If I am being honest, I don’t understand performance art.
However, it is also a primary focus at the SMFA, which prides itself on pushing the boundaries of art school and exploring interdisciplinary media. Up-and-coming art students like the ones of the SMFA are the ones defining and developing the role of performance in contemporary art.
Alberto Checa is one of these artists, whose conversation on the shuttle home yesterday gave me new respect for performance work. Alberto’s pieces are thoughtful and emotional — they highlight hidden labor, the process of consumerist production and repetitive, undervalued workforce cycles. He is inspired by his mother’s relentless labor in a packing facility in his hometown of Miami, and many of his performances relate to physically exploring her experiences.
For example, he pushed a box like the ones packed and shipped at his mother’s factory the entire length of a beach, exhausting himself and displaying the type of concealed labor that his community members do daily. Another one of his performances involved two people wearing connected gas masks and packing boxes. As they worked, they breathed harder with increasingly limited oxygen, and eventually fell unconscious. He has packed, moved and installed cement boxes around Miami, swept a warehouse wearing a crucifix-like structure to mimic the housework his mother does despite the hernias in her back from a lifetime of labor and even done a DJ set while people built his platform by hand below him.
The most interesting thing for me is that, despite his projects’ success, he has not told his mother about them.
“She would be touched and all that, but I feel like she wouldn’t really understand why I am putting myself in these physically painful positions,” Checa said. “She would probably just tell me to stop, and I wanna keep going.”
When I asked him where he sees his work going, he was not entirely sure.
“It’s all about the process,” Checa said. “I started as a painter in high school, but then in the summer of junior year I went to a program at SAIC. I totally credit where I am at now to the two sculpture teachers there that pushed me to explore sculpture and performance.”
Now, he says he is not even sure how to classify his work. He uses performance elements, but he also sews, DJs and photographs.
More than anything, Checa takes his work seriously. He pushes himself physically to convey the painful experiences of his mother, and to explore the meaning of labor and futility, of process and production. Listening to him talk so passionately about his art and his relationship to his mother, I was touched. When I asked him about the response to his work, he told me that other people are too. He said that in galleries and his his public displays, people come up to him and tell him how much they are able to relate to and appreciate his awareness of labor that too many take for granted.
If I am being honest, I still do not completely understand performance art. But now, after talking to Alberto, I want to try.