The rules were simple: there were no rules.
There were no rules, and no restraints; no obstacles, and no limits. As long as she was alive in the end, anything was fair game.
She was in the newspapers for months before she did it. “Performing artist to test physical limits;” “Audience invited to participate in performing art;” “Police caution Mehari against audience violence;” “Mehari eager to explore artist boundaries.” The newspapers ran her name sparsely at first, as just another bizarre art project in the city; then, when the press got wind of the experiment she was about to undergo, it had a field day. Everyone wanted to see her; everyone wanted to talk to her. As the date of her performance drew closer, she receded slightly from the public eye — she wanted to concentrate on her spiritual being, strengthening her resolve for what she knew would be a profound and arduous task.
The night before the exhibit she stood alone in the shadows of the performing arts center, carelessly waving her fingers and hands in the light and watching the shadows cast themselves three times larger against the walls. One set of lights was mounted to the floor 40 feet away from the north wall; two other sets were fixed perpendicular to the first set, creating a box of light where the focal point would be Zahra, standing motionless at the back of the wall. Behind her hung two pieces of wood crossed over each other with strings hanging from either end. She would start by tying herself to those strings against wall, facing the audience head on. Twenty more feet in front of her would be placed a small table with 33 objects on it, one for every year of her life. That was the entire performance.
Tonight, the night before it was to take place, Zahra walked around the room in the shadows, carefully realigning each object on the table exactly the way she wanted them: a ring, a rose, a straw hat, a box, a blanket. On the table next to a set of instructions were all 33 objects, placed in order of increasing lethality, ending with a candle, a scarf, a hammer, a serrated knife, a loaded pistol.
Zahra walked to the table and picked up the first object, then the second, then the third. She became detached from herself, imagining the possible ways a stranger might use each object. She had to be prepared for any reaction from any person who used her, although she told herself she would keep the performance going no matter what.
Her manager, George Kelly, had argued with her the entire planning process of this exhibit, which she called Rhythm 0. Someone is going to kill you, Zahra, he’d shouted, flailing his hands in the air as he walked around her apartment in a frenzy the day after she called to tell him the museum space was booked. Then they kill me, she’d responded blankly. She’d only stared at him before he stormed out with the same widened, steely eyes that would stare back at the audience members who used the objects on her the very next day.
Then they kill me, she repeated to herself now, staring at the objects. Somehow these words meant nothing in her mind now; she knew she could die, and she felt nothing.
After inspecting the room one last time before she would report for the experiment the following afternoon, Zahra quietly turned the lights off, closed the door with a soft click and went home, from one darkness into another. The emptiness in her apartment tonight barely registered on her mind tonight. Most nights she would arrive home and revel in the silence, listening for the nothingness around her save for the faint whoosh of cars in the street below or the occasional police car or ambulance siren. Today even those sounds didn’t register. Today she only showered up and went to bed, her mind blank of any thoughts on the last night before her debut.
In all the years that Zahra had been creating performance art, only once had an audience member ever put his hands on her during a piece, and that man was whisked away immediately by security. That was years ago. This performance was a journey of trust given her audience that Zahra had never embarked on before. As she drifted off to sleep, Zahra’s mind lost itself in the memory of her works in the past 13 years, from the very first time she ever put her body and her movement on display.
It started one night when she was 20 and lost in a whirlwind of passion with her then-boyfriend. She had acquired new lingerie for a birthday surprise for him one evening, and when he came back to his apartment after his last evening class, there lay Zahra spread-eagled in his bed, black lace on her body and fishnet stockings on her legs; she had tied her own hands over her head to the bedpost above and laid out handcuffs, a flogger, a ball gag and a camera on the bed next to her — it was her gift to him, letting him do whatever he wanted to her. He had walked into the room with a look of complete surprise on his face, suspecting nothing, least of all a naked woman in his bed.
The whips and chains were her fantasy as well as his, but the camera even more so. She longed to show off her body and sexuality in a way that she controlled, and she begged with him to capture the moment from every possible angle.
Zahra saw that night as her first masterpiece, the first time her performance had become an art form. She dived into pornographic photography and modeling, selling her body through the aperture every time she performed. She modeled at art studios for students eager to capture the human essence through paint and clay. She danced with local theatre troupes in some of their most avant-garde nude productions. She reveled in the limelight; all Zahra wanted was a chance to explore sensual expression and her own physical limits.
For five years Zahra bounced from gallery to stage to museum and back again doing whatever activities she could find that fit with her concept of expression — that sensual, masochistic expression — until the future met her at her doorstep one morning as she was coming back from a late-night rendezvous with one of her photographer friends. Ordinarily Zahra stepped over the newspaper at her door without ever glancing at it; that day she had changed her routine and started skimming through the arts and entertainment section. She merely thought she could find a dance exhibit to attend as inspiration; she never expected to become part of her first performance-based art show.
But there it was, hidden in a corner of the classifieds section attached to the arts section: “Seeking dancer/model for photographic exploration; must be comfortable with nudity.” A website accompanied the ad, which Zahra devoured. There she saw images like her own self-portraits: confident, sexual people posing in a variety of manners, laying their courage and dignity on the line for the sake of art.
Four days after seeing the ad in the newspaper, she appeared in person at the home of a middle-aged Russian man who was looking for young women to pose nude in his gallery. Had Zahra not already been exposed to the world of erotic art, his request might have put her on guard; but Zahra was eager to learn what the work entailed. When Evgeny Malakhov greeted her at the door, she looked past him to find nearly a dozen other young women standing nude in the studio behind him. He took her by her bare shoulder, covered only by the thin strap of a sundress, and led her among the nubile figures standing on the polished wooden floors.
“Ve haff been preparing zis for a few veeks,” Evgeny said, a moderate accent lingering on his English speech, “but I am alvays open to new girls joining ze company.” Evgeny spun Zahra around with one hand and looked her up and down. “Especially if zey haff such exquisite skin as yours.” He touched her bare shoulder lightly, sending a chill through her body. Something about his fingers on her body made her come alive; the thrill of performing for an audience once again surged through her veins.
Evgeny broke from her and clapped his hands twice. “Come, come!” he said, gesturing for all his girls to gather around. “Let us get started! Ve haff much to do!” He snapped his fingers at Zahra and she quickly shed her dress into a crumpled pile on the floor and joined the others on the floor. As she stood among the circle of young pale women, Zahra’s eyes lit up. Her dark skin contrasted simply and beautifully against the backdrop of fair skin, and she became the eye’s natural focal point of the entire group. Evgeny knew immediately she was set to be his star.
The group began moving together immediately, like marionettes under Evgeny’s nimble fingers controlling the strings. His vision was simple and elegant: a slow dance of nude women in an enclosed space, spinning concentrically into the focal point — which was Zahra— until they converged, at which point their long arms and legs would spin outward again. And so on and so forth, until Evgeny deemed the performance was over. To Evgeny, the performance was an allegory for life, the repeating circles of monotony until the cycle reached its conclusion, at which point it would collapse and start anew.
To Zahra, the performance was her catapult to artistic stardom. Here she was, the centerpiece of her very first public performance, the name listed on the playbill, the photo advertising the piece in the theater.
That was her beginning. Zahra’s experience and stature escalated from that point, until she was able to produce her own shows and choreograph her own performances and exhibits. She was in control.
Tomorrow, she thought as she sank into slumber, she would relinquish that control, the next step in her growth as an artist. She was putting the art quite literally back into the public’s hands and allowing them to become one with her performance. She fell asleep dreaming of nameless faces spinning, spinning in circles around her.
She woke up early, as the dawn was reaching its fingers through her ninth-story bedroom window and livening the room with light. For a moment she forgot what day it was and sat up calmly, stretching her arms above her head. Then she remembered: today was the day she gave her body away. She still had time — the exhibit wasn’t until 6 p.m. — but she was filled with a sudden sinking feeling.
Zahra was divided. Her life’s motto was to push her mind and body to the utmost limits, and this was a test of all her abilities. She always aspired to push the envelope in all the work she did, and performance art was her passion. But on the other hand, she had never given her whole self to an audience like this before; she had never been so vulnerable a physical canvas.
The day passed uneventfully. Zahra went for a run, had lunch with a friend and brainstormed her next art exhibits. When the time came for her to go to the museum, she was calm and relaxed; she knew she couldn’t turn back now, and she had no intention to. At 4 p.m. she made her way downstairs to the metro and stepped inside a train, completely unobtrusive to everyone around her. No one paid her a second glance. Zahra had come to discover that unless she was at least partially naked or engaged in some artistic display with white wall backdrops, no one recognized her as the famous performance artist Zahra Mehari. Here on the train she was just another face in the crowd. She reveled in that — partially for the peace now and partially for the future, knowing that after today she would receive substantially more media attention, no matter what happened.
Her manager was already waiting in the gallery room for Zahra when she arrived. She closed the door with a click and he let out a single grunt as a greeting. Zahra knew George was displeased with this performance; he worried about her, and he thought this was one of her more foolish ideas. It was too sensational, too glamourous, too hyped up on the potential for violence and outrage. It wasn’t Zahra.
But when Zahra had a vision for her art, she achieved it. And here she was now, less than two hours from the show, as ready as she could ever be.
“How’s the crowd looking out there?” George asked, still not looking at her but rather preoccupying himself with arranging the objects on the table. Zahra scowled: she would have to rearrange everything to her liking the second he walked away.
“About thirty deep, I’d say,” Zahra replied, shedding her coat and shoes on the floor in the corner. The rest of her clothing would be discarded there too in good time, but for now she was still Zahra the person and not yet Zahra Mehari the performer. “I had to push through them a little bit. I’m not even sure some of them knew it was me pushing.”
“Huh. More than when I got here. There were a handful then too. I’m surprised so many are here already.”
There was a pregnant pause in the room as the two figures walked around and measured everything for the performance. Neither wanted to talk much to the other; they had exhausted the arguments between them. They chose to stand in the white room together silently, only the faint hum from the gathering voices outside the door serving as a barrier between them and their disagreements.
Zahra walked in small circles around the room inspecting every nook and cranny of her performance space, from the white tablecloth to the tape on the floor to the wooden cross hanging on the wall. She eyed the latter suspiciously — was it crooked? or was she too close to tell?
Finally George spoke up. “Zahra—”
“Save it. I already know what you’re going to say.”
“I’m sure you do, but I’m going to say it anyway.” She looked up at him, mildly intrigued by his brusqueness. “I think we should take out the pistol.”
“Just listen. You don’t know what these people are capable of.”
“I do know. That’s why the pistol — and the knife and the scarf and the lighter — are there. I want to test their limits as much as I want to test mine.”
“George Stop. Please stop. The show is happening in—” she glanced at her watch “— an hour and 10 minutes. It is. Even if I wanted to stop it from happening, it would be too late.” George looked down at the floor with an expression on his face that Zahra could not read.
“Fine. It’s your show. Just remember that I’ll be in the room the whole time if you want to stop it. Just say the word.”
“I know. Thank you.” Zahra smiled, but both knew she would rather die than break character once she was performing. She wouldn’t stop until she had made it through six hours or she perished trying. Her extreme suffering was what made her thrive; her masochism in all forms was the thing she depended on more than anything else. If she couldn’t count on her willpower, what could she count on? George pursed his lips back at her. He knew his words meant nothing to her, but over the years of working together, he still felt they needed to be said before all of her stunts.
George watched Zahra for a moment, admiring the mental place she was in right now. She had wandered over to the taped box on the floor in which her performance would take place. There she kneeled, resting her body weight perfectly on the balls of her feet, and bowed her head. For several minutes, Zahra stayed motionless, lost in the routine of her pre-show mental ritual. George let her be and wandered back over to the door. Even his soft footsteps on the floor seemed too loud now, bothersome to Zahra’s careful concentration. She stayed in that position for ten minutes, twenty minutes, even longer, until the increased murmurs from the crowd outside the doors broke her spell. She glanced up at George. He nodded back at her.
Without a word Zahra rose and unbuttoned the top button of her black blouse, then the next, working her way down to the bottom until her brown stomach was exposed beneath a simple black bra. After she slid her arms out of her sleeves that, too, was next to go; she reached around behind her and unclasped her bra, handing it to George without a sound. She leaned forward slightly and looped her thumbs under the waistband of her floor-length black skirt and slid that slowly down, along with the underwear beneath it. Everything lay discarded on the wooden floor now. She carefully stepped out of her clothes and picked them up to handed them to George.
The room was warm, the heat humming through the ventilators in the ceiling, but Zahra felt cold and exposed. Once George had gathered up her clothes in his arms, he walked back to the door and left Zahra standing naked in the little box against the wall. He looked at her sadly. Her amber skin looked so isolated against the startlingly white walls behind her; she was the only color in the room. He gazed at her for a moment, then turned and opened the door.
For a moment the roar of the people outside rushed into the room, blasting Zahra with the abrupt disruption. But just as quickly as he opened the door, George shut it again and the sound was muffled, although Zahra could hear his voice over top of all the others, shouting at the soon-to-be participants that the doors would open at precisely 6 p.m.
Zahra walked over to the table one last time and read the instructions for the evening one more time:
I am the object.
You are the actors.
These 33 objects are yours.
Use what you like.
Duration: 6 hours (6 p.m. to midnight)
She straightened up the objects again, aligning them perfectly perpendicular to the box in which she was about to place herself. Her bare feet left no trace of sound or mark on the floor as she crossed the empty space beyond the tape and against the wall. Behind her the cross was mounted firmly to the wall with iron spikes, hanging from which were leather bands looped into a circle and tied back around the cross. Zahra turned her back to the cross and slipped her arms into the loops, stretching her arms as far as they could go on either side of her. She crossed her ankles gently in front of her and leaned back, inhaling deeply. Then she closed her eyes. When she opened them again the room would be filled with people, staring at her on the wall, arms outstretched, head hung low — a martyr on the cross for art.
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For more information on the inspiration for this story, and the reference from which the title comes, please watch this video: https://vimeo.com/71952791