Sand (2016) Performance still.
THOMAS ALBRECHT's performances employ physical endurance and metaphor to address existential inquiry and ritual. His body, of course, is the primary material, but recurring props—rocks, rope, spotlights, a briefcase—shift their meaning from one performance to another. A rope might be a noose or a tool of measurement. Simple actions of holding or dragging rocks, as well as breaking one rock with another, are metaphors for how humans respond to our own challenges. Thomas earned a BFA at Rhode Island School of Design, a Master of Arts in Religion at Yale and an MFA at University of Washington. He has performed and exhibited throughout the United States and internationally, most recently at Performance Is Alive at Satellite Art Show (NYC 2019), Garner Arts Center (Garnerville, NY 2019), ITINERANT Performance Art Festival (NYC 2018), and Woodstock Art Museum (Woodstock, NY 2018). His 2018 solo show unmoored at Joseloff Gallery at Hartford Art School (Hartford, CT) was a cycle of five performances. Thomas lives in Kingston, NY.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Between earning your BFA and MFA, you earned a Master of Arts in Religion at Yale. How does this degree influence your art practice?
Thomas Albrecht: I am interested in what individuals believe. Belief grounds what we give meaning to: what we value and what we don’t; what makes us get out of bed in the morning versus pulling the covers over our heads. Late writer David Foster Wallace asserted that, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” I agree with him. Much of our living is founded on what we give ourselves over to: how we, with whatever freedom we have in our lives, choose this over that. Where we draw lines and take stands. My time at Yale allowed me to pursue a line of inquiry that developed when I was very young and continues to the present day. I grew up a minister’s son in a large Midwestern church. I remain humbled by how human beings navigate life—individually and collectively—and how we sustain or shift belief when life does not go as planned. The amount of suffering and loss that accumulates during a lifetime must be countered by belief, which allows for remaking the world over and over again. And this often has nothing to do with organized religion. This process of world re/creation is absolutely necessary for anyone seriously involved with making. Giving meaning to images, objects, and ideas grounds the choices we make in forming a world we can believe in, work for, renew.
Like the Delayed Rays of a Star (2019) Performance still.
OPP: You’ve repeatedly worn the costume/uniform of a businessman. Is this a recurring persona?
TA: I like repetition in my work, whether it involves what is worn, used or actioned. The grey suit is a costume/uniform that is ubiquitous across cultures, symbolizing male power and success. It’s a nod to the “everyman.” This signifier is then routinely subverted by the actions I take in a given performance—like sullying the suit with material such as dirt or ash—or the situations I place myself in; e.g., walking into the sea or laying prostrate on a city sidewalk.
Dogs Barking in Winter (2018). Performance still.
OPP: What about the costume, that I interpret as a monk’s robe, in Dogs Barking in Winter (2018) or Shivaree (2018)?
TA: The clothing used for Dogs Barking in Winter and Shivaree is actually a simple, navy dress made of muslin by my textile-designer daughter, though I appreciate the read of it as a monk’s habit! Both performances were in response to reported events in my maternal grandmother’s young life, at the time of her marriage to my grandfather. “They made me wear a navy dress,” she shared in a low, hushed voice, at age 89. She had five daughters and told none of them of her experience of public shaming at the hands of her midwestern farming community. She told me, her grandson when I was 19. Being made to wear a navy dress at her wedding was her small town’s method of casting stones, extending an old narrative of shame: naked in the green garden; a scarlet letter; forbidden to wear white. In all of these stories, a young woman bears disgrace for the social “good”: naked, marked, humiliated. The desire to know, the desire to love, the desire to desire, all penned-in by guilt; recrimination for stepping beyond the line. Take this stone. Putting on the navy dress was, for me, taking up the stone of my grandmother’s lifelong shame—that she carried in secret—so that I could finally set it down. Though she passed in 2005, just shy of her 102nd birthday, I believe she was present for each performance.
sea/shore (2019) Performance still.
OPP: How do you think about the boulders that are recurring props and tools in your work?
TA: Actual stones have weight; stones connote heaviness, heft, permanence, time. Real stone wears away, eventually becoming sand and dust. In many of my performances since 2013, I have used actual rocks, as well as “fake” stones made of unfired clay that have the same weight, look, and feel. I like this slippage between “real” and fictive in my work.
My first performances with stones were collaborations with artist Rae Goodwin, and they drew inspiration from Mark Strand’s poem To Begin, where the struggle to initiate creative work is likened to “lifting the stones from one’s teeth.” Both Rae and I were navigating the end of significant personal relationships, and we recognized the very real challenge of being able to speak emotions that seemed impossible to voice. So we put stones in our mouths, which was discomfiting, difficult and strange. We held heavy stones over our heads to the point of physical exhaustion. Participating in these collaborations, I saw that stone, as metaphor—used in cultural narratives since time immemorial—could be used again and again to pose questions about the weight of loss and shame, and about perseverance, and it served to ground my work for years to come.
One of the most iconic still images of my work captures me standing, waist-high in the ocean in my everyman suit, my head level to the horizon, and holding a large unfired clay stone on my shoulder. This singular picture holds great meaning for me, and about my work as a whole.
Return (2015) Performance still.
OPP: On your website, you represent your performances in still images. I have no sense of the duration of these performances or the sounds. My impression is these performances generally last quite a while. Can you talk about the duration of your work?
TA: My performances are quite minimal, and often durational. Duration, for me, involves a test of body and mind, both as artist and for witnesses of my work. I do not practice my performances, so each one is a unique experience for me as maker, and for those observing. I like the improvisational demands this way of working sets up for me, challenging me to think through my choices while making, in real time; and to remain vigilantly attuned to what is taking place as my body and mind tire. This way of making is not so dissimilar to the way I move through the rest of my living. Life for me is an endurance test of mind, body and soul, none of which is separate from the other. Observation, patience and awareness are key.
Catch-As-Catch-Can (2014) Performance still.
OPP: Do your performances include sound?
TA: While spoken language does not regularly enter into my performances, silence, or quiet, is used as a strategy to focus viewers’ attention on the action, gesture or movement taking place. I employ sound repetitively to disrupt expectations of a given space and as a reminder that time cycles: a shovel dragging through dirt along an old factory floor, hour upon hour; a clay stone is pounded repeatedly until it returns to dust, the echo reverberating in a freight elevator; a body jumping up and down while trying to catch a balloon tied to one’s wrist, the resulting sound of breathing, bodily fatigue and disappointment.
A Certain Distance (2018) Performance still.
OPP: Tell us about the series of performances you did for unmoored (2018) at the Joseloff Gallery at the Harford Art School.
TA: It was an incredible opportunity to produce the cycle of five performances that constituted unmoored. I remain extremely grateful to the director for granting me such incredible trust and support in the development of this personally significant body of work. I am not certain I will have another opportunity quite like the one I was afforded for unmoored. I originally was going to install still images of prior work, but after visiting the gallery and feeling very unexcited about representing live art via a collection of quiet pictures, I jettisoned the idea and proposed to do a series of performances connected by a conceptual thread. The director was incredibly supportive of the idea, agreeing to open the exhibition with an empty gallery and trusting me to develop the performance series with very little lead time.
unmoored (2018) Installation shot.
OPP: How did each performance build upon the last?
TA: The series began in a completely empty exhibition space, and each performance left a trace or remnant for gallery viewers to experience. In the first performance, I traced and retraced a projected horizon, so that when overhead projectors were turned off, a drawn line—marked and erased for hours, like a tide marking a shore—hovered on an otherwise blank wall. The next performance left a halo of ash where an image had been hung, contemplated, and removed; a dusting that covered a large section of the gallery floor. In both circumstances, on wall and floor, the remaindered trace could be viewed as a temporal drawing. The third performance involved stillness, with me standing with a heavy clay stone, wedged into a corner of the gallery, trained under a bright spotlight of the kind used in theatre productions. The performance ended with my setting the stone down and turning the light back on viewers, before placing it back on the floor and unplugging it. The dress I wore for the performance was left to rest on the floor, in the same corner where I had stood, and the clay stone and spotlight remained as additional remnants. The fourth iteration involved dragging a wood palette covered with 40 clay stones through the whole of the open exhibition space. Unintended was the scratched passage of the palette across the gallery floor, a marked reminder of the absurd action of the performance. The final action involved removing each stone from the wood palette, and creating a bed of stones in front of the wall where the horizon line still hovered. I lay on the stone bed—beneath a frame of flickering light from an old projector—until I finally arose, shut off the lights of the gallery, turned off the projector, and exited the darkened space.
In the Wilderness (2018) Performance still.
OPP: Was there an overall narrative that a viewer could only understand if they saw the entire series?
TA: unmoored was significant for me as the performances could be experienced as distinct actions, yet each related to others through a conceptual thread based on repeated attempts—often absurd and futile—to mark experience and locate time. The gallery opening empty, and then activated each week through distinct performances that left physical traces, was a rare opportunity to experience space being created while memory could be witnessed and tracked. One could visit the gallery at any moment of the exhibition and find something to experience that was distinct and yet connected. Even empty, the gallery felt charged with anticipation of what was to come. What emerged was one of the most meaningful projects of my life, particularly the ongoing questions that continue to resonate beyond the clearing of the gallery space.
To see more of Thomas' work, please visit www.thomasalbrecht.com and follow him @thomasalbrecht69.