Drop the ceiling

I've been thinking about losses this year, about losing someone, losing some dream of a place, losing an idea of home. I've been thinking about how we make ourselves out of loss or succumb entirely to it. About political loss and personal loss, and the losses that happen in between them. "Everyone thinks that awful comes by itself, but it doesn't," writes Brian Doyle for The Sun. "It comes hand in hand with normal. No one talks about this... The awful is inside the normal... We know this, but we don't talk about it."[1] I would add that the awful can also come in moments of extreme beauty, of transformation. I think a lot about how we breathe into these moments, even as our lungs feel like they might close.

At Proyecto Poporopo, Cecilia Porras Sáenz's ambitious three-room installation, Región Antes, makes use of three materials: clay, rubble, and charcoal. The first room has a thick layer of wet clay across the floor, and a small pathway circles the perimeter. A clay-covered bed sits in the center, and Porras has posted a small piece of paper, handwritten on the far wall. Footprints mark the thick, soft clay on the floor, and its earthy smell dampens the room.

In the second room, Porras dropped the ceiling several feet, installing dry wall that hovers uncomfortably near the visitor's head. On the floor, she piled demolition debris. My chest tightens as I walk through the room, precarious on the shifting rocky mess below me. I think of asbestos and dust and lungs, the absence of safety codes. I think safety is a banal idea, after all, since we're all dying every day. But still, I like to breathe, the sensation of in and out, and I am reminded that it is not a given, but a gift. In the pile of debris, some stones stand upright, small sculptural touches within the abstraction of the rubble.

In the third room, a mountain of charcoal leans into a corner, its deep blackness heightened by the stark illumination of single bulbs hanging down into the space. At the opening, a young woman squats near the edge of the mountain, hunched into herself and staring into the black. A wheelchair sits nearby, perhaps too heavy-handed, I think. The charcoal in itself is so black, so evocative, so much, so good. There are so many people here, but no one speaks--I've never heard such silence at Poporopo.[2]

To exit, the visitor has to turn back, pass through the dropped ceiling room again, navigate the perimeter of the room filled with clay. There's a physical passage that happens in the entrance and exit: you plunge into a progression of events, and then scramble backward to survive them, or maybe to escape them. What is the Region Before, I wonder. Is it that space you occupy emotionally before you lose someone, something? A memory of what it must have been like to live before loss? A time before illness or grief? Or maybe these are more simply bodily states. "La soledad es un puente desde donde podemos retornar, pero el viaje está difuminado y modificado por la mente," Porras says, in an interview with GT Cultura.[3] (Solitude is a bridge from which we can turn back, but the journey is blurred and changed by the mind). Porras's work bridges theater and visual art: she spent the night before the opening in the installation, 12 hours of solitude with these materially-intense spaces. There is no simple bodily response to being in a space where the ceiling is dropped, where you breathe in dirt and dust and the traces of things that were, where you confront loneliness and quiet and your breath. It is awful, but in that sublime way, that way in which you find something about yourself and you decide to face it and maybe come out from under it.


[1] Brian Doyle, "Everyone Thinks that Awful Comes By Itself, But It Doesn't." The Sun Magazine, Issue 494 (February 2017).


[2] Proyecto Poporopo is a cafe and alternative art space located in zone 1 of Guatemala City. https://www.facebook.com/proyecto.poporopo/

[3] GT Cultura, "Región Antes, la nueva instalación-performance de Cecilia Porras Sáenz." January 26, 2017. http://www.gtcultura.com/region-antes-la-nueva-instalacion-performance-de-cecilia-porras-saenz/