After a year spent thinking about and fearing a virus, renowned theater director Peter Sellars wants us to consider the lessons that illness can teach us.
Sellars’ latest project, a multidisciplinary performance film called “this body is so impermanent …”, is a creative response to COVID-19, made in isolation by artists on three continents as a call to learn and heal together. Through music, movement and calligraphy, the artists reflect on the fragility of physical being and the liberation of conscious awareness.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Boethius Initiative at UCLA and Fisher Center at Bard will present the film’s virtual world premiere on March 17. The premiere will begin with a guided mindfulness meditation session led by Alisa Dennis, followed by a screening of the film and a conversation with the audience and artists.
“The year of 2020 is forever marked in human history by COVID-19,” said Sellars, a distinguished professor in the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. “The role of the arts is to create a series of markers next to that marker, which can memorialize and commemorate this moment in time, and also offer a window of acknowledgement, understanding and empathy. Our project is offered in the hopes of developing, deepening and extending the connective tissues that link the practice of the arts and medical practice.”
Directed by Sellars, “this body is so impermanent …” is based on a passage from the Vimalakirti Sutra, a foundational Buddhist text from the 1st century. In the text, Buddha asks his disciples to visit, console and learn from Vimalakirti, a businessperson and visionary spiritual being who is ill.
The film was born of a collaboration between Sellars in Los Angeles; South Indian devotional singer Ganavya from a Sufi chapel on traditional sacred land outside of Portland, Oregon; master calligrapher Wang Dongling from his studio in Hangzhou, China; and improvisatory dancer Michael Schumacher from his apartment in Amsterdam. Sellars filmed all three in real time, using Zoom so the artists could see and hear each other as they worked.
“We all know what we don’t like about Zoom, but Zoom is also a miracle, and it’s also the beginning of a new connectivity and deeply shared space that we never had before,” Sellars said.
The film superimposes the figures of the three artists engaged with the Sutra and each other in an ensemble act of creation and healing. It draws from the experience of being able to communicate simultaneously using video chat platforms, even as we are physically separated by borders and oceans.
“At this moment in time, COVID is asking us to respond, not in this country or that country, but as the human race,” Sellars said.
The passage used from the Vimalakirti Sutra is one of the most profound and penetrating descriptions of the human body in early literature, one that understands illness as not only an affliction but also as a messenger. The text contrasts the body that is impermanent — fated to be broken and destroyed — with the body of reality, which is formed by all our good actions, wisdom, generosity, love, patience, morality, transcendence, and shared kindness and courage. As a result, “this body is so impermanent …” becomes a memorial of shared suffering, and a message of beauty and hope.
Sellars wanted to create a work of art “dealing with the deeper question of COVID as a tragedy and as a horrifying experience, but also as a message and as a kind of teaching,” he said. “What are we learning from this time of COVID, and what do we take forward now from this period in our lives?”
The film pairs the three artists with evocative imagery of waterfalls and a rushing stream, referencing the nature of impermanence, change, flow and movement that Vimalakirti describes from his sick bed. Even as we feel limited in our physical movements, the images of moving water remind us that life continues.
“Art and medicine are both focused on healing, repair and recovery. In art, as in medicine, diagnosis is essential in our practice, and early diagnosis is preferable. Ultimately, insight and understanding have to move us beyond our natural reactions to frightening symptoms. On the other side of fear, both art and medicine are committed to the search for causes and the discovery of meaning in the heart of suffering,” Sellars said.