasses, returns to retrieve the stone and hand bell.
“For me,” Pujol told Driever in their interview, Time After Us “is primarily a performance about rest and second chances; about revisiting the collective and individual past, and trying to heal it.” Explaining further, he said: “I believe that everyone yearns for moments of restful silence and creative solitude. They are a human right. I cannot imagine discerning one’s individual or collective future, in terms of deep decision-making, without them. And slowness. One needs to protect moments of slowness. I believe that these basic yearnings are found within and shared by all human beings.”