Given the varieties of performance art, absurdist theater and ritualized dada spectacle that are daily business in the Clark County Government Center, the sight of a bald, barefoot artist silently polishing pennies on the rotunda floor might not seem all that quirky. Indeed, there’s something appealing about the honest bewilderments of performance art when compared to the far less comprehensible kabuki of government.
“I think there was a little confusion as to what was happening and why the strange man was still there,” Michael Barrett, the artist in question, told us. “But as time passed I could hear people began to discuss it among themselves on their breaks and lunch hour.”
It's not really that confusing: “Memories of the Future” is Barrett’s homage to the soldiers who’ve died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. A former Marine, Barrett has collected nearly 7,000 pennies minted between 2001 and 2014, each one representing a military casualty. On hands and knees, he uses a Kevlar apron (they ring the rotunda on skeletal metal stands) to reverently polish each penny — our smallest, least significant monetary unit, presumably corresponding to the smallness of a single life in the vast sprawl of a military operation. Then he adds it to the spiral pattern growing on the floor. By focusing intently on the ritual cleaning of each penny, he’s emphasizing the individual loss, rescuing it from its neglect and anonymity. That, in turn, makes “Memories for the Future” about the human cost of conflict without shading into anti-Iraq War propaganda. This may or may not be a selling point for you, depending on your feelings about the war.
The performance ends next Friday, May 23, so consider this a prod to get down there before then.
Just don’t attempt to talk to him about it — when he’s working, Barrett doesn’t acknowledge visitors, doesn’t field questions, doesn't shift his focus from the pennies. Of course, humans being what they are, that hasn’t stopped some people from trying, he told us in an online message:
These are a few of the experiences I wrote in my notes ...
I have had a woman stand over me while I was on my hands and knees and announce to the entire building, “Jesus Christ is the way to happiness,” not whatever ritual I was attempting to create.
This past week, a man in a business suit paid a visit to the space and decided he too needed to begin a journey for enlightenment. I cannot tell you how long he mimicked my movements from outside of the memorial ring.
It’s hard to know the proportion of factual seriousness to artistic whimsy in those anecdotes; asked if those were true stories, Barrett didn’t answer. But they aren't hard to believe. He's probably lucky Commissioner Tom Collins hasn't ridden a bull through his piece.
Barrett did tell us how the project has affected him personally. As a former Marine, cancer survivor and college athlete, he’s dwelled on issues of bodily endurance in his work, and this one — what with the hours of bending over, the being on hands and knees — is no different. But it was the mental difficulty that he didn’t foresee.
“Of course, my back is really sore and my knees have cracks and calluses, but staying focused on each task during the allotted time has been difficult in a public space, especially with so many distractions,” he wrote to us.
Now the project’s end is in sight. “I cried a few times in the beginning, and it wouldn't surprise me if it happened again at the end. This project has taken me on an incredibly long journey, and I am a different person than when I started. I just wish it didn't take 6,803 lives to make it happen.”