Before walking into the cave-like gallery space, I knew little about Beyond All Polarities, We Are _____, a participatory performance installation by Surabhi Saraf, Laura Hyunjhee Kim, and Ashwini Bhat. Once inside, I grabbed a hunk of clay from a table near the entrance and began to orient myself. What I noticed first were the videos projected at large scale on three gallery walls, depicting a large brown blob in space. Perhaps it was an asteroid, but a pulsating and breathing one. At times, it seemed more like a celestial jellyfish or animate mushroom, though its color was like the clay I held in my hand. But I first noticed this not with my eyes but with my hand. Unintentionally, I began to squeeze the clay, massaging it into what I soon realized was a similar shape to the blob on screen.
“Beyond All Polarities We Are ______;” July 7, 2022; photo: Dallis Willard
An enormous blob of clay, about the height of an adult, stood at the center of the gallery. Visitors were invited to make alterations to the blob, especially with the smaller hunks distributed at the entrance. I arrived only forty minutes into the performance, but it was clear that the audience had already made a significant collective mark on the object. The clay blob was already adorned with flowers, letters, coils, a miniature head, a single eye, a shell, a large smiley face, all manner of creatures, an outstretched hand, and numerous holes that resembled swallow nests. The clay blob was similar to the celestial one in that it was both alive and not alive. The blob was of course not living in the biological sense, but neither was it inert. It was full of life bestowed on it by the community. It was possibly an illusion, but after turning my attention back to the blob after talking with a friend for a while, it seemed to have grown in height somehow.
The power of unconscious, undirected action exhibited by the performance was fascinating. Other than the attendant handing out clay and telling participants that they could add to the blob, there were no instructions and no stated restrictions. People like me often fear anything with the word “participatory” in its description because we wonder if we’ll be asked to cluck like a chicken or improvise a dance. But there was no such pressure here. When the artists began circling the blob and waving their hands in unison, some audience members joined in (including my 11-month-old from her baby carrier) while most continued working with their clay, chatting, or just meditating.
The performance had a unique feel unlike anything I can remember. The ambient music, the continuous pulsing of the celestial blob, the text from the videos (“release,” “bodies porous like sand,” “who will you be tomorrow?”), and the ritualistic activity at the center of the gallery all created a meditative atmosphere. But it was not austere, it was social and lively while remaining quiet and contemplative. Audience members seemed to make what they wanted from the experience, but like my hand when I first held the clay, we all fell into a rhythm that made space for, and was shaped by, each one of us.
This event was hosted as part of SFMOMA’s Free First Thursdays, which offers free admission to the museum and events for all Bay Area residents. Learn more.