Shannon Cochrane

Performance for a Reading of La Joconde by Shannon Cochrane

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave… Walter Pater

Is it the secret longing of every picture to be a virus? To spread like a contagion, reproduce itself in every corner of the imagination? Here are some fun facts about “the most famous painting in the world.” Leonardo’s smiling Mona has been reproduced using 3604 coffee cups, 320,000 ticket stubs from Japan’s Takashimaya department store, 6000 pieces of toast, 10,000 pieces of fusilli, macaroni and lasagna, 12,000 sticky notes, 7,500 lines of CSS code, 100,000 carats of gemstones, 800 helium balloons, 800 Rubik’s Cube, 2 gallons of ketchup and an order of fries…

And now an artist’s voice.

Fifteen years ago the artist found a hand-made portrait of the Mona Lisa made on a typewriter. Her open skin is made of periods, the hair is mostly overstrikes of capital M’s and S’s. The work contains a single comma, which drew applause from her Salt Lake City audience when she announced it there.

Her Mona is a precursor to ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) art, a system developed in the 1960s so that machines could communicate with each other. Perhaps this performance is a kind of eavesdropping, a way of listening in to the secret life of these machines.

Leonardo’s painted portrait has been translated into letters and numbers, which the artist revists as a script. She’s going to read it out loud, like a bedtime story for machines, machines like you and me. And like all bedtime stories, she’s not concerned that you catch every word (or in this case, every letter). It’s going to take time, this is a picture newly remade in words which will take time, perhaps as much as three hours, but she doesn’t need you to be there every moment. Yes, that’s right, she’s inviting you not to come. Or at least, to leave behind the fantasy that we can know everything, that we can hear it all, that we’ll ever be able to get to the end of it.

This is not her first performance or her last one. I can hear echoes of previous work, even echoes of the future. The artist’s interest in repetition, the loops of behaviour, the building blocks of language (let’s get back to basics), the alphabetic performance that so often passes for personality.

I have to ask again: Will she deliver us to what Oscar Wilde’s old teacher named “the secrets of the grave?”

Walter Benjamin: “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if (s)he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”

Stills are from performance in Salt Lake City Library as part of the Salt Lake City Performance Art Festival, September 2017. Text for performance at CIRCA art actuel (gallery), Montreal on January 13, 2018.