Shana Moultons Tree of Strife


Making her way inch by inch down the right side of the darkened room, Cynthia’s body is pressed against the wall, arms outstretched with a look of fear and exasperation barely visible. At the end of her journey, a bed appears via video projection, and a melodic morning song begins. “Wake up sleepy head!” a woman’s voice coos.


Cynthia  is the alter-ego of performance artist Shana Moulton, a body-dysmorphic, hypochondriac loner who came alive for two days this past weekend in Whispering Pines 10 in order to broach old questions about destiny in a contemporary, professional and secular world. The one-act opera was staged at the New Museum by Moulton, composer Nick Hallett, and vocalist Daisy Press; the latter two appear throughout in long white gowns to move forward the narrative.

Moulton, a native Californian who studied at Berkeley, has worked on the Whispering Pines series over the last few years. She is evidently literate in the tradition of environmentaiism and activism in her home university, which she infuses with contemporary concerns about overconsumption and global warming and a generational sense of both the medication of idiosyncratic personalities and, more abstractly, of potentials grand and stunted. This most recent performance is a shorter, portable version of a work that took place last April, but still featured a bombastic three-channel video installation, interactive multimedia elements and an original score exploring the protagonist’s quest to rid herself of imagined ailments and discover life’s purpose.

“About half of the songs were inspired by moments from Shana’s videos, little details that sparked music in me,” Hallett explained. “It’s supposed to leave you feeling conflicted but awake.” As the music engulfs the tiny theater, projections on the left, center, and right walls share the hallucinatory visions of Cynthia’s world as she executes her mundane morning routine of calisthenics and cleaning. Lo-fi imagery of mirrors, butterflies and computer graphics bleeds into homey outdated décor to reveal vaporizers, crystals, thrift store and gift shop finds, and Grecian sculpture. Cynthia wipes off her clutter, bringing each item to life.

Shortly we’re introduced to a character inspired by one Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who, we learn and admire, spent two years living in a 600-year redwood to save it from the lumber industry. Julia sings of her experience, which became her raison d’etre. “What is your tree?” She asks Cynthia, who grimaces. With every dusting, she renews her beliefs in New Age strategies marketing a more spiritually fit, clean way of living. Perhaps if she believed enough, her thinking goes, the paralyzing fears about well-being would dissipate. Classical questions of faith take a seemingly glib turn, but focus on a very accessible matter of assessing and realizing potential.

Our protagonist earns moments of freedom, which is here easily confused with comfort. She climbs up her chimney to the top of a tree, breathing in fresh air as a Technicolor wind chime floats by. Later, she finds comfort in an Escher-like animation loop as she shimmies into a pink Snuggie. These are self-evidently naive sources of personal affirmation, and just as soon as she settles into these moments of peace, Cynthia is jolted back to a state of anguish: What is her tree? The question is banal and epic, and ranges in scope and tone.

She studies a self-help book, How to Attract, Feed and House Birds, which suggest peanut butter nourishes birds. If Cynthia can feed the birds like Julia has saved the trees, she might reconcile herself to life’s challenge. In a final leap of faith, Moulton’s second self smothers her face with peanut butter, coating it with birdseed. Sacrificing her body to the winged creatures of the earth, Moulton enacts an exhilarating, horror-film send-up ofeasy answers.