Ernesto Pujol's Awaiting in Salt Lake City

On 8 April 2010, I was invited to photograph a 13-hour durational performance art piece called “Awaiting,” in downtown Salt Lake City. The piece was organized by Ernesto Pujol, a Visiting Artist at the University of Utah’s Department of Art & Art History, and its first Endowed Art Residency recipient. Ernesto invited me personally—after a meal we shared with my photography instructor (his friend), Rosi Hayes. For some reason still unclear to me, especially as an undergraduate studying English Literature, Rosi had showed him my fledgling portfolio and he had liked it enough to insist. I felt at once both immensely flattered and terrified.

2010 was the year I considered a lot of things seriously. After applying to 10 creative writing MFA Programs, some acceptances had come back in, and I had to decide where I’d go for the next 3 years. This meant relocation, almost certainly. And a lot of goodbyes to the town and friends I’d made my own for the whole of my college experience. 2010 also marked the first time I took photography seriously as an art form, as more than a hobby—largely thanks to Rosi’s teaching. She exposed me to photography’s history: Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman; but she also invited me to bring my poems, my Greek language studies, and literary theoretical obsessions into my photographic practice with interdisciplinary assuredness. I was working on a final that used (thinly-)nuanced Greek understandings of Desire, half-borrowed from Anne Carson’s Eros: The Bittersweet, to objectify nude and clothed portraits I’d taken of my professors and friends in preparation of their absence; I think Rosi recognized something in my striving, and, perhaps sharing this with Ernesto, landed me the invitation.

Ernesto Pujol was born in 1957 in Havana and moved to the United States in 1979. He became known in the art world in the 1990’s for a series of site-specific installation projects that dealt with whiteness, masculinity, collective and individual memory, loss and mourning. In a 2014 statement from Pujol’s website, he speaks about the role of performance art in society:

“Performance as social practice is not about invading, colonizing, and mining. It is not commercial social sculpture, playfully using people as free labor or raw material. Performance as social practice is about respectfully inhabiting place and carefully revealing place. And yet, it does not hesitate to place audiences in a state of healthy discomfort, to make them think. American audiences need to slow down, stop, and reflect.”

Pujol’s piece in Salt Lake City, called “Awaiting,” was fashioned to respectfully inhabit and carefully reveal. Over 40 performers, dressed in secular white clothing, converged on the steps of the Utah Capitol Building at 6pm on the evening of the 8th; over the next 13 hours, they would walk up and down those same steps—maybe breaking to stand for a while, maybe threading the spaces between the Capitol’s austere colonial columns, alone, in pairs, in groups of varying number—but always silently until dispersing again into the city streets after 7am the following day.

According to an interview between Pujol and Salt Lake’s Deseret News, “Awaiting” existed to provide “a very gentle invitation to something deeper that is getting lost now that we have cell phones and hand-held devices." Not unlike the way Backwords Press approaches blog pieces with a thoughtful and deliberate engagement in both presence and history, Pujol insists that:

"We used to have these moments of silence where we could reflect about life and issues while we were waiting for the bus or for a movie or a loved one. But now, everything is filled up with a kind of exchange. We are in the habit of checking e-mail or going online in our hands. There's not even a waiting anymore. We are always so efficient, always working … and we forget that the real meaning and direction and depth of life lies not in this kind of frenzied activity, but in knowing who we are."

Admittedly, not everyone agrees. The first of the Deseret News commentators stated rather flatly, “There's a department that can be closed down, and save the Taxpayers, some money” (no emphasis or editing added). Others were more thoughtful—such as Art Pulse’s Cara Despain. She noted that competing associations no doubt played a significant role in the piece’s overall reception and effectiveness: the choice of white clothing, meditative practice, even sunset and rise—which had their own intentionality under Pujol—were likely interpreted or re-purposed by the piece’s occasional audience. Despain puts it this way: “The meditation-based idea of Awaiting sort of raises the question: can the public experience the piece effectively in the same way as the performers? … While they are both relevant experiences inverse of each other, they are intrinsically divided.”