I began with the rising sun, and the icy wind. The water was still cold from the darkness of the night. People came by, watching me collect natural objects and trash from the ocean, bring them to land, and lay them out in a circular configuration. Back and forth, back and forth. I remained there, on that shore, moving and bending and walking and carrying and observing until the sun fell below the horizon, leaving behind an even icier wind.
Performance art involves four basic elements: time, space, body, and presence of the artist. Performance art embodies a spirit of transformation. For me, I have a deep connection to the ocean. Perhaps this is because I am a Pisces, perhaps my molecules were once in that of a whale or a shark, or perhaps it is an acquired dependency, but I am very much dependent both physically and emotionally on the ocean and its wellbeing. I believe we all are. The reality is, without the Ocean we cannot exist. We are here because it is here. Each breath we take comes from the Ocean, and each exhale goes back to it. Our Oceans house a vast abundance of life, and they sequester most of the carbon we emit from our vehicles and factories.
Our ocean takes all our waste and suffering and fear and terror and turns it into life, without complaint. Still, we treat it as an infinite body, and neglect to appreciate its vast and unconditional work, regeneration, and balance. One of our only hopes on this earth is to move into a circular economy; this is what nature already does. This means, that whatever we take from the natural world does not go to waste after use; it enters a cycle, and is regenerated. This idea of a circular give and take was the premise of my performance.
Jamaica Bay represents an asymmetric boundary between humans and nature. It is an area with significant wildlife, but is also one at peril, being exploited by humans as it is positioned at the edge of one of the largest hubs to one of the largest cities in the world: JFK Airport. Studies conducted over the last 15 years show more than a 60 percent loss in salt marshes at Jamaica Bay since the 1950s. This boundary represents a distinction, but also an opportunity between humans and natural systems we have come to dominate. The opportunity is one where the boundary moves from an asymmetric one to a symmetrical one, where one side does not exploit the other to this degree.
I put my body under the strain of time and movement, something the ocean and its inhabitants do every single moment. After ten hours, my body was tired, my hands and feet were raw, my back was sore, and my skin reddened by the sun and wind. This is a symbol, our only way forward. Regeneration, balance, resilience, interbeing. These are our paths to follow. We are not separate from the sand, or the sky, or the water. To leave behind pain and suffering means to take care of our friends, families, and neighbors. Since we are all sharing a small blue marble, floating in an eternal darkness we call space, evolved from fire and dust, we can consider everything we know as a friend.
Every impossible human attainment started with a vision. My vision is this: There is an alternative future ahead of us that is beautiful and peaceful. One where our natural environments are protected and we breathe clean air. One where our ocean is bursting with life, and humans live in peace with one another and with the earth. In this future, everyone’s job is meaningful as each individual is paid a living wage for contributing their time and energy to healing the Earth and each other. Amongst all this, our loved one’s hand will be softer and sweeter, and even our enemy we will love. My vision is one of love, and I believe that it is attainable, although it starts as a personal decision within each of us. My performance embodied and represented an alternative future for consumption, where we give back to systems of nature the life we take from them, and produce no waste that cannot be repurposed. I started this symbolic performance with the rising sun, and ended it with the setting sun. As we learn to live according to the tides and the moon and the sun, we will no longer feel separate from this blue marble we call home, our very first step into our beautiful future.
Lia Embil is an artist originally from Istanbul, Turkey, currently completing her MFA in New York City. Her work observes what it means to be human through interpretations of nature. The wonders of the natural world and the circularity and rhythm existent in Earth’s ecosystems as well as every living being play a leading role in what she creates. She works across mediums such as painting, performance, poetry, film, and photography, and has a deep connection with the Ocean. In her work, Embil considers the use, circulation, and origins of materials and their symbolism through time. Her works emphasize the inherent and deep sameness between humans and nature, as well as question the current divide and disconnect, ultimately pointing to an alternative future of life on Earth and within our bodies.