Two women sit across a table from each other, waiting. Eventually, one of them emits a chant that has the eerie timbre of damp fingers tracing the rim of a crystal glass. The silent woman clinically shines a light into the singer's mouth, where a miniature camera translates the sound into pulsating visual images that appear on a screen. Thus begins Mercy, the music-theater collaboration between composer-interdisciplinary artist Meredith Monk and installation artist Ann Hamilton. Monk is the chanter, Hamilton the examiner whose technical alchemy originates from a pinhole camera inserted into Monk's mouth.
"The audience sees what my mouth is seeing," says the 58-year-old Monk of her newest show, Mercy, speaking by phone from New York. Working with a group of performers she has dubbed "The House"--singers, dancers, and all-around charismatic presences--Monk has gained an international reputation as a mosaicist who assembles fragments of myth, history, and a kind of magical realism into vivid theatrical experiences. Her textured vocal sound ranges from the unnerving syllabic babbling of old crones to the uncanny harmonic overtones of a cosmic choir. And her movement often resembles the slightly awkward, ecstatic dances of some lost tribal culture. "I'm not a choreographer. Steps are not what I'm working with," she insists. "What I do is more primal. I channel energy, not codified movement or music."
If this sounds a bit like late Shirley MacLaine, rest assured that Monk's tiny feet rest solidly on the ground and her chakras are securely balanced. She transports audiences from sensual to mystical realms of experience through carefully orchestrated journeys that are sometimes, literally, trips. Her 1971 work Vessel, for instance, loosely based on the life of Joan of Arc, begins in a dim loft space and ends in a huge parking lot where a welder ignites the flame that incinerates Joan. Monk often uses shifts in scale to suggest a kind of mythic transformation. In her 1976 film Quarry, a child's fears reflect the anxieties of a victimized humanity.
Mercy continues Monk's ongoing investigation of communities in the grip of malevolent forces (the Holocaust, ignorance, spiritual malaise). Her approach to mercy, that gentlest of qualities, is both intimate and expansive, and that's where Hamilton comes in. The two women have long shared an interest in finding the miraculous possibilities of mundane materials. Hamilton, who has created installations incorporating everything from cascading flour (in a Walker Art Center exhibit of 1991) to rotting carcasses, confronts and overwhelms her viewers with sensual stimuli. Monk explains that in Mercy, the two women have worked "to look at reality from the inside, to create a tactile sense of wonder--as in awe, and as in horror."
Co-presented this Saturday, February 23 by Walker Art Center and the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, Mercy unfurls a series of cryptic, often startling, episodes. The miniature cameras secreted on and inside the bodies of some of the eight performers project images that are simultaneously ominous and empathetic: a close-up of a doctor's face as he examines a patient ("a doctor who listens, listening," as Monk puts it); refugees who walk toward a woman and seem to disappear into her (inspired by a French woman who saved over 1,000 Jewish children in WWII). In one scene Hamilton, silhouetted behind a scrim, systematically dismembers and ingests an object resembling a giant feathered spider. Whether this is a ceremonial rite or a brutal attack is hard to say.
Although it premiered last August, Mercy reflects a post-September 11 reality where compassion has taken on the significance of a ritual cleansing and exquisite images of horrific events are embedded in the national consciousness. "We wanted to create sacred, magical space for people to enter," says Monk. "But it's also a present-tense situation, down to the bone. It's real time and timeless."