Karen Finley’s “Written in Sand”

Written in Sand by Karen Finley

Presented at the Baruch Performing Arts Center

Review By Sydney Arndt


Karen Finley is performing something sacred at the Baruch Performing Arts Center this month. The performance artist, author, and educator is known for the complexities of her work, but this piece particularly strikes me as beautifully intimate and personal. If one describes performance art as the blurring of art and life, then this is a shining example. She is, in every way, performing grief—grief and commemoration of loved ones that she lost to soon to AIDS. While some of the individual pieces, letters, and poems that make up the text were performed in the 1980s and 90s, others are new or never before seen. It’s an extension of a previous art installation, which Finley was involved with, where a gallery was filled with sand and lit by candles, inviting the patrons to write the names of loved ones they had lost to AIDS. Staying true to the original intention, her performance feels very much like a memorial. In reference to the original artwork, there is a path of sand snaking around rainbow-colored candles. To enhance the experience, musician Paul Nebenzahl accompanies the monologues and transitions with songs that were written, or originally performed by, artists who died from AIDS.

The pieces Finley performed were from various perspectives; from the victims, lovers, parents, to herself. Many of the pieces were dedicated to someone specific with an innermost depiction of what the person was going through and felt. One entitled “David” was especially riveting as Finley asked us all to make “spirit fingers” that twinkled like stars for her friend who died, coincidently named “David Twinkle.” She spoke about how he didn’t want to cross-over yet because he wanted more time to think about art, music, and beauty instead. In this piece, as with the majority, Finley is emotionally and physically drained, since she is not acting but rather telling stories of her friends in remembrance. This is not to say that the pieces lacked technical craft; Finley’s delivery and writing is riveting with images and layers.


One of the lasting points that Finley leaves the audience with is that America was not around when her citizens needed her support. America turned a blind eye as a modern day plague was in full swing. In the opening spoken word piece, “Hello Mother –,” she urgently acts as if she were calling the emergency number, pleading “Hello Society. Hello America.” She is only left with “no answer.” This idea emerges again with the final piece “The Black Sheep,” told in the perspective of both the dead and living that have been outcast by social, sexual, economic, racial, and gender differences. One of the most evocative images is when Finley suggested, “Sometimes some sheep are meant to be sick so someone can finally say ‘I love you.’” In a way, the victims of AIDS who were rejected by family and/or society in their healthier days, may have felt more loved in their final sick ones. Surely, there is no doubt that their spirits felt nothing but pure love and devotion during the hour and a half performance.


Grief and remembrance is an act that is universal, but nearly impossible to articulate. We know what it means to lose someone and to be outraged, but how can we ever accurately put it into words? This is why Finley is an inspiring and brave artist. Instead of trying to describe the grief, she embodies it. My hope is that she feels a sense of healing through the run of her performance because she is most definitely doing the work and committing to the process.


Written in Sand runs through October 23rd at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (on East 25th St btw Lexington and Third Ave). http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/calendar/EventList.aspx?fromdate=10/15/2014&todate=11/13/2014&display=&type=public&eventidn=15399&view=EventDetails&information_id=131890&print=print.


Originally Published on: http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/playing-around/karen-finleys-written-in-sand


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