Last Act

Every Ocean Hughes’s art of dying

Every Ocean Hughes, River, 2023. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 2023. Photo: Maria Baranova. Lindsay Rico and Geo Wyex.

DID VIRGINIA WOOLF drown herself in the Ouse because of the poetry of the act—the river as a passage between life and death—or because it seemed to her the most practical method available? Likely both. Rivers have always evoked otherworldly crossings. The Styx of Greek mythology, the Sai-no-Kawara of Japanese folklore, the west bank of the Nile of Ancient Egypt—all were envisioned as gateways to the afterlife. There is something about the constancy of river water, traveling beyond sight or into the vastness of an ocean, that reminds us of our own impermanence. It’s comforting to render death through such serene poetic imagery. We’re less practiced, however, at facing the close-up realities of dying.

Look out of the windows of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Susan and John Hess Family Theater and you’ll see the Hudson surging by, indifferent to the flashy development reshaping Manhattan’s west side. In River, a new performance by Every Ocean Hughes that recently debuted in the Whitney’s theater, the river became a place for communion with the dead. River was the fourth and final part of Hughes’s “Alive Side” program: four works (an exhibition of photographs, a film, and two performances) all drawn from Hughes’s experience as a death doula, for which she guides people through the dying process. River completes a trilogy of performance-based pieces, the first two of which irradiated the politics and practicalities of caring for the deceased and their loved ones. In the latest performance, Hughes leans closer to the “other” side, granting an imaginative attention to the unknowns of the afterlife. There is mention of a visit to a celebrity psychic, an otherworldly crossing in a bathtub, and a rendition of Anohni’s “Hope There’s Someone” played on a banjo.

In the theater, three elevated platforms with stairs on either side served as stages for the four performers while demarcating an “above” and a “below.” Above, performers Lindsay Rico and Geo Wyex soliloquized about people who have died and the remnants of life they left behind. Wyex, strumming the banjo while looking out the window, described to Rico the process of “shoring,” communing with the dead on the banks of a river. Below, things were murkier. Aaron Ricks prowled, crawled, and somersaulted without speaking, a traveler between worlds. Timothy Johnson sat in a bathtub, counting and piling loose change, reminiscing to no one, another esoteric figure traveling away from the “alive side.”

Every Ocean Hughes, Help the Dead, 2019. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, January 2023. Photo: Maria Baranova. Geo Wyex and Colin Self.

Hughes began this trilogy with Help the Dead in 2019, before Covid killed millions of people, before the sudden proliferation of bodies filling freezer trucks and hospital corridors forced us to ask questions of how to manage our dead. In Help the Dead, two performers, Colin Self and Wyex, delivered a musical lecture resembling a death doula workshop. Dressed in white aprons, Self and Wyex spoke directly to the audience as they described life reviewing (having a dying person reflect deeply on their life), the tools for preparing a corpse (glue, tampons, stage makeup), and the euphemisms we ascribe to the dead (“crossing over,” “kicking the bucket,” “giving up the ghost”). A script was passed around to a few audience volunteers, who each read an introduction from a participant in an actual death workshop. Help the Dead is informed by community responses to the AIDS epidemic, a situation that not only demanded militant activism but also the creation of a collective grassroots care system. In the face of neglect, caring for the dying becomes a political imperative, and moments like the one where volunteers assumed the roles of workshop participants brought that imperative to life. (Conversely, one instance of improvised movement in Help the Dead, when planted performers emerged from the audience to dance, felt lazily thrown in.)

In the second work in the trilogy, a video installation titled One Big Bag, performer Lindsay Rico speaks directly to the camera, again detailing the process of guiding a body through dying. Many objects required for the task—soap, gloves, Advil, sage, bells, hairbrushes—hang from twine in a small black room. (River, by contrast, inventoried the effects of a dying loved one: thumb supports, pornography, toothpaste—things suddenly and poignantly useless.) As Rico talks, she moves about the suspended stuff, bells ringing and bottles clinking. She enacts brute, arbitrary gestures (choreographed by Miguel Gutierrez), banging her fists into her hips and slapping the backs of her knees against the floor, a constant reminder of the materiality of the body, even when functionless.

Every Ocean Hughes, One Big Bag, 2021, single channel video, color, sound, 40 minutes. Lindsay Rico.

The practical realities for death doulas are frank and eviscerating: how a doula almost froze the dead body of a child by using too much ice, or how a face settles into a resting expression on the second day after death. Rico catalogues the books that people have asked to be read to them in their last days—Hamlet; Eat, Pray, Love; The Unauthorized Biography of Liza Minnelli. It’s the kind of humorous and unsentimental touch with which we don’t often use when speaking of dying.

Museums and galleries have long provided settings for performers to subvert dramatic conventions, but Hughes borrows readily from the practices of theater. River, the work most invested in the unknown side of dying, also hewed closest to theatrical forms, with one long scene of dialogue as its centerpiece. Monologues were delivered with a mannered gravitas (Rico is a particularly grounding and assured presence in both One Big Bag and River). In some ways, the adeptness of the actors to command presence felt at odds with the work’s raw origin of Hughes’s own experiences as a doula. Unlike the volunteer script reading, which had a real liveness, the performers recited their scripts like the professional actors they are, and their interactions churned up little dynamic tension.

View of “Every Ocean Hughes: Alive Side,” 2023, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

Then again, Hughes wasn’t making theater. The works shifted between modes of performance—song, scene, lecture, monologue, audience participation, dance—to create a form free of conventionally dramatic shape. Such a form is less like the act of acting than the act of caring: methodical and unembellished. Caring, Anne Boyer writes in The Undying (2019), is like doing the dishes: “It is not interesting or remarkable work in itself, but . . . it is the work on which everything else depends.” Hughes, like Boyer, suggests this is exactly why such work demands our attention.

In the foyer outside the theater, a series of Hughes’s black-and-white photographs showed the rotting pilings in the Hudson. Its piers once acted as a gathering place for queer people, particularly during the 1980s, when many of those gatherers died from AIDS, deaths neglected by the state. As sites like Little Island develop the old waterfront into tourist-friendly real estate, Hughes draws our attention to the remaining wooden pilings, makeshift burial markers for vanished communities that some would prefer stay forgotten. This spectral architecture lingers in the mind, acting as the most poignant tether to the dead.

“Alive Side” ran at the Whitney Museum of American Art from January 14 to April 2.