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Lynn Hunter’s ‘Grounded’ Considers the Ritual of Burial, Life, and Rebirth

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It was a freezing February night, but The Shed and Lynn Hunter decided to move forward with the performance. At first, I struggled to find the gallery—which is housed in a shed in artist Bonnie Crawford’s backyard—and I walked the streets of this suburb-like street in Northeast Baltimore City for a few minutes until I heard the voice of James Baldwin. Hearing that voice, I knew I was in the right place and felt comfortable walking into the yard to experience Hunter’s performance, Grounded

Hunter formulated the piece in response to a series of questions that have inspired her art practice and her pursuit of “critical Black theory and expression”:

“How does one communicate and translate the simple practice turned theory, thanks to decades of degressive white idealism, of Black individuals being born to live and not just to die? To breathe, to move, to be still with our own thoughts and pragmatism. How can expressing or performing multidimensional personal concepts of Blackness, and divergence from such, serve as beneficial to our survival?”

Endurance is a frequently employed tool in Hunter’s performance works. She places her own body in uncomfortable positions to reveal a moment of vulnerability.
Ada Pinkston

I walked up to see the artist lying down and completely covered with dirt. White balloons surrounded her, and I discovered that the sound was coming from a video projection that played on a loop. Hunter’s bare feet revealed themselves after the first few gestures of the performance and I could see the impact that the cold weather had on her body. Her feet were shaking, a reflection of the challenge of endurance in this performance. 

Grounded is part of a larger series of performances in which Hunter considers the ritual of burial as it relates to death. Collectively, our experiences of and relationships to death have become more present and visible over this past year. The number of people who have died in this country alone—more than 500,000—one year into the COVD-19 pandemic is one reason of many for this re-awakening.

Endurance is a frequently employed tool in Hunter’s performance works. She places her own body in uncomfortable positions to reveal a moment of vulnerability. During the performance at The Shed, her breath inflated and deflated white balloons, one after another, while her body remained mostly covered by the earth. 

Her face was pointed towards the projection. The audience stood outside of The Shed, watching her. The way that the light emanated from The Shed, it looked like her gestures and movements were inviting the audience in and opening them up to a portal. The audience was transfixed, and as she performed her simple gestures, the onlookers stood in the cold, silently captivated, and waited to see the next action she would take. 

Despite the cold, Hunter wore no shoes. Her costume was a long black dress that was only revealed when she removed herself from the dirt at the end of the performance. When she left this buried state, it was almost as if she were reborn. She moved from underneath the earth into a hammock that had been installed directly above her, looming the entire time. The gesture of lying down in this hammock transformed the space’s heavy, almost masochistic atmosphere into a state of rest, ease, and relaxation.

 

That is the goal of any work, to move the viewer, but there is something about the way that Hunter moves the audience that is impressive and quietly participatory.
Ada Pinkston

Placing her body in a series of poetic gestures, Hunter leaves her audience with a sense of wonder, awe, and deep reflection through what exactly it was they just witnessed. That is the goal of any work, to move the viewer, but there is something about the way that Hunter moves the audience that is impressive and quietly participatory. The energy created in the space between her body and the audience is always charged. 

Her work draws on feminist performance art of the 1970s but uses contemporary materials and concepts. Seeing Hunter submerged in the earth conjures up direct ties to artists such as Ana Mendieta; her use of projection to drive a narrative is reminiscent of Joan Jonas. However, her own voice and words are absent from the narrative. Instead, she uses her body and the sonic experience of the digital projection that floats around the background in the air.

The video projection is a reflection of a collective Black experience. Popular videos of people playing double dutch, of James Baldwin speaking, of Halle Barry accepting an award, and other pop references to Black culture played on a loop, juxtaposed with a scene of Hunter playing the violin. 

This performance could be seen as either a beginning or an end to the materials and concepts that Hunter has been working on for the past few years. The first time I encountered Hunter’s work, I was looking online at the documentation of a burial piece years ago. I have been following her work ever since, and have included her in my own curatorial projects. I virtually sat down with Hunter to ask about her performance at The Shed and where it sits within the context of her body of work. 

 

Photo by Anuj Malla

Ada Pinkston: When did you do your first burial piece?

Lynn Hunter: That was in 2018 at MICA for a show that was curated by Zion Douglass and Destiny Belgrave. It was one of their senior shows, and they had a few artists in it. That was the first time that I did a burial with the soil. It was in the Brown building. 

The performance at The Fray was also in 2018, and I did that one with my Mom. But that time I used rocks instead of soil or sand. I was trying to experiment with the type of material that I was using.

The third time was at Artscape with LabBodies, and I used sand and water as the material to bury my body under. The first day was water, and the second day was a bunch of sand. And I used a PVC tube for breathing underneath these materials.

Why use burial as an image or performance gesture?

My initial process was from being inspired by some work that Morgan Parker put out. They published this piece called “Toward a New Theory of Negro Propaganda.” There was one quote that said: “Is it possible, that in the dark slumbering of their unconscious, the white imagines that the only remedy for fear is death?” So it really just got me thinking about the general concepts of fear towards death and how Black people in America have such a heightened sense of that. We have come up with so many ways to transcend the ideas of death. And our spiritualities allow us to ascend past the idea of death.

As a Black person, you literally don’t know when it could happen. And it could happen sooner than you would think and for a reason that you wouldn’t even consider. It kind of places a new urgency around living life. So I was experimenting with that trauma and the idea of being buried. At the time, I was going to funerals and seeing family members being buried. And I really don’t like the idea of funerals and burials. I know when I die, I think I would like to be cremated. 

What do you do with the dirt that you used in these performances? 

Most of my performances are outside. Because of this, after the performance, I let the sand or the rock be where they are. Then the elements, like rain, will come and take care of it. I don’t really have the space to keep the materials, so I usually just keep getting new ones.

[Ed. note: The soil from The Shed performance will stay with the space for possible future projects in the garden.] 

 

I also really like doing video work and making collages and putting together different historical speeches and the people who really influence me a lot, and people who just know what they talk about when they are speaking about Black life, Black liberation, and Black thought.
Lynn Hunter

How do you develop your performances? Is there a general performance score? Do you write these scores down, or choreograph your body in relationship to the tools/materials that you include?

Usually, I just sit down and think about ideas that I want to talk about or events that I want to talk about. Or I would just think of what is a good way for me to abstractly communicate this and be able to put my body in that space and do an action that is communicating these ideas. 

I think about it and visualize it in my mind. At most, I sketch it out in my mind. But I usually don’t choreograph beforehand. The only time I did that was for the performance at The Parlour [in 2019] because we were redoing that Pina Bausch performance [Cafe Müller] and I wanted the movements to be kind of the same as her choreography and I needed to show the other performers what to do. But other than that, I write down the materials that I want to use and the action that I want to do and bring the elements into the space and see what happens. It usually goes how it is visualized in my mind, but if it doesn’t that just becomes a part of it.

What role does video projection play in the way that you want the audience to experience your work?

It helps communicate some ideas that might not be otherwise gotten by what’s going on in the space. It also gives the audience multiple things to give their attention to because I know that people have short attention spans. My durational work can be hours long and it kind of breaks down the dynamic of the performance. It allows for people to take breaks and put all of the elements together in their minds. 

I also really like doing video work and making collages and putting together different historical speeches and the people who really influence me a lot, and people who just know what they talk about when they are speaking about Black life, Black liberation, and Black thought. It just makes my performances feel more complete to be able to bring other people into it in that way.

That’s why I have been calling myself a multimedia performance artist, because video work is very important to me. It also brings back the idea that time is not linear, and habits are not linear, and racism, sexism, and all the -isms and all the ideas under whiteness and capitalism are still circulating, and I try to bring it all together to remind people that this is all connected and it is all crazy.

 

Photo by Anuj Malla

Tell me about your choice of costume. What was the significance of the black dress, head wrap, and no shoes?

I oftentimes like to perform nude or almost nude because I am trying to communicate the idea of vulnerability and offering myself up as a human being in the piece and not hiding anything. I am celebrating my body as my self, my body as a Black woman, and just allowing that to be. And I am trying to combat this idea of a Black woman being viewed as unnatural within the context of history. I feel that if I am vulnerable, then other people feel more willing to let down their guard and be vulnerable as well.

At The Shed, I chose not to be nude because I didn’t want to be freezing. So I wore the head wrap and the dress. But my feet remained bare to continue this action of vulnerability. 

Tell me about your choice of these white balloons as a prop.

I have been working with balloons and other inflatable things [for a while]. Like in Artscape [in 2018], I used the inflatable pool monkeys. And at Platform [in 2017], I used inflatable elements too. I feel like that’s a really good way for me to communicate the idea of breath, and Black breath. I am trying to put an emphasis on the importance of it, to get people to physically see that, and to leave a mark on a space, emphasizing to myself that I am capable of this human function and it is kind of a big necessity that people take for granted a lot.

With the idea of Black death and Black life, breath is so key with those two things, and that’s the way that I communicate that idea. I have also been using it to put intentions into the performance. If I have a mantra or an idea in my head during the performance, I can breathe it out into this object and leave it in the space, and that is a part of me leaving my energy in the space and altering the space.

*****

You can make an appointment to view the ephemera from Lynn Hunter’s performance at The Shed through February 27. The Shed’s next show, featuring local artists Anuj Malla and Emily Wallmueller, opens March 11. To see more of Hunter’s work, visit her website.

Photos by Grace Marshall except where otherwise noted.

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