THIS PHOTO WAS SHOT AT THE BEGINNING But this is also what it looked like at the end of the performance Friday at the Henry Art Gallery.
Consider, for a moment, the word “endingness.” End-ing-ness. The “ing” lets us know that the “end” is in motion, is happening right now; the –ness packages up this quality of being in motion as a noun, gives it finitude. So we are not talking about the end—the last moment of a TV show or a life—or the ending of something, which might encompass a few more moments than just the end. We are talking about the –ness of ending, the state of being aware that things are winding down now.
As part of Now Here is Also Nowhere: Part II at the Henry right now, the artist Pablo Helguera has a philosophical essay on this word “endingness” to accompany a series of hanging wax tablets. (The essay is published in a booklet at the gallery and is available online—as far as I can tell, the word is his own invention.) Endingness, first created in New York in 2005 (Helguera, in addition to being an artist, is an author and works in education at MoMA), also includes a musical performance component, which I went to on Friday night.
Now, I know zero things about music. I don’t listen to it, except for 89.5 in my car a few times a week. I have been told that this is a sad state of affairs, but that’s not the point—the point is to fully disclose that listening to a 30-minute symphony was strange new territory for me.
Here’s what happened: each of seven young-looking people dressed in black had a small, medium, or large string instrument. They glanced awkwardly at each other and the scores on their music stands until their conductor arrived to give them purpose.
The sound that they produced together was the opposite of awkward, and hearing all the layers at once was surprising. I am not used to that feeling, from looking at photographs and paintings, of being completely surrounded by a medium. The movements of the conductor’s arms and fingers and head somehow exactly matched the music. I wondered if he moved them like that elsewhere, when he was in his car or out at bars.
After 20 minutes or so, one of the seven (who had one of the small instruments, I think) stopped playing, stood up, and silently walked out of the room. The other six proceeded to play, until another stood up and walked out. Their sound tapestry was unraveling. The conductor walked out. Only two players remained and then they, too, stood together and walked out.* As this was happening, we in the audience knew that eventually there would be no orchestra left, but we were still unprepared for when only the chairs and stands remained. Do we clap without them? Are they coming back/are they really gone?
It was like the stripping away and the no-going-backness of carving layer after layer of a woodblock. Or that feeling you get when you know your relationship is falling apart, but neither of you is ready to bring it up quite yet. It is anxiety-inducing, full of potential and loss all at the same time.
That’s endingness. Helguera writes that it’s worth exploring because it makes us uncomfortable:
Endingness is a powerful social tool that also translates into fear and intimidation. In a conservative society where change means not the improvement of life but rather the end of a comfortable stage, the feeling of endingness can easily be evoked. We fear the loss of our security, our jobs, our standard of living, and ultimately, our lives and the ones around us. If there were no sense of endingness, there would be no fear.
Thus understanding the process by which endingness dominates our fears thus can be a liberating process. It frees the mind to understand that the end exists regardless of what we think of it, and will happen also regardless.
Endingness is a creative force.
The question is: what are you going to do now, now that you know it’s going to end?
*This particular demonstration of "endingness" is a piece of music actually written by Haydn in 1772 and nicknamed the "Farewell" Symphony.