Dudley Saunders: Artist

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The Things We Left Behind
With “In These Boxes,” performance artist Dudley Saunders uses objects to bring back lives cut short
by Larry Buhl

Thinking inside the box: Dudley Saunders performs his multimedia piece, “In These Boxes,” at its  February 8th premiere. All photos by Dean Carpentier
Thinking inside the box: Dudley Saunders performs his multimedia piece, “In These Boxes,” at its
February 8th premiere. All photos by Dean Carpentier

The things we leave behind are, in rare cases, works of art or professional accomplishments that live on. In some cases we leave behind our DNA to live on through generations. In some cases what we leave behind are memories in the minds of loved ones. But the common denominator, and sometimes the only thing many people leave behind, are objects.

It’s those objects left behind that inspired Dudley Saunders, a Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and artist to create his latest multimedia performance piece, “In These Boxes.” He begins speaking to the audience and recalling a memory from the depths of the plague days. It was the early 1980s, he was living in Manhattan’s East Village and found boxes everywhere, filled with personal belongings, left unceremoniously and hastily on the sidewalk. He soon learned that they were the personal affects of those who had died of AIDS-related complications.

“You could tell it was an AIDS death because there was no family to collect the things, which was common for the rejected gay men then,” says Saunders, who is also gay.

Some of these items were quite personal—letters, a collection of thirty years of Playbills, drawings—and most of them were mundane. “But to me they were the only evidence that someone had lived—and there they sat, in boxes in the garbage, about to disappear.” Saunders says it’s possible to save certain details of a person’s life and arrange them correctly to bring that person to life if for a moment.

Saunders describes “In These Boxes” as a “social media cemetery.” Using twelve boxes that contain the detritus of twelve lives, Saunders tells their hidden stories and symbolically brings them back to life. With acoustic guitar and minimal accompaniment—an accordion or keyboard—Dudley performs songs and stories based on these boxes, stories that are at once minimalist and highly evocative. It’s not a unique way of creating art. Visual artists like sculptor Joseph Cornell are famous for creating boxed arrangements of objects that once belonged to someone no longer alive. But the sparse, minimalist, and heartfelt (and beautiful) songs and stunning imagery projected behind Saunders make the piece his own.

Only one story is literally true, but all of these stories, Saunders says, are real.

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“We can’t all be heroes,” Saunders says, introducing one song. The bare-bones stories he weaves through song are about those who lived (mostly) un-heroically, their quotidian lives snuffed out, sometimes with a bang, sometimes with a whimper. One is about a Russian who moves to the U.S., beaten down by prison life in his country only to waste his final days in stocking feet in a wheelchair in the parking lot of a West Hollywood 7-11. Another is about a young man from a small town who comes to New York for adventure, and men, and gets more than he bargained for.

During one song, “The Man in the Game,” the box projected on the screen contains a gun. The song tells the story of a teen boy obsessed with the man in his video game—and in the video art piece, the boy picks up this real gun in front of his video-game screen and handles it, learns to aim it and fire it, then takes it into the real world, where he tries to find the man in the game in a real-world situation.

“The stories are unsatisfying in a sense that most people don’t have a heroic life following the ‘Hero’s Journey,’” Saunders tells A&U.

Only half of “In These Boxes” explores AIDS or gay issues, and even less of the piece is strictly personal. What ties all of these stories together is lives interrupted and, except for the objects left behind, largely forgotten, Saunders says.

A song about ACT UP, which Saunders was active in, really is about heroes who put their lives on the line. Saunders makes it clear that he has immense admiration for fellow ACT UP members and others on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS crisis. “It was the people in ACT UP who show that broken people can change the world. Instead of getting mowed down like many people and being destroyed by AIDS-phobia and homophobia, they turned around that onslaught and took on the world on their own terms.”

It’s for that reason the ACT UP song gives a performance piece about death, loss and forgetting a surprising, uplifting twist.

“I never talk about AIDS in the past tense,” said Saunders, who has been positive for decades. “But during the plague years it was, death, death, death. Now, although homophobia and fear of AIDS still exists, gay people are a target market, welcomed for what we can buy.” But AIDS is still with us, Saunders adds, especially for those who fought on the front lines in the earliest days of the crisis.

AIDS is still salient and personal for Saunders and the loss and grief are fuel for “In These Boxes.” In the fall of 1991 two of his former lovers died within two months of each other. It was then he realized nobody who remembered them together was still alive and their relationships had suddenly become extinct.

Enter objects. The few objects Saunders had from these exes gained power and resonance after they had passed and that objects—in boxes, in drawers, wherever—can conjure loved ones back to life for an instant.

Though the objects used for “In TheseBoxes” are not personal to Saunders, they’re meaningful for the characters he’s created. In most of the videos for “In These Boxes,” Saunders projects himself into the role of these people he writes about, and literally projects himself in these roles on a screen behind him.

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“It isn’t a performance created to make people comfortable,” Saunders says. He tells A&U that he wanted “In These Boxes” to be about a common, private experience—owning objects—and share that experience, make it universal and “bring it out of the dark.”

The social media part of the “social media cemetery” lives on-line at InTheseBoxes.com. People can become part of a living art piece by submitting photos to Instagram with the hashtag #InTheseBoxes or send them to Saunders at [email protected]

Saunders will be performing “In These Boxes” around the U.S. throughout 2014, with various dates still to be added. At its Los Angeles debut at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts, several audience members approached Saunders after the show, eager to learn more about the people he wrote and sang about. One suggested that he expand on them to build a series of short stories. Clearly Saunders has mastered the performing arts mandate of entertaining the audience but leaving them wanting more.

Visit www.dudleysaunders.com for more information.

Larry Buhl writes A&U’s monthly Hep Talk column.