Situating Kindness: “Let Me Wash This Off Your Hands” by Christine Brault

Posted on December 29th, 2016

Leila Plouffe

At last year’s Visualeyez festival, the students of University of Alberta professor Natalie Loveless’s Fall 2016 seminar course “Ephemerality and Sustainability in Contemporary Art” (ArtH 456/556) responded to performances at the festival.

Montreal-based artist Christine Brault describes her practice as interdisciplinary and performance based research art creation. Utilizing relational aesthetics via site-specific interventions that rely on people, environments and contexts Brault seeks to “create an intercultural dialogue” through her own performative language which has developed through ongoing poetic and political research. Anchoring itself to Brault’s engaged and feminist practice in facing social inequities and aberrations of today’s world, she uses this language to evoke ritual related relationships to earth, human beings, their languages and transformations.

As I entered Latitude 53 Brault greeted me with a warm handshake and a “hello.” She explained to me loosely what her performance, Let Me Wash This Off Your Hands was going to be: she was simply going to wash people’s hands. We agreed to have a chat after the performance and left Latitude 53 to head to her location, a few short blocks away at Beaver Hills House Park or Amiskwaskahegan on 105th Street and Jasper Avenue. Amiskwaciy or Beaver Hills is Cree for the rolling upland region in Central Alberta, just east of Edmonton; Amiskwaskahegan or Beaver Hills Park is home to The Aboriginal Walk of Honour, and exists as a kind of oasis—the only green space along that section of Jasper Avenue. As Brault describes her work as site-specific and reliant on context, the placement of this piece is no accident and is in fact very important to how the content of this work is read.

Christine Brault performing at Visualeyez 2016. Photo by Jack Bawden.

On the way over to the park, I help Brault carry a large water cooler sized jug of hot water. While at first the jug is only warm, over the course of the walk it starts to feel like it is burning my hands and I wonder how quickly the water will cool off in the crisp autumn air. Brault carries a roll of white paper, a brush, an empty pitcher, a towel and a large bowl—in addition to the large jug of water. Upon arrival, she unrolls the paper in the center of a dried-out pond area in the centre of the park, holding the sheet down with twigs, stones and pieces of bark, rests the large bowl on the knot of a tree trunk, and fills the pitcher with water.

Brault’s piece is set to run from 2:30 until 5:30pm, and begins right on time. She stands holding the pitcher, patiently smiling at folks who walk by. After a few moments, she invites someone up to come and have their hands washed.

Brault instructs the person to put their hands in the bowl to allow her to wash them. She takes time with the person: I watch the backs of their heads move, leaning towards each other in conversation, and wonder what they are talking about. Brault picks up the towel, and gently dries off the individual’s hands. The two of them then walk to the center of the dried out pond where the large sheet of white paper is lying. Using the leftover water from the hand washing, Brault paints something onto the paper using the brush she has brought along. It isn’t until the second participant has their hands washed that I realize she is writing the participant’s names on the paper.

After Brault finishes with each participant, she walks with the bowl of water over to one of the many trees in the park and pours the leftover water out onto the grass that covered it’s closest roots. After a few participants go up, it is my turn. Brault greets me with complete openness, asking me simple, gentle questions. She shares a story with me and the asks me if there is anything I need to wash off.
I think for a second.

Indeed there is. A recent loss in my family that sits right at the top of my heart.

I share it with Brault, and she softly rinses my hands.

We chat a bit more and I actually cry.
It only really sinks in after I sit back down that I just completely opened up about something incredibly personal to someone who is basically a stranger to me.

Christine Brault performing at Visualeyez 2016. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.

To feel listened to and taken care of by a stranger is for many people, something completely unusual. It was Brault’s absolute openness with me that set the stage and allowed for my absolute openness with her. I later asked Brault about her conversations with each individual. She explained that depending on the person, she asked what she felt they wanted to answer. We talked a bit about the openness, specifically that which I felt between her and I during my participation in the performance. Brault explained that she saw her own openness as key to creating a interpersonal space for others to share with her both a physically and emotionally vulnerable exchange. That vulnerability is something I watched Brault share with each participant over the course of her performance.

In general, public spaces do not allow for vulnerable, open, person-to-person physical or emotional interactions. On top of that, a normally individualized action, washing one’s hands, is not often shared intimately with another person. Through a cleansing ritualistic action—the metaphorical connotations of having one’s hands washed by another—Brault created an intimacy that interrogated the coldness, individualization and segregation of ordinary public spaces and of people’s behavior towards each other in those spaces.

Over the course of her action, I wondered about the emotional labor that this performance was requiring from the artist—whether taking in each of these extremely intimate personal encounters was emotionally draining for her or not, and how that related to the anchoring theme of Visualeyez 2016: kindness. When I asked Brault if kindness is a theme that she has explored in other work she said no, but explained that kindness is something that she integrates into her artistic approach. It is something she values and that value was clear in this work: not only was Brault’s piece a person-to-person act of sharing and giving, but she ended each inter-human interaction with an inter-species act of sharing by using the leftover water to water trees in the park. In this cyclical, non-wasteful, non-capitalistic act of gift giving, Brault’s interpretation of kindness becomes even more present. This performance art piece was not a performance for “art makers” or “art people”, but rather an action taking place in real space and real time that pushed everyone in that public space to participate and reconsider their relationships to themselves, the space, and each other.

—Leila Plouffe, Fall 2016

Leila Plouffe is currently in her final year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art and Design degree at the University of Alberta. Plouffe works mainly with textiles, video, installation and painting in her art practice, frequently dealing with themes of self-care, care, and identity performance Plouffe aims to challenge and denaturalize hegemonic systems of being.

First photo by Jack Bawden. Second photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.