Valhalla, I Am Coming

Nathaniel Lee on Guido van der Werve’s Running to Rachmaninoff Run

Guido van der Werve's Running to Rachmaninoff Run, November 24, 2013. Photo: Nathaniel Lee.

WITH TEMPERATURES in the mid-twenties and a forecasted high of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, not to mention a “wind advisory” in effect until 6 PM, the last Sunday before Thanksgiving in New York City began as either the first real day of winter or the absolute last day of fall, depending on your personal calculus of late-November cold. It was on this morning, around 10 AM, that a dozen or so spandex-clad runners began to assemble in the foyer of an otherwise shuttered Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea. Their objective: to run, as a group, from the gallery, thirty miles north to Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, the burial place of Russian-born composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Additionally, each runner was to carry a bouquet of chamomiles—the national flower of the late composer’s home country—on his person (all the participating runners happened to be male), and present them at the gravesite upon arrival. The runners came via the open invitation from performance artist and filmmaker Guido van der Werve to participate in his annually reoccurring performance piece—now in its fourth iteration—the Running to Rachmaninoff Run, which took place this year as one of Performa 13’s final events.

Van der Werve first ran to Rachmaninoff in the fall of 2010, as part of one of his characteristically numbered art works, Nummer dertien, Effugio A: Chamomile, Russia’s National Flower or Running to Rachmaninoff, for that year’s “Greater New York” exhibition at MoMA PS1. Van der Werve initially performed the work alone, departing from the museum and documenting his journey with a 35-mm camera. As it happens with most performance art, the documentation now serves as a stand-in for the work itself—364 days a year that is. To fully experience Running to Rachmaninoff, one must, and can (once a year), participate as object. How many so-called “endurance” performance artworks can boast such an inclusive yet exacting proviso?

Chris Burden may still be the unforgettable epitome of the self-sacrificing artist, but he, and he alone, took a bullet. I took part in the run, and—though I have been a light-duty runner for fifteen years—by mile twenty my brain became so deprived of glycogen, and my thoughts subsequently so incoherent and irrational, the pain of a gunshot wound began to sound better than hobbling through the last ten miles. I was “hitting the wall,” and had already fallen far behind the pack of eight or nine remaining runners. Could Caspar David Friedrich have captured this pathos, a solitary figure in a (seemingly never-ending) landscape of Westchester strip-malls? Then, suddenly, I found myself running with Guido. The artist had dropped back from the bunch to shepherd me through the last remaining mile before our final pit stop, where I was able to find a packet of “energy gel” in the ride-along van that the gallery had graciously provided. The sugars brought my brain and body back online, and I rejoined the group as we wound through the final, wooded stretch of the run. The sun had set by the time we made it to Rachmaninoff. The flowers were laid and, like most organized runs, photos were taken and schwag distributed. And within a few minutes we all, finishers and non-finishers alike, were in the van heading home.

Nathaniel Lee is a writer/runner based in New York.