The performance had begun at 10:30 a.m. with Pujol alone, and every half hour since, another performer joined a growing circle to walk backwards, counter-clockwise, in silence, until the next morning.
As published on ArtsCultureBeat.com on October 5, 2013 [a class-run site as part of the M.A. Arts & Culture concentration at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism].
At 3:40 p.m. on Thursday, October 3rd, ten people shuffled around the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Downtown Manhattan as part of Ernesto Pujol’s performance piece, Time After Us. The performance had begun at 10:30 a.m. with Pujol alone, and every half hour since, another performer joined a growing circle to walk backwards, counter-clockwise, in silence, until the next morning.
In planning this performance, Pujol wanted to “invite people from all walks of life to observe and reflect on the nature of the paths we take.” Only five hours into the performance, and with nineteen more to go, the performers already seemed deep into their own individual meditative exercises, while simultaneously remaining part of the communal performance. All clad in flowing white garb, the group ever-so-slowly worked its way around and around the hallowed hall. Instead of forming a perfect circle, they flowed into and around each other, causing the group to wax and wane. All the performers had their own way of walking and, it seemed, their own way of reflecting. Some took long steps, sliding their toes up to their heels and then alternating, while others cautiously crept along, slowly lifting each heel in turn, their feet never fully leaving the floor. With eyes closed, this action requires much concentration, though none of the walkers seemed to be focused on their movements.
Many of the performers looked like zombies, their bodies slumped to one side or hunched over; they dragged their feet along as if they had no real control over their movements. Some appeared serene and content, while others conveyed what looked like deep sadness or indifference on their faces. In just one hour, Pujol himself could be seen walking in and out of the circle, sometimes swaying like a pendulum around the large stone on the floor that marked the center of their vortex. Other times he sat and watched in complete stillness, as another performer filled his place. At 4:00 p.m., a male performer appeared and rang a little bell once, signaling his entry into the circle. He gradually joined the ranks, which kept moving to their own relaxed cadence.
Even in the middle of the busy weekday afternoon, it was hard not to get caught up in this public moment of solitude. Upon entering the chapel, one was struck by the utter lack of sound: through the open doors, echoes of traffic and construction and the outside world altogether seemed a million miles away. With eyes closed, one could hear only the swish-swish of bare feet sliding across the wood and tile, like brooms sweeping up the dust of days gone by. When sounds from outside did penetrate the space, it was if every little noise was amplified tenfold—babies crying, cameras clicking, and chatter from outside were immensely disturbing. This atmosphere was perfect for cultivating deep contemplation. At a certain point, an observer’s thoughts would be forced to switch from “What are they thinking about?” to “What am I thinking about?”
This unusual performance clearly baffled many of the tourists who had come to see a historical landmark and the recent memorials housed in it, but ultimately found themselves witnessing a deeply spiritual act. The symbolic weight of the surrounding 9/11 memorabilia gave the performance a built-in context—even those who did not know who these white-clad people were, could not have missed the gravity of their actions; many took a seat to watch for a while. Some observers seemed intent on joining the performers in deep meditation, while others who were just rushing through reluctantly ended loud phone conversations and stopped to watch from afar, if only for a moment. Toward the end of this hour, Pujol took a seat directly in between two observers, drawing them into the performance a little bit more by virtue of his silent and calm presence, and perhaps offering them a chance to restore themselves, as well.