The Arts Club of Chicago Invites “Tiny Performances in Empty Rooms”

On February 26, 2021, The Arts Club of Chicago presented a free live stream entitled “Tiny Performances in Empty Rooms.” This enduring Chicago institution, now open by appointment only, invited three artists to experiment with the exhibition space’s vacant environment. Featuring work by Kurt Chiang, Jasmine Mendoza, and Angel Bat Dawid, this tripartite bill transformed a space for art-showing into a site for art-making. 

The familiar sound of a ticking clock sets the scene as Kurt Chiang’s Livia to the Stage, Please. Livia to the Stage. begins. Flashes of empty spaces from the arts club fill the screen–a stairwell, a purple couch, a still elevator. Backstage in the green room, Livia (performer Livia Chesley) gazes into the mirror of a vanity. An audience member (Kurt Chiang), donning a mask per the pandemic, waits and sighs. Two people, anticipating connection but frustratingly apart. Livia makes a few subtle faces in the mirror (smiling, relaxing, smiling, relaxing). Then, suddenly, a familiar sound: an unseen pianist gives an “A.” The orchestra tunes. Livia rises, frantic to reach the stage. Up the stairs, down hallways, behind curtains, only to end up back in the greenroom. The ticking clock remains an omnipresent measure of passing time. The exasperating feeling of impatience is palpable. 

Kurt Chiang in Livia to the Stage, Please. Livia to the Stage.--Screenshot courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago

Kurt Chiang in Livia to the Stage, Please. Livia to the Stage.–Screenshot courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago

When Livia finally arrives at the stage, the audience member is now somehow in the green room. The sounds of closing doors and shuffling footsteps litter the air as Livia grows more curious about the surroundings, examining artwork, popping bubble wrap, wandering comfortably. Things get more puzzling, time begins to run both backwards and forwards.

Chiang appears, this time looking out of a window, offering words of commentary, or reflection, or maybe a poem. 

“When they play, they only play the letters in the alphabet between A and G. Not a large sampling, but it’s plenty. It does the trick. And it doesn’t just go A-B-C, etcetera, it goes in a different order. It’s all mixed up. Sometimes the letters repeat once or twice. Often a lot more than that. And sets of letters will return in established sequences, or in rapid succession. The same letter four, five, eight times very quickly. And sometimes, and this is kind of my favorite, sometimes they are held, the letters are for a while. They call those whole, or half if it’s a little shorter. Even better, sometimes they rest…” 

The moving nature of this work is the way it captures a feeling many artists, audience members, and others have felt over the past 11 months–anxious, alone, frustrated, perpetually at rest, and longing for connection once more. 

Jasmine Mendoza in WHIR--Screenshot courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago

Jasmine Mendoza in WHIR–Screenshot courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago

In WHIR, Jasmine Mendoza’s new work in collaboration with filmmaker Keaton Fox, the screen glows a solid, vibrant red, and a low hum like the sound of a furnace or other internal mechanism swells. A humanoid with metallic flesh wearing a pair of bright red sneakers explores the innards of The Arts Club. The creature concocts bangs and clangs as it ricochets a serving platter on top of its own head, uttering jagged vocal bursts. This strange being acts excitedly, interacting with the space’s unseen crevices: in the kitchen, in corners, and underneath the stairs. It writhes, stomps, and vocalizes, with a green hose wrapped tight around it like a python. While this main character is unpredictable, intuitive, curious, and unabashed, the sound of the space–a delightful and inconspicuous hum, or “whir”–is surprisingly present. 

Joined by multi-instrumentalist Isaiah Collier, Angel Bat Dawid’s Sonata for an Empty Room wields the sonata form to wring out the malaise, sorrow, and unrest from life over the past year. The two begin with an exposition in six, Dawid on clarinet, Collier on soprano saxophone. Then, with Dawid at the piano, the development tumbles into raucous mayhem, and the duo’s musical chemistry is on full display. There are moments where the music reels and mourns, others when the atmosphere relaxes and steadies. In the most gripping moment from the night, the two break free into an improvisatory eruption–Collier wailing from the soprano and Dawid from the chest, the catharsis a welcome release. Then, the two rest gently on a descending cascade of arpeggios before a return to a hopeful recapitulation. 

Angel Bat Dawid and Isaiah Collier in Sonata for an Empty Room--Screenshot courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago

Angel Bat Dawid and Isaiah Collier in Sonata for an Empty Room–Screenshot courtesy of The Arts Club of Chicago

By shuttering all but a few art-centric spaces, the pandemic has twisted many curators’ arms, forcing them to get inventive. (2020 may be the year of the live stream.) However, it’s unfortunate that more curators haven’t taken the opportunity to offer such unbridled access and artistic freedom as The Arts Club of Chicago has here. By inviting artists to utilize the space in ways they normally wouldn’t be able to, The Arts Club of Chicago demonstrates the magic that can happen by simply unlocking the doors and welcoming makers to create tiny performances in otherwise empty rooms.


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