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Art inspires reflection on Utah's Capitol Hill

SALT LAKE CITY — At dusk Thursday, most of the city was filled with noises akin to rush hour. But in the heads of at least 40 people, scattered throughout the urban fabric, there was silence.

The individuals, dressed in all white, were part of the durational performance "Awaiting," which was "meant to slow things down and send a subtle reminder of the human need for silence and solitude in order to reflect," according to the piece's artist, Ernesto Pujol, the first recipient of the Marva and John Warnock Endowed Art Residency Program at the University of Utah's College of Fine Arts. He said the art form is most closely related to sculpture.

"It's kind of odd," said Dylan Camp, who happened upon the installment while driving home from work. "It's definitely not normal for this to be happening, so yeah, it made me stop and think."

Camp said he probably would not be able to be part of the work of art, having to focus on one thing and be silent for 12 hours, but he was interested in those who could. He was one of dozens who came and went through the night, some never knowing what it was all about.

"In creating a piece like this, I remind people that the most important things in life cannot be bought or exchanged as a kind of material," Pujol said.

The Cuban-born, New York-based, site-specific artist has been conducting similar performances for the past 20 years, creating public art pieces all over the world, most recently in Israel and Chicago. He teaches art and design in New York City, and his current piece was born from a year's worth of research on Salt Lake City — the history, the people and the place.

But it all goes back to the notion of waiting, he said.

"The pioneers planted seeds and waited. It was all they could do," Pujol said.

Salt Lake City's dominant religion of Mormonism, he said, "embodies a people of faith who await the coming of a figure who will transform everyone and everything," and a tight-knit community of loyal military families in the area "wait for peace." And, Pujol said, all Americans are "waiting for so many things to be restored" from various political and economic circumstances that have arisen in the past 10 years.

"It's not an opera, it's not a drama," he said, likening the performance, rather, to "a slice of life," not for the average "passive television viewer" who desires to be distracted.

Performers ascended and descended the steps of the state Capitol, forming a sort of biblical Jacob's Ladder, with their minds going back and forth from earth to sky. They continued throughout the night, then disappeared back into the city "like a morning mist dispersing at dawn," which was Pujol's intent. They moved to a soundtrack of various voices and sounds designed by local artist Rosi Hayes.

"It's a very gentle invitation to something deeper that is getting lost now that we have cell phones and hand-held devices," Pujol said. "We used to have these moments of silence where we could reflect about life and issues while we were waiting for the bus or for a movie or a loved one. But now, everything is filled up with a kind of exchange.

"We are in the habit of checking e-mail or going online in our hands. There's not even a waiting anymore. We are always so efficient, always working … and we forget that the real meaning and direction and depth of life lies not in this kind of frenzied activity, but in knowing who we are."

Andy Hayes, Rosi Hayes' mother, said the experience was somewhat sacred and spiritual to her, as people gathered to reflect on what was happening. As a mother, she said she can relate to the notion of waiting.

"It really got my heart going," she said. "There really are not a lot of snap responses to this sort of thing. I've gone through several (emotional) cycles just standing here."

Many who watched the performance caught onto the idea of it being meditative, and Lisa Wallace, who was visiting from Reno, Nev., said it helped her "to want to find a balance between the still and the perpetual world."

"You can say a whole lot without really saying a word," she said while closely watching the slow movement on the steps. She planned to watch for a while.

Performers to break silence

A post-event conversation with performers, "On the Other Side of Silence," will be held at 6 p.m. April 21 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, at the University of Utah.