PRINT Summer 1982


Waking Up to How We Sleepwalk

ONE AFTERNOON EARLY LAST FALL, Knud Jensen, the founder and director of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, opened the gates of that institution to activists in the Danish and Scandinavian antinuclear movement. “I’m getting a certain amount of flak for this from people at other museums,” Jensen told me. Down below, about a hundred feet down the bluff and then beyond a swath of lawn and fringe of sand, the Oresund glistened in the late afternoon light—a calm blue sea strait, and, in the distance, Sweden. The museum’s wide lawn teemed with visitors in all kinds of attire, carrying banners and posters, gathering around booths, collecting literature, sampling pastries, and listening to poetry reading. One group, near the edge of a small grove, huddled about a folksinger; others meandered through the museum’s glass corridors, from one special exhibit to another. Everything was part of a calling out for peace—specifically, for nuclear disarmament. Thousands of visitors had converged from as far away as Oslo, Stockholm, and Hamburg for this day of vigilance and celebration.

“I keep being told,” Jensen continued, “that it’s not a good thing to mix museumship and politics like this. But I don’t know. My coworkers here at Louisiana and I have gone to a tremendous effort to create this sanctuary for art, to see to its long-term preservation, so that it will be here for our children and grandchildren; I guess we consider it part of our curatorial responsibility to do whatever we can to make sure that they will be here to enjoy it.”

As we walked among the Calders and the Arps, I noticed that some of the visitors carried black plastic bags filled with air, the necks tied with string. Several people had them, and there didn’t seem to be any organizing principle as to who did and who didn’t. If you asked what the bags signified, their carriers simply said they’d been given them at the entrance and then moved on.

The air was beginning to cool, although the sun was still high in the sky when we heard the bells of the neighboring church ring six o’clock. We continued to stroll about, talking and listening. It must have been five after six before we began to notice: first one person and then another, and then dozens all over the grounds, stood frozen, stock still. Children with their mothers, businessmen, teenagers, farmer types—isolated individuals all over the grounds stood deathly still, limp black bags hanging by their sides.

Only not so still after all. Looking away and then looking again, you’d see that they’d have moved, infinitessimally. They were all moving, in suspension, maybe a few feet each minute—but moving nonetheless, toward the bluff: Afternoon of the Living Dead. By six-fifteen, the “zombies” had coalesced into three vague groups: one proceeding out from the cafeteria terrace to the north, another down the gulley that bisects the sculpture park, and the last setting out across the wide lawn to the south. All moved slowly toward and down the face of the bluff. The rest of us looked on; some giggled nervously. Little kids ran up to the zombies and tried to distract them, to no effect. They simply crept on—not even grim exactly, just absent; emptily compelled. The rest of us jockeyed for position; some took photographs, while others seemed to become even more transfixed than the zombies and stood motionless, staring at their glacial advance.

By about six-forty-five, the three columns had begun to converge at the foot of the bluff. Now they continued on out across the narrow lawn toward the sand and the strait, seeming utterly deliberate, utterly mindless. There were about two hundred of them. Their black bags hung limp. Any laughter from the onlookers had stopped. The silence was immediate; it wasn’t that we didn’t know or weren’t thinking about what would happen next—time seemed to have congealed. Our anticipations had become as suspended as their gait. We watched.

The walkers kept advancing, inevitably; still, it was a shock when the first one entered the water. Or, rather, failed to stop at the water’s edge. The wavelets slapped across the man’s shoes—a few minutes later he was immersed to his knees. All the rest followed him in, mindless but determined; the sea received them. The water must have been cold, but they continued on. As the small waves rose and fell, wet clothes clung to limbs and torsos not yet entirely submerged. This death march became erotic. Cloth outlined sinew: thigh, groin, arm, breast, hair.

One child broke into tears as the water reached his waist. Unable to continue, humiliated, he bounded free of his trance and out of the water into the arms of his grandmother, who’d been watching from the shore—the strangest figure of hope I’ve ever seen. The others were in the sea up to their necks before they began to turn. The black bags bobbed alongside their heads; now moving parallel to the shore, the zombies let them go. Downshore a bit, a low canoe dock jutted out from the beach, and the heads now drifted underneath it, beginning finally to arch back inland on the other side. Slowly, one by one, the sleepwalkers emerged from the water and filed—still trance-slow, dripping, shivering violently—through the doors of a large converted boathouse.

While they were still filing in, I entered the boathouse to talk with some of these walkers. Once inside, one by one they snapped to; friends offered them towels and cups of hot rum. It took over half an hour before the last made it through the doors and back to life. Kirsten Dehlholm, the leader of one of the columns, a woman in her mid-thirties with sharp features, punkishly styled, was drying her hair. “So,” she asked, “what did you think of our trained snails?” We were presently joined by Per Flink Basse, a tall young man who’d headed the cafeteria group, and Else Fenger, a somewhat older woman who’d led the lawn contingent. The three of them, along with architect Charlotte Cecilie (who wasn’t present on this occasion) have been working together since 1977, when they pooled their artistic resources (Dehlholm had previously been a sculptor, Basse a set designer, and Fenger a lithographer) in founding the Billedstofteater. “That translates roughly as ‘picture theater,’” explained Basse, “or ‘theater of the image.’ We are basically a group of performance artists interested in a theater built out of spaces, rooms, occasions, images, rather than literary sources. We often try to involve others in our conceptions—we usually stage them in public spaces around Copenhagen. We almost always work in slow motion, usually exploring themes from everyday life—eating, sleeping, walking—slowing things down to help people notice them. In a way that’s what we were doing here—trying to find an image, a way of helping people to notice what is going on.”

I asked how the performance had come about. “We were contacted several months ago by the people here at Louisiana who were organizing this Peace Festival,” recalled Fenger. “We came out to look at the site, since all of our performances arise from the occasion provided by the site. After we got our idea, we sent out about three hundred letters to people who had worked with us before or expressed interest after seeing our work—we’ve developed quite a network. We said we were planning a performance for the Peace Festival and that the one criterion was that they must not be afraid of water. As you can see, about two hundred people responded.”

“We had two meetings at the beginning of the week,” Dehlholm took up the story, “and then we performed our snail walk today. Most of us are strangers, but it’s incredible the intimacy and fellow feeling this kind of thing brings out. Look at everyone.” Throughout the large room people were hugging each other, laughing, stripping out of wet clothes and putting on dry ones. Any anxious feelings of propriety seemed to have given way.

I walked over and asked one young man, who was punching his head through a turtleneck sweater, why he’d joined the performance. “You know,” he said, “a few months ago even, I was more or less ignoring this issue. But Haig and Reagan have really frightened us. When they say it is possible to win a limited nuclear war, we suddenly realized what they’re talking about—they meant a war limited to Europe.”

“It’s funny,” said a woman who’d been listening to us. “I had all kinds of associations during the walk besides nuclear war. For one thing I found myself thinking of the boat people in Vietnam. And then—it was so strange—I realized that this is one of the narrowest points between Denmark and Sweden, and that it was out of the little village harbors up and down this coast that the Danes smuggled their Jews across to neutral Sweden during the early days of the Nazi occupation.”

“I don’t consider myself particularly religious,” another listener offered. “But I kept thinking of baptism—and of death and resurrection.” “For me,” another woman said, “the whole thing became incredibly compelling—almost primal. It stopped being political and became biological. I felt the pull of the sea: I felt primordially alive, and then this feeling of feeling so alive came back on itself and became powerfully political. Because that after all is what we must fight now to save. Nuclear war is a threat, precisely, of primordial proportions.”

A few minutes later I was standing out on the wood-plank porch of the boathouse, facing the water, talking with Jensen once again. “It’s very difficult, you know,” he said, “to find new images which can wake people up to the horrible reality of this nuclear-war danger; this is vital work which artists are especially qualified to take on, since their very livelihood is image-making. The whole world seems to be sleepwalking toward a holocaust. Maybe the image of such sleepwalking paradoxically can help to wake people up.”

“Do you realize how long we were out there?” said Dehlholm as she joined us on the porch. “Almost two hours! It’s incredible: it felt like maybe ten minutes. It was strange,” she continued. "At first I felt incredibly alone, cut off, isolated. It was a scary kind of feeling. But then there came this very strong feeling of being with others, of togetherness, of communion. When two hundred people concentrate that strongly, it gives off an aura. Ordinarily you have a thousand ideas kicking around, and at first we were having our various associations, but as time went on, it became like an emptiness for us. Everything became suspended. It was like a meditational exercise.

“No,” she said, and paused for a moment, searching for the right word. “No, it became like a prayer.”

Twilight was descending. The strait was flat and silver, and on the water two hundred black balloons drifted out toward the gathering night. Dozens of ships, their lights gradually flickering on, coursed north and south through the narrow strait. It occurred to me that this very place—a crucial access for Soviet shipping out of the Baltic and into the North Sea—could well be one of the first targets for irradiation were a nuclear war ever to begin, and that the folk laughing and partying in the hangar behind me could well be some of that war’s first victims.

“Two paths lie before us,” Jonathan Schell recently concluded in his remarkable essay, “Reflections: The Fate of the Earth” (The New Yorker, February 1, 8, and 15, 1982). “One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path . . . we in effect become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachment to life will weaken: our vision, blinded to the abyss that has opened at our feet, will dim and grow confused; our will, discouraged by the thought of trying to build on such a precarious foundation anything that is meant to last, will slacken; and we will sink into stupefaction, as though we were gradually weaning ourselves from life in preparation for the end. On the other hand, if we reject our doom, and bend our efforts toward survival . . . then the anesthetic fog will lift: our vision, no longer straining not to see the obvious, will sharpen; our will, finding secure ground to build on, will be restored; and we will take full and clear possession of life again. One day—and it is hard to believe that it will not be soon—we will make our choice.”

To say that artists and writers today have a particular responsibility with regard to this choice is to acknowledge that this particular crisis—the specter of obliteration—bleeds into all areas of human life, and most profoundly into those very areas that have always constituted the life source of culture and civilization. Being, time, vision, presence, co-presence, tradition, posterity—the fundamentals out of which art has always sprung—today all of these are in jeopardy. It’s simple: artists are inexorably implicated in the current crisis of vision.

Lawrence Weschler is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, was published this spring by the University of California Press.

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