Performance art offers viewers a suspended sort of time. Over one week, in Montréal, Soleil Launière presented us with three works in three quite different spaces, bringing mind and spirit together in a series of actions entitled ATSHAK. Originally from Mashteuiatsh, on the shores of Lac Saint-Jean, Launière developed these works as a triptych, the constituent parts of which could be considered separately, but acquire deeper meaning when we take the time to view them as an interconnected whole, which is indeed what I hope to do in this article. During my experience of each performance, I felt a connection that seemed to hang suspended in the time between actions. Here, I aim to lay out a sensitive reading of the perception-based experiences that viewing Soleil Launière’s work necessarily involves. Later this same week, Launière also presented an artist talk where she discussed duration in performance, some excerpts of which I cite in this article.
To get to La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, one must first cross Montréal’s busy and noisy Boulevard Saint-Laurent. In La Centrale’s window, a red handprint seems to evoke both a bodily mark, and an abandoned shell. We enter the gallery with the noise of the street, only to be struck by the silence of the space, its stillness instantly taking up residence in our heads.
A large piece of golden-coloured fabric is suspended from the ceiling, whereas on the floor, we are welcomed by a tree divided into three parts. Its trunk is made of red beads that seem to run like a river. A small pile of soil sits nearby. An image of reparation appears and endures in my mind’s eye. We already know we’ll be here for quite a while.
We get settled into the cushions, benches and sofa provided. Everyone chooses their places, and we remain motionless, or almost motionless. All eyes focus on one spot, creating invisible threads connecting us to the woman in front of us, and her slow gestures. Her hands repeat the same movements over and over: held up in the air, burning sage, kneading soil. And wiping tears away.
The spirit of place
The place where we find ourselves is charged with history. Here, in Montréal, between these white walls, La Centrale has historically given voice to women, but not always to all women. Soleil Launière’s performance is part of a programming cycle focused on other voices, and other presences.
Who lives in this space? What energies? The space tells stories, delivers messages. If we aren’t able to listen, why are we here? I felt this space needed to be anchored. While walking in the neighbourhood, I came across a tree cut down, lying in an abandoned space between two garbage cans. I decided to bring it back with me. It was just lying there, forgotten. Why aren’t we able to notice the things around us?
Soleil’s practice is rooted in her extraordinary sense of presence, and in the strength of how she transmits it. Facing us, her entire body bears witness. Some people write books. Others protest in the street. For her part, Soleil stands silently, with her hands raised, moving into a space of resistance. For four hours. We who remain here motionless with her can feel the duration of her action in our own bodies. We keep our positions. As if our eyes were holding her up, invisibly paying tribute.
At a certain point, Soleil grabs onto the piece of suspended fabric and leans toward the floor. Then, suddenly, she falls. Silently, on the ground, with all her will, she transforms her fall into something else. Leaning in to leap out of herself, only to come back in the end. This also is when my tears arrive, in this moment of embodied self-sacrifice she offers us. Later in the performance, when time has become stretched out to the point where we get lost in it, she comes to us individually, giving each member of the public a small amount of damp soil.
Another space, another anchor-point. At Montréal’s Grande Bibliothèque, Soleil sits at the entrance to the auditorium. This is a place of movement, of passage. Near the wall, between the door and a large window, her tree and piece of golden fabric define and delineate the space. Part of her face is covered in a red bandage. Blind and kneeling, her hands outstretched, she waits for us to understand. Someone from the public approaches, sits down on the small red cushion facing her. The encounter goes on as long as we want, each person is free to choose. Sometimes it lasts fifteen minutes, sometimes an hour and fifteen minutes. Every interaction is different, and yet we are all moved, and we all take something away from this experience, something almost invisible, but very present. Soleil has offered each participant a bit of soil. Here, again, she uses earth as a collaborator, and as a vector of questioning between herself and us, the public. What will we do with this soil? Will we keep it? Throw it away? Eat it? We have become responsible for what is given to us.
This soil came from a bag, but it’s still soil, it came from somewhere. Soleil likes this image, it makes her smile. Her laughter is deeply rooted in the sacred. And when she laughs, the entire action resonates. Smiling expels silence.
The third and last performance in the series is presented at MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels), in the context of an event bringing together Indigenous and Tibetan artists. The event involves short performances, and excerpts from theatre and dance pieces that take place on the space’s stage. Soleil’s performance is quite brief, but she moves through the space with a slowness that makes us hang on her every gesture. Leaning forward, she moves with difficulty, her snail’s pace gives us time to take it all in. Resembling a long, clumsy bridal train, her golden fabric is soaked with water, leaving a dark trail behind her, a living trail that ends up evaporating over the course of her action. During the moments of silence following, the fabric remains, like a shadow cast across the stage. As if the silence could leave its mark, as if it could seep into our minds.
I was recently thinking about what inspires me in my performance practice, and I came back to my father. He barely speaks. I am very close to him. Still today, we can spend two hours together without saying a word. When I was little, I didn’t speak much either. Everyone thought I was deaf, because I stayed in my own bubble for a long time, without talking. Eventually, I was tested, and they said, “no, this child can hear perfectly well, she’s just stubborn”.
The three performances forming Soleil Launière’s series Atshak took place in Montréal on April 24, 2019 at La Centrale galerie Powerhouse, on April 29 at Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, during a conference hosted by the Centre interuniversitaire d’études et de recherches autochtones, and on May 1, at Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI), during the Indigenous and Tibetan Sharing event, organized by Coop Le Milieu. Transcribed text is from Soleil Launière’s embodied talk that took place May 3, 2019 at UQAM’s dance department, in collaboration with PRint and GRIAV.