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Automatic for the People
A review of Jeanine Durning's "inging" at Lynden Sculpture Garden.


Since so much depends on it, let’s start with the red wheel barrow.

It lands in the middle of Jeanine Durning's remarkable inging - presented Wednesday night at the Lynden Sculpture Garden as part of Alverno Presents' "Solo Flight" - with all the dense “thingness” that the words carry in William Carlos Williams’ famous poem. And by “land,” I don’t mean it drops Phantom-chandelier-like in the middle of an f/x-laden spectacle. It arrives through sound alone - four syllables uttered with a deliberate emphasis and slight change of pace - and it's only one of accents that Durning vividly deploys in this delicious and sometimes harrowing filibuster of a performance.

But there's no reading the phone book or "the chair recognizes the esteemed senator..." in this river of words. As the audience trickles into the small room at Lynden, Durning is there--in several guises. A modest-sized video projection on one wall shows three Durnings, side-by-side, addressing the camera from behind a table.There's a table here, too, piled with a tower of books, on which rests a small digital camera that will eventually “frame” her image. And she’s there in the flesh, circulating, sipping on a bottle of water, warmly welcoming people, guiding them to their chairs, which are scattered haphazardly around the room, facing in every direction. When everyone is settled, Durning starts talking, and doesn't stop for around 40 minutes. 

Like a monumental jazz solo, inging is improvised but grounded. And it is willfully uninterrupted. Late in the performance, Durning picks up her bottle of water and carries it around, eventually giving it to someone in the audience. "I can't drink this because I would have to take a breath," she says. So she "goes on" (riffing, at one point, on Samuel Beckett's famous motto: "I can't go on; I'll go on"). She also riffs on her immediate circumstances. Who is watching whom? What does that mean? Did Harry and Lynde sleep in this room?  But this isn't the casual meanderings of a standup comic. As the performance unfolds, an urgency builds, as if Durning is tunneling toward something that remains just outside her grasp. 

But she keeps digging. At times, she hits an obstacle, sticking on a word or idea, but she turns it into music, landing on a syllable over and over again and transforming it into pure sound, something outside language. And in this diligence, she tries to lay bare the very process of thought. 

In the 1920s, the surrealists adopted psychiatry's fascination with automatism—the supposed access to the unconscious that comes with hypnosis—and began practicing “automatic” writing and drawing, seeking a similar kind of psychic channel. Inging is firmly in that legacy, a live episode of limitless consciousness on parade. It mimics some of the great modern experiments —Beckett, John Cage, Joyce, Virginia Woolf—but it is decidedly contemporary in its references, from specific pop songs to the general Facebook-era embrace of public display. The title is telling: this isn’t be-ing, do-ing, act-ing, speak-ing. To put it into language—describing an action—is too confining. It is Durn-ing, but it is her everything.

Where does this consciousness take us? To punning flashes of free association—Decartes’ distinction between doing and being, to the difference between “do” and “be,” to Sinatra’s “do-be-do-be-do.” To intimate reflections on her own body or clothes. To deep reserves of pain, as when she slides herself under an occupied chair, explodes in terror, screaming “I can’t feel my legs!”—echoing the movie-star Ronald Reagan (King’s Row). In the 21st Century, after all, even the most harrowing personal traumas are somehow connected to the hive-mind of pop culture. 

After the last word, there was silence. Durning moved deliberately around the room, pausing meditatively for a series of charged moments, taking in the unfamiliar silence, then shutting off the projector, the camera, and stepping out the door. It was saturated, uncertain. The kind of silence that happens when the electricity suddenly goes off, and we try to get our bearings. 

Alverno Presents' "Solo Flight" continues through Saturday. Durning repeats "inging" Friday night at Lynden Sculpture Garden.

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