Nathan Ira – Performance Artist

Posted on: June 11, 2013 by Brian Thabault

Nathan Ira is a performance artist. His primary medium is his actions and body. Unlike other mediums of art, performance art is difficult to archive. The art happens in the moment, it is defined by the viewer as it happens. A person can watch a video, or view a photograph, but nothing will match the experience of being there and witnessing the performance as it unfolds. A video cannot recreate the atmosphere and tension in the room or the physical reactions of the audience.

Nathan Ira - Theory Magazine
You Deserve a Flower

One of Nathan’s ongoing projects is called “You Deserve A Flower.” It is an attempt to positively impact people’s lives. Nathan began the project by wandering the streets and giving people flowers with a note saying, “For whatever you are dealing with, you deserve this.” He makes the moment fairly personal by only carrying one flower at a time. The note attached to the flower has an email address on the back. Nathan chronicles any responses the email receives on the project’s blog. The project gained international attention through the press, and has since grown to involve other people who are volunteering to hand out flowers.

As a work of art, “You Deserve a Flower” physically boils down to a flower and a note with ten words on it, the real weight of the art lies in the experience of receiving the flower and the resulting emotions. The only true viewers of Nathan’s work in “You Deserve A Flower” are those who have received a flower.

My first physical introduction to Nathan’s work beyond reading about “You Deserve a Flower” was at “Welcome To Me,” a solo show that he performed at The Cottonwood Club in November of 2012. I went to the show having no idea what to expect. The invitation was decidedly vague and even after getting to the show and seeing what was going on, I was still unclear. The venue had been covered in yellow translucent plastic, and Nathan was wandering around with a notebook and a sharpie, writing facts about his life on the plastic. He was writing things like “When I was 13, I saw 49 days with a min. temperature of 10 degrees.” The entire space was covered with facts like that regarding Nathan’s life. It was very mathematical and precise. I walked up to Nathan and tried to engage him in conversation. He ignored me. He wasn’t talking to anybody.

Nathan Ira - Theory Magazine
Welcome To Me, Cottonwood Club, 2012 – photo: Ethan Fasching

The space was beginning to fill up with people who had come to see the show. It was a typical scene for an art show, beer, wine, and conversations were flowing and people were milling around reading the facts. Suddenly, Nathan stopped writing and began to violently tear down the plastic. He was slashing at it with a razor blade and running around ripping it off the walls. The crowd stopped speaking and stood still to watch. Nathan continued to tear away the plastic, while at the same time tearing off his clothes. By the time all of the plastic had been stripped off the walls, all of Nathan’s clothes save his underwear had also been stripped off. He came to a stop in the center of the room and stood stock still. The crowd remained silent. The energy in the room was palpable. The walls beneath the plastic had also been written on.

Nathan Ira - Theory Magazine
Welcome To Me, Cottonwood Club, 2012 – photo: Ethan Fasching

Once my attention wandered from Nathan standing there, I began to read other facts about Nathan. Facts that were personal and deep Secret facts that were close to him. There were things like “I’m afraid I’m a terrible artist,” and “I am loved for my openness.” They were things that were extremely revealing. The atmosphere in the room did not dissipate, the silence continued, and Nathan stood there for almost an hour. People began to approached him, hugged him, told him their own vulnerablities. He had created an incredible experience for the audience. It wasn’t just about him, it was about the audience experiencing his feelings and reflecting on their own truths.

Nathan Ira - Theory Magazine
Welcome To Me, Cottonwood Club, 2012 – photo: Ethan Fasching

Nathan Ira - Theory Magazine
Welcome To Me, Cottonwood Club, 2012 – photo: Ethan Fasching

I recently sat down with Nathan to discuss “Welcome To Me,” along with art and life in general.

Who were your earliest inspirations to become an artist?

I don’t think there was one person. It was more like one event. I got done with high school and had no fucking idea what I wanted to do at all. I finally decided to go to college, and a week before college, me and my friend Max took a trip to San Francisco, and I did acid for the first time in Golden Gate Park. I ended up just sitting down and painting for three hours straight. From then on it’s been art all the way. I was painting for a while, and then a couple of years ago I was introduced to an artist named Marina Abramovic who is a really incredible performance artist. She was a huge inspiration to me to start trying performance art. As far as artists go, she was a big influence.

When you started the “You Deserve a Flower” project. did you have any idea how much attention it would get in the press?

Not really. I didn’t really think it was going to happen. I started the project, and then I didn’t really think it was going to work, because I didn’t have enough money for flowers. They are kind of expensive. So I thought maybe if I contact a newspaper, and get a little story printed up that I could find some support. Then they just threw it on the front page and I was like, “Whoa.” Now the blog is closing in on 8,000 hits. The next step is getting more funding, and buying more flowers for people across the globe.

Do you have a team of people that are helping you hand them out?

Yeah, I’ve got one girl in Australia, a guy in New York, a guy in Portland, another in Salt Lake.

Are they friends of yours or people that randomly contacted you?

Some of them are friends and some of them contacted me.

What was your favorite element of this project so far?

My favorite part is giving flowers to old women, because they get SO happy. Going and handing out flowers can kind of suck a lot. There is a huge amount of rejection that you face. A lot of people think I’m trying to get something from them, or they just don’t understand and say no. All I’m trying to do is give you a little bit of positivity. I’m not trying to get anything. I’m not trying to push anything on anyone. It’s just a positive gesture. Yet, people are so quick to reject it.

So people do turn down the flowers?

Oh, yeah. Quite often actually.

What is the percentage of people who turn them down?

Probably two or three out of ten. But that was more in the beginning. Now it’s probably less because I kind of choose who I give flowers to, which I don’t like, but it’s become obvious, for instance, that older men don’t like getting flowers. I can look at somebody nowadays and tell if they are going to say no or yes.

Is there a deeper level that we can dig into that or is it just the way it is?

I don’t know. I think it’s mostly our society and gender roles. And sometimes, people are just too busy. I try to find people who look like they are having a hard day. Or if I see a mom, I always try to give a mom a flower. If you are carting around two kids and running errands all day, that’s hard. I don’t like running errands myself, but if I had to do it while carting around two little kids who are just saying stuff at me all day and getting distracted and wandering off, that is a whole other thing.

Which “You Deserve a Flower” e-mail response had the greatest effect on you?

There was one where a girl essentially described her thought process when I gave her a flower. She said “I saw you walking down the street and thought, ‘Oh, I wonder who that flower is for? That is so sweet,’ and then I realized that the flower was for me, and it totally turned my entire day around.” She elaborated how she had been stressed out from work, class and all this stuff and how that one simple gesture had such a large effect. When I got that e-mail, I thought that, for me, I would have had that same thought pattern.

The show “Welcome to Me” was a very personally revealing event. How did you mentally prepare for it?

Oh, man. Just convincing myself it was going to be good art. I don’t view myself as a particularly talented person. I’m not a great drawer. I’m not a great painter. I can do words pretty well. I like to think that I am a good poet, but I don’t have enough innate skill to rely on that for my art. I have to be really open and truthful with my work. I think that is one of my biggest strengths, so why not exploit that to the maximum? Within “Welcome To Me,” I thought that there were enough universal truths on the wall behind the plastic that people could relate to. So it would be more people seeing the truths and relating to them, than reading them and judging me for it. But that was only my mindset half the time. The other half of the time it was the other way. It was like, “People are going to judge me. This is stupid. Why am I telling people when I lost my virginity? Why am I telling people that I question my sexuality?” I don’t know, it was a fucking roller coaster month leading up to that. I had been preparing for the show for a long time, but it didn’t ever become real until the last two weeks. Then it was like, “Holy shit, people are actually going to see this.”

So when you did the show, did you have any idea how the audience was going to react?

I had no idea. I can’t even believe that people cried. That one blew me away. That was something that I never really thought my art could be capable of. Some of it was my friends, and they were crying, because there were ways that I tried to kill myself, and why I hate myself. And my friends, they love me, and they care about me, so seeing that hurt them. But then it was also some complete strangers, which really, really shocked me.

I was shocked by the complete rapture and silence that enveloped the room once you started tearing the plastic down.

Yes, that came as a surprise to me as well. Something I did not expect.

Is there a reaction from the audience that you strive to achieve?

I never really know. It’s about setting up a parameter for an experience. I try not to practice it. The more practice it is, the more it turns into a piece of theater, or a play. Like I’ve got my lines memorized, and I know what I’m going to do every moment. If it’s like that, you lose a lot of truth in it. I just set up a situation and see what happens.

With the pedestal project, were you aware of how long it was going to take to break it down?

No. Not at all. I jumped up on that pedestal and five hacks into it, I was like, “Oh my god. This is way fucking hard. I am so stupid. I just got myself into this? Are you kidding me?” My right hand was recently sprained, so I went into the show thinking I would have to do it all left-handed. I started, and it was way harder than I expected, and I said, “You are going to have to use your right hand. For the next however long, pain isn’t a thing. It’s going to hurt a lot later, it’s going to hurt a lot tomorrow, and the next day, but for right now, pain is not a thing.”

You also write poetry and your work strives to bring poetry into a three dimensional world. Where is the line between performance art and poetry?

I don’t know if there needs to be a line. If I were to draw one, it would be words. If there are words involved, and I’m talking, and there is some audio, then it is more poetry, but they are so intertwined at this point. Performance art is my body as the medium, essentially. In most of my videos, I’m using my own voice and my own body, which are very similar mediums. In the past, I didn’t really see those two disciplines melding. I had been working on them in parallel, and then one day, they just started coming together.

Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

Yeah, I think so… with most religions there is so much bullshit tied on with these good messages. A lot of them have really good core messages like “Care for each other,” and “Don’t be a dick.” That is the main message behind a good amount of religions, but so much bad is done in the name of religion that for a while, I totally rejected all religions. I was like, “Nah, I’m not spiritual; we’re all just creatures.” A real nihilist kind of view. Then I realized that being a nihilist is equally as big a cop-out as being super religious. You are just turning a blind eye and shutting everything out, like “Nothing matters,” or “Everything I do matters.” Either way you go is as equal a cop-out. As far as spirituality goes for me, it boils down to this Carl Sagan quote, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.” That to me makes more sense explaining why we are here than everything else I’ve ever heard. Because we are “of the universe.” We are all leftover star parts.

Why do you make art?

Why? It’s something I feel like I have to do. It brings me more joy than anything I do, for sure. I really like that connection you get with people. If you are making really good art, 95% of the people that come to your show aren’t going to get it or aren’t even going to try to get it. In that tiny little group of people left over that are really trying to get it, some of them might get it. And when they do, talking to them about it, and having a dialogue based on that art is the reason I make art. It’s more about that human connection and connecting each other and getting to the core of something real. Too many times you go out, and you’re just bullshitting, which is good. You need it. You need that social interaction. You need the bullshit. But, there is time for something more than that. I think, as a society, we need more open, honest dialogues. I feel like I have something, and I really need to share it.

What does Nathan Ira have planned for the future?

Shorter term, I’m working on a digital video about the “You Deserve a Flower” project. I’m making a poetry album, brainstorming for more shows, trying to apply to galleries, trying to get some grants. Once I finish up school, I want to move to a big city to try to make an art career.

You can watch more videos of Nathan’s performances at vimeo.com/nathanira.

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Posted on: June 11, 2013 by Brian Thabault