Besides my partner, I seldom hold anyone for more than a moment. I don’t have a baby to cradle. My parents are met with clasps that last only as long as our hellos. A college friend I rarely see still gives emphatic and tight hugs that endure a half second longer than normal, their warmth undeniable. My embosom, however, is like the word itself: rather formal, perhaps perfunctory, a weird shape.
This may stem from my assembly line greetings at family functions. Hugging relative after relative takes on an expediency and becomes a performance of affection. I have two grandparents, eight aunts and uncles, and nine cousins—plus their partners—on my father’s side. To say hi, we hug, and—out of efficiency—each lasts two seconds at most. Added together, we’re talking less than a minute of contact.
I found myself doing this math while watching two performers hold each other for hours at Faurschou, the expansive Greenpoint gallery that opened in 2019. The Embrace, Miles Greenberg’s live installation, has a gentle conceit: two performers who do not know one another silently embrace in a glass box for six hours. Slight costume choices further augment the performance’s tactile nature: the performers don only skin-tone underwear, and they put on white contact lenses that obscure their vision and invite other sensory ways of seeing. (The free installation is on view each Saturday from 1–7 PM; on other days, a large projection shares a recording of it.)
A mentee of Marina Abramović, Greenberg creates durational art that, here, shapeshifts as its performers become breathing statues and find, and re-find, their embrace.
That these performers are unknown to each other reminded me of other strange intimacies. In high school, a theater director had his Tony and Maria spend an entire rehearsal, unwatched, holding one another. A friend’s ancestors had been in arranged marriages; while he disagreed with the practice, my friend admired that some who engaged in it believed in the heart’s capacity to love anyone, including strangers.
Last weekend, I arrived to watch that day’s performers, Maxi Hawkeye Canion and Nadira Foster-Williams, enter their temporary home.
“Two steps… one step,” a staff member advised as the performers felt their way down a ladder and onto their stage: an oval and almost tawny, speckled boulder handpicked from an upstate quarry. It boasts—for a rock—a rather ergonomic design: the smooth surface provides a seat for the pair, and its mild slant lets one performer rise higher than the other to be the big spoon—not that the poses always reflected those of enamored lovers.
The performers became friends lazing at a park: one laid sideways, arms circling the waist of the other, who sat up straight with hands extending behind. They became a parent and child stuck at home on a weekend: rain drizzled outside the gallery, and one performer rested a head on the other’s knee. And they became, most familiar to me, a dual-income household asleep during yet another Netflix movie: one leaned their head back on the other’s chest as four eyes struggled to stay open.
In each tableau, the metamorphic rock transformed from picnic blanket to family rug to Ikea couch. These modifications might evolve in seconds but then hold for an hour.
“Did you know they were alive?” one man asked his companion. “I thought they were a sculpture.”
Others may have too; as much as I was observing the performers, I was also observing their observers.
Greenberg’s installation calls for specific bodies; a casting notice said, “We are looking for performers of color.” I was aware of how visitors, specifically white ones, approached the living art, whose bare chests and near nudity increased vulnerability. Most noticeably, a trio of older white folks, who were not speaking English, stood touching-distance from the box, circled and pointed at it, and took pictures on a phone with the shutter sound on. They spoke at an excited volume, which, in Faurschou’s cavernous space, echoed noisily. The performers, seemingly aware of the guests, looked their way and cocked their heads, either posing or taking in the shadows of the curious creatures behind the glass.
Later, a young white man took a video of the performers from behind.
Interaction with the art varied, and in some cases it was murky whether that engagement was reverential, icky, or somehow both.
A white gaze may limit interpretations of the performers just as their white contacts limit their view and blue their audience. Literally blinding, the lenses, in their chosen color, might also connote a metaphorical shortsightedness of the art world’s majority white patrons.
The Embrace also carries a softer meaning. Two people of color, holding one another for six hours, do not have to justify their existence—and their tenderness should be celebrated. In A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, the protagonist, Usher, says, “The anti-black world we live in gets so strung out on this colorblind ‘love is love’ bullshit, forgetting that ‘love is love’ will never be true until Black love matters and Black lust matters.” Within the worldview Usher shares, Greenberg’s art is also a protest.
And what a pure one it is. Barely clothed and propped atop ancient sediment, the performers, relaxed in each other’s arms and lips gently parted, exuded a prediluvian simplicity. But the flood always comes.
At some point in the middle of the durational performance, a sound sputtered throughout the gallery. I thought it was the air conditioning kicking up, but the noise was more sporadic—and ominous. I looked outside; it was a bright August day, 80-something and humid, but hail was thumping down. The performers’ breathing and movement became more kinetic as they grabbed one another and sheltered their heads in each other’s necks, evoking a banished Adam and Eve. I, too, in that moment, wanted someone to hold.
The Embrace is on display live at Faurschou in Greenpoint on Saturdays through September 17.