Body Blow Against the Social Order

Self Portrait as John Henry, Sheldon Scott

Join us live & online for Networked Conversations, hosted by Randall Packer from the Underground Studio Bunker in Washington, DC with Peter Nesbett & Sheldon Scott, Saturday, February 22, 12-1pm ET-US. To access & Save Your Spot in the broadcast: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/networked-conversations-2-22-20


Sheldon Scott’s body is a canvas for enacting the constraints & mechanisms of oppression. The DC performance artist has transgressed his previous work as a psychoanalyst to direct his analytical gaze at the psychological warfare of racism & social control. It’s an extraordinary thing to watch – a living & breathing physical protest against inhumanity – when just last week, I saw Sheldon perform an excerpt from his epic 13-hour work portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sundown) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, the first performance art commissioned by the museum.

portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sundown), National Portrait Gallery, Sheldon Scott

Sheldon Scott’s own life is an extraordinary narrative. He was born and raised in rural, coastal South Carolina, in a heritage descendant of African slaves. He grew up dirt poor in a mobile home, where his performance sensibility was honed by his exposure to Galluh culture, African Americans who live in the low country region of South Carolina and Georgia. His childhood memories now resonate in his work in powerful ways, bringing a grace to his quiet protest against the social order of his past, an elegance to his black-suited, bare-foot presence, and a poignancy to the careful tediousness of his actions.

portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sundown), Sheldon Scott

In Sheldon’s own words:

“From sun up until sun down, the body will hull and winnow rice grains, then place the hulled grains, one by one, on a tomb-like vessel lined with burlap until the weight and value of the vessel equals that of the body laboring to fill it. This rhythmic, inane process will communicate the transactional and the incalculable.”

Sheldon peels each grain of rice meticulously, one by one, a performance of the extreme tedious nature of the task, bringing the audience into the durational power of the accumulation of seeds & residue on stage. The artist wears a black suit, the symbol of black success, here subjugated & soiled by sheer repetition, the near endless repetition of the process. And yet, there is a quiet elegance in Sheldon’s presence, transcending the horror of the meaninglessness of the machine-like actions, embracing a power that illuminates the moment in a quiet beauty. This meditational stasis draws the viewer in close, a collective agreement to reflect, to question, and to internalize the oppression of social control in the intimacy of catharsis.

portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sundown), Sheldon Scott

The idea of confronting social control is a timely issue in today’s climate of disinformation & propaganda streaming daily via the algorithms of social media. Most of us in our own way subject ourselves to the controlling mechanisms of our feeds and the metrics designed to enslave us in constant participation. Watching Sheldon peeling grains of rice, mechanically, one after the next, instilled in me the reality of how digital systems of social control dominate our existence in a hyper-technological society. What the artist has done, essentially, is magnify the act of control, stripping away all artifice to give us an extreme closeup of how so many of are captive, unwitting cogs in the machine.

Networked Conversations, hosted by Randall Packer with Peter Nesbett & Sheldon Scott, Saturday, January 25, 12-1pm ET-US. Calculate your time zone. For more information: https://thirdspacenetwork.com/peter-nesbett-sheldon-scott/

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