Artist Gerry Pryor has been performing BODY SLAM for the last ten years. Friday evening, at the Barney Building of NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, he performed the piece for the very last time. On the eve of the now infamous September 11th, we in New York and I’m sure on a global level, are remembering once again the day that U.S. soil was attacked by Al Qaeda. On that fateful morning, artist Michael Richards was working in his studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center as part of the then World Views residency organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
At the time of his death, Michael Richards was making sculptures, casting his own body and commenting on the Tuskegee airmen, a squad of African American Air Force pilots who were segregated during WWII. One in particular, Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (1999) has the artist as St. Sebastian but instead of being pierced with arrows, his body is pierced with airplanes. Very striking not only in the context of a overlooked subject, but also regarding his own untimely demise.
As the performance began, Gerry spoke of his friendship with Michael and his own experience living near Ground Zero and being there in 2001. Months after the attacks, dust of the dead and debris from the collapsed buildings still found its way into his home. The performance uses the body as organic matter, standing at full height, a tower. The artist proceeded to wrap the audience in yellow caution tape. He then pulled the tape back towards the stage and entwined his body. During the live action a video of the same performance from 2006 looped on a large screen on the stage. The duality of body and movement was very powerful and Gerry was a doppelganger unto himself; one in three dimension the other in two dimension.
He continued to utilize his body and occasional vocalizations, yelling. Emotional pain emitted into physical space. At one point he proceeded to throw small, thin wooden airplanes into the audience. One, headed straight towards me and I ducked just before it flew towards the ceiling and then landed in the adjacent row. I sat next to artist Lyle Ashton Harris who was also a friend of Michael’s and we were both deeply moved by the content as well as the physicality as the airplanes were thrust into our personal space.
Lastly, as done in previous years, the artist yelled “Dust to Dust! Some of us go too SOON!” and proceeded to dump baby powder onto his body. Action. Olfactory scent. Sent. The powder dust, was a direct reference to the bodies, the debris, the destruction and death. An homage to a person, a moment, and an action memory that will be forever ingrained into the hearts and minds of those who witnessed the event up close as well as the rest of us who watched with unblinking eyes, glued to t.v. screens from both near and far, far away.
Stay tuned for other works by artist and NYU Professor Gerry Pryor.
Michael Richards, 1963-2001. Rest in peace.