FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 07/08/2013

Still Life: An Apple Performance

 November 20, 2012   Volume 5, Issue 15

Faith+ Ideas= an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College

By Dorothy Boorse
I enter my office and straighten the decoration resting on the faux maple desk. A white plate with two blue lines, six dried bits of tiger lily flower, one drying apple and a fork. I call it my “still life,” an image I can’t help but recall as we anticipate Thanksgiving meals.
The goal of a still life is to capture a moment in time. For some artists who paint or draw them, it is an attempt to depict perfection, others a glimmer of ordinary life, for still others something caught in death. The stillness is the timelessness, the moment trapped.
But my still life has been here for months. The apple is drying. Cracks and dimples are appearing on its surface. It does not smell, except of dried fruit and is not repugnant.  Six weeks ago, when it was already probably a month old, a colleague passed, wrinkled his nose and looked quizzical. 
“Performance art,” I said. “It represents contractionism, an early understanding of how mountains and valleys are formed on the earth. People pictured the earth as a drying apple. “
Contractionism has long been abandoned for the concept plate tectonics, but the idea of my apple, slowly wrinkling, representing a metaphor of a forgotten era of science, is appealing. The apple has not rotted, something that has surprised me. Is this because it was washed, coated with wax, some other treatment? Is it because the air is dry and relatively cool?
Today the apple has a small spot. Bruised and wetter than the rest of the skin, an area the size of a dime shines on the Western side of my earth. It looks like Montana, Washington and part of British Columbia are sinking and darkening. Either an asteroid hit the earth, or bacteria have breached the apple skin.
It is possible, I think, that this is a step change. Here on the stage of my plate, the drying apple play is getting to the second act. Still Life I is being exchanged for Still Life II.
I encountered performance art when I was in graduate school. Almost anything could qualify. One of my friends saw a naked man on the street crouching by a car, investigating it as if he were a cave man and had never seen a vehicle. This was not grounds to call for mental health care or the police. It probably helped someone qualify for a degree.
But nature as performance? I wonder. We can imagine the drama of a bird’s flight, the dance of bees, or the exuberant mating ritual of snails being a performance. This is Art, as it were, for an audience of sowbugs and snakes, mosses and the nodding heads of columbines. Performance art does not have to be beautiful. Neither does a still life. Can a tableau be both a still life and performance art? Both a moment stolen and timeless, and an action showing some idea? Maybe if you move slowly enough.
In fact, all still lifes are not really still, time never stops, even for the painter, even for the photographer. Even in the time you take to carefully place the apple and lay out the palate, the brushes, the tinctures of red and brown, the apple performs infinitesimally.  
Maybe, just as there is no still life, there is no performing either. Maybe the apple is a myriad of still lifes in order, a film of stop motion scenes. Maybe when I leave my office, the apple stops. All change stops. Maybe it changes only as it is observed and otherwise hangs like a film waiting on one frame, to be moved forward by observation.  Flash—the apple is wrinkled but its skin unbroken. Flash—the upper western states and parts of Canada are brown mush.
I pick up the apple and turn it to the unbroken hemisphere. It is wrinkled but free of mold or rot. I sniff the pleasant smell of dried fruit. Musing, I bite, breaking off a divot the size of Europe from the sphere. The meat is somewhat dry but tastes fine. The center is white and clean. “Apple dries on desk: Still edible,” the headline could read. I take the apple into the lab where I place it in a terrarium. It sits beside a coiled millipede, ready to make a new still life performance.
This Thanksgiving, may we all enjoy eating apples (hopefully not drying on our desks) and look at them as if we’ve never seen them before.
Dorothy Boorse is professor of biology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She and her family live in Beverly, MA.


Faith+ Ideas= an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College


Dorothy Boorse