in the absence of presence: returning by Maura Nguyen Donohue
August 4, 2021
Maura Nguyen Donohue is the Writer-in-Residence for Platform 2021: The Dream of the Audience.
“in the absence of presence: returning” by Maura Nguyen Donohue reflects on returning, a new short film from Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born commissioned for Platform 2021: The Dream of the Audience.
Read and/or listen below.
going back-ing, coming back-ing
Turning, shifting. A return requires an exit, a turn away to prompt the turn back in towards somewhere, somewhen that was.
Sliding backward through an inverted, negative, black and white, woodland, with the smooth ease of a disembodied eye… Can I see a forest for its trees? Is there a pathway through this as I am being pulled in the retreat-ing from, or the re-ceding into. Have we begun a return from the wilds or returning to them. I feel a wind at my back, I wonder at my ease of passage. I glide. Okwui’s voice rises, accumulates, drops… I glide still.
The doubled inversions, the ghostly outlining of bare breasted figures in the second section of Returning conflate with a doubling of Okwui’s image that I also recently witnessed in a re-imagined “Poor People’s TV Room” at The New Museum’s “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.” I went, not knowing she was in the exhibit, heard her voice while telling myself that “not every singing woman who sounds like Okwui is Okwui” and then… it was Okwui, projected in ghostly selves upon herself and moving gently behind that magical plastic sheeting (often present in Okwui and Peter’s works) that serves as a border between us and our ancestors. I had gathered and re-used those sheets after Okwui’s run at New York Live Arts years ago for “drowning planet/disposable bodies” at La MaMa where I installed an ocean of reclaimed plastic bags. The fine filmy softness of that material and Okwui and Peter’s use of it as the breath space between those we deem living and those now assigned as dead, sets off a luscious cathexis.
Soaking in the doubled Okwui on screen, I feel the endlessness of an ancestral looping. The multiplicity of perspectives and convergences within a single entity. We carry the Audre Lorde reality of being more than single issue selves but here we are witness to the enactment of being more than the single self selves. She steps in and out of a common axis, blending and rifting with timelines.
She explains how her movement is an investigation of a first step in a long walk. Taking time before you start anything. As she moves to the song, I’m Gonna Dance on Your Head she opens a portal to the women who fought in the Women’s War in 1959, Nigeria. In 2017, we had a conversation about the influence of that history here. Okwui’s returning is a deep relationship with the reverberation of a single step and the tension that longtime partner and collaborator, Peter Born, answers in the post-show to a “film versus live performance” question by wondering if there isn’t a “new” for each presentation of the film. As he notes the absence of presence, he ponders “what is it that is absent?” As the collaborators discuss the energetic loop of liveness, the dream of an audience expands into and returns to the absence of an audience as the seed for need to dream of an audience.
Where’s the power plug?
There was a moment in the post-performance discussion between these longtime collaborators, when they crossed realities, Zoom-screens, and wires looking for Okwui’s laptop plug. How was that not an impromptu, while domestic, doubling again? As an artist, so curious about how other awe inducing magic makers arrive into their works I am whole-heartedly delighted by this returning from shamanic channeling being to housemate, partner… “No, honey, we’re on a Zoom right now,” parents. I appreciate them describing slow time residency opportunities as compared to the rushing realities or the challenge of editing alone with their remote collaborators. Running concurrent to the loss, is the reach towards a synchronous shared loop, however fleeting. To be, as Peter says, in a room together again. And then, as the image fades to black on offspring, Umechi’s “Bye Bye,” Okwui’s voice was still reaching across the divide calling forth the names of those she had seen in the Zoom live chat. We are here. We were here. On the other side of the dream.