Marylin Arsem at the MFA
by Elizabeth Michelman
Boston, Mass. – Tuesday, December 8. I’m attending Day 29 in a series of 100 unique perfor- mances at the MFA this fall and winter by Boston’s leader in performance art, Marilyn Arsem. Arsem has not yet shown up, but I can already hear her disem- bodied voice musing over the previous day’s performance. The wall text before me explains that each day’s performance provides the inspiration for the next.
10:30 a.m. I enter the all-white Towles Gallery, no larger than a college classroom. A paper calendar on the wall reads “Day 29.” I take a seat on a bench along the wall. The artist, wearing a black sweater-dress with black leggings, black socks and black slip-ons, is already at work.
A square wooden table, flanked by two wooden chairs and a black-and- chrome floor lamp, occupies the center of the room. Black coats and shawls are draped over the chair-backs. A small granite boulder occupies one seat. On the other lies a black cushion. The artist slowly paces around the room, reaching up to the top of a 45-inch roll of white paper that wraps around the walls. As she goes, she drags a blue crayon in an undulating line. Periodically she switches hands.
The artist approaches me with her crayon. I stand to let her pass behind me. She smiles. “There’s no safe place to sit.” Her second time around I crouch in place. Before her third pass, I pick up my bag, walk into the middle of the room, and sit down on the bare oor. It’s the only safe space I can find.
10:45 a.m. She pauses, walks toward the table, removes a black scarf from the back of a chair and lays it on the table. She stretches both arms briefly over her head, and then resumes drawing. Earlier, two uneven blue lines had circled the upper perimeter of the room. The band is denser now. She rests one hand behind her back and continues her rounds.
10:50 a.m. The wavering blue lines overlap. As the artist gestures broadly the waveforms get bigger. She relaxes and they settle down again. Somewhere a line loops backwards. I watch her pause and dig in, then pick up again and move on. In the corners, she forces her crayon into the crevice and slips it down or up to adjust the height of her line. At the end of each circuit, she holds the crayon tightly at the paper’s edge, switches it to the opposite hand, then wraps around and returns. She fills in the spaces between lines.
11 a.m. A tone chimes on the half hour. The artist walks to the table and leans over to choose a new crayon from the tin. She sips water from a small white bottle. Returning to the wall, she begins to introduce an orange line below the 12-inch swath of blue.
The crayon grinds out a song of time elapsed and distance walked. Soon, a ve-inch strip of orange lines has underscored the blue. The artist starts swinging her arm as she walks. Large ripples begin to blur the boundaries between hues. My laptop’s tap-tap-tap keeps up with the rhythm of her footfall. An aroma of burnt steak hovers in a sensory