Performing on International World AIDS Day, Dudley Saunders orchestrated an intermedia experience Monday evening at CSPS that brought many to tears. It would take a lifetime, or several, to encapsulate his show, “In These Boxes,” because the work brings together the lives of so many.
Most of “In These Boxes” directly addresses the scourge of AIDS but it also connects to the grief of loss of any kind. Saunders spoke about two of his lovers who died in 1991 during the AIDS epidemic and the impact of the disease on the community where he lived (and loved) in New York City.
The title of the piece came from the boxes he’d seen in the streets during the early ’90s, which he learned were objects from the diseased, set outside for anyone else to take because their owners had passed. Random belongings that signified a life cut short. The whole of his work embodies those lost, not just to AIDS, but to any life cut short by disease, depression or other tragic sequence.
Saunders is a musician and has pitch-perfect stage presence with a clear voice. During his performance, he plays songs that avoid sentiment but remain touching. But in addition to his songwriting prowess, he’s created a larger artwork that brings the audience inside his ongoing project. Similar to the Names AIDS quilt project, Saunders has made a community out of loss through his website and performances, which he manages to keep thoughtful while avoiding treacle and weepiness.
Before each performance, Saunders invites people from the cities he’s visiting to send him a photo of an object they carry with them from someone who’s died; “things that they can’t bare to look at but they can’t throw away, often from people who were under-mourned,” he said in a post-performance discussion with the audience.
“It’s really painful when you’ve lost someone who is valuable and everyone around says they were not. This work is a resurrection of love,” he explained. “Every object here at the end is a heart broken because of a lost person. People declare, if only in this image, that they mattered and this life mattered.”
Saunders said he will sometimes make an altar of the objects he receives on stage. Often, photos are all he receives and, if he gets them ahead of time, he incorporates these memories into a video that projects behind him while he presents onstage. The project is archived on his website, but he also said that many people ask that he not publish their memories.
“Even taking a snapshot of an object can be unbearable for people,” he said.
Participants at Monday evening’s event brought objects to the show. Between songs, he read poetry and talked about his songs — each one a backstory or personal diary, stories of friends he’d known and couldn’t forget.
Behind him, the video backdrop contained intimate scenes — video art or performative pieces that held their own. In one, he was wrapped in hundreds of feet of string; in another, his face was slowly twisted and taken apart.
From a prepared script he read, “There is a kind of rejection where nobody rejects you.” He said later this referred to an exile that can lead to self-destruction.
By embracing the abject, those “under-mourned” or not valued, Saunders has created a community of memory that survives ghostly death. He recreates the suffering in the lives of those who have gone before us in his encompassing intermedia presentation, and at the same time, he reminds us how to be alive.