The thing about durational work—as with much performance art—is you have to be there. Descriptions of such happenings rarely do them justice. Alice Gosti’s second-annual Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival kicked off at Hedreen Gallery yesterday, and what I’m about to write will be the experiential equivalent of a faded, tattered postcard. Wish you were here. 

Full disclosure: typically I am the curator at Hedreen Gallery, but for the month of July the space is turned over to Alice Gosti’s curaton and I have little hand in guiding the exhibition’s program. When I arrived around 2:30 pm, about an hour into the performance, I had the vaguest idea what exactly to expect—and was plunged into sensory overload. The space was perfumed with smoldering frankincense and myrrh. At the far end of the gallery, a large inflatable pool lined with white cloth was filled with water. Scattered on the ground around it were loose branches of horsetail. Above it, the hide of a wolf dangled. A sac of pig’s blood was secured inside the hide. Blood slowly dripped out of the sac, sliding off the tip of the wolf’s snout. Submerged in the pool below were two faceless female performers in wetsuits that zipped all the way over their heads. The performers, Jillayne Hunter and KB Thomason, collectively known as “The House of ia,” would spend four and a half hours in the murky water, breathing through snorkels while a dense musical soundscape droned from an amp in the middle of the gallery. Thanks to the uncanny, Joseph Beuys-esque water clock hanging overhead, the water in the pool gradually discolored, turning brackish, the color of iron. Sometimes the breathing of the performers became labored. I choked on the smell of crushed vegetation, sage and air too rich with incense.

It was erotic, claustrophobic, panic-inducing. Because of my all-American, borderline ADD-sensibility, I’d meant to stay only a few minutes but before I knew it, two hours had passed.

It’s laughable to try convey a sense of a durational piece with photos. It’s equally difficult to describe in words the way time constricts or stretches like taffy when you’re face to face with a performer putting his or her body through such artful, masochistic paces.

In recent years, durational performance has increased in practice and popularity, as pioneers of performance like Marina Abramović have edged into pop-star territory, cozying up with musical performers like Lady Gaga and Jay Z (who are equally eager to dabble in the dark art of duration). There are other reasons artists are indulging in this form: absurd tests of physical strength and determination, if done well, do their part to critique unchecked technophilia and the excesses of consumerism. For the artist looking to protest the perverse uselessness of the daily grind, what better way than to confront excess with excess, uselessness with uselessness? To reveal endurance and exertion for what it is? The theatrical expenditure of the performance artist—less grueling than the labor of the migrant worker, less heroic than the ultramarathon runner—teeters on confounding. It’s also compulsive and has its place in the collective imagination. The image of Sisyphus endures. 

One sweltering, sunny day last July during the first Yellow Fish Festival, Tyler Wardwell—an artist with an athletic physique (he works part time driving a pedicab), twinkling eyes and a thick, strawberry blond beard—arrived to the gallery at 1 PM ready to sweat. He intended to “print” the windows with his exertion. 

Earlier in the week, he’d encountered a logistical problem in the recipe for his performance: The gallery was air conditioned. He asked that the AC be turned off. That was impossible; he was told he’d have to adapt to the preexisting conditions. So he did. Wardwell arrived to the gallery looking half-mummy, half-marshmallow, dressed in layers of thermal underwear, hoodie, scarf, wool coat. He had an electric kettle tucked under one arm and bouquet of heat lamps in the other.

What took place for the next 30 hours was nothing less than incredible. Wardwell repeated the bizarre ritual of bundling up in layer upon layer of heavy clothes, wrapping his head and neck in mylar, boiling hot water for tea, drinking it, then climbing as fast as he could up and down a 16′ ladder. As he worked up a sweat, he would gradually peel off his clothes. First the jackets would come off, then the layers of shirts and pants would fly as he huffed up and down the ladder at breakneck speed. At last, his skin soaked, body hair matted and salty, he’d press his skin against the windowpane. All that work for a smudge, for a mark that would just have to be scrubbed off the next day.

It’s all incredibly absurd. Maybe a little Kafkaesque. But there’s a reason Kafka—and Abramović—resonate through the years. Poetry made out of the insect-like mechanics of modern life, when done well, is a much-needed synaesthetic jolt—as much a lifeline as a luxury. Maybe the metronomic tick-tock of moments measured out in pig’s blood is exactly what we need to recalibrate our experience of time. Of breathing. Of sweating. Of eating and drinking and waiting and taking a shit.

Images (except for the top) courtesy of Yellow Fish Epic Durational Performance Festival and Bruce Clayton Tom.