MAH’s ‘Beyond the Grave’ springs to life this month

The Museum of Art & History launched a series of performances in Evergreen Cemetery in 2021
The Museum of Art & History launched a series of performances in Evergreen Cemetery in 2021 that continues in a partnership with the musical programmer Indexical the next two weekends.
(Via Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

The MAH and Indexical combine forces to present a contemplative and provocative artistic experience at Santa Cruz’s historic Evergreen Cemetery.

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A cemetery is certainly an, um, unusual site for an artistic performance. But an art museum is an unusual administrator of a cemetery, and the Santa Cruz-based non-profit Indexical is an unusual music presenter. So nothing about this weekend’s “Beyond the Grave” event is business as usual.

“Beyond the Grave” kicks off on Friday with consecutive weekends of “site-specific” live performances at Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz on a makeshift stage with an audience of about 40 seated on folding chairs amid the headstones. Given it’s April and not October, there is nothing “Halloween-y” about the event; it is, instead, designed to be a sober-minded and open-hearted meditation on death, history, and memorializing the past.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) manages the cemetery – one of California’s oldest – established in the 1850s as the final resting place for pioneers, immigrants, gold hunters, and Civil War veterans. In 2021, the MAH established the “Beyond the Grave” series with local musicians who, inspired by the setting, performed live at the cemetery. This year, the MAH has partnered with Indexical, the arts group based at the Tannery Arts Center, dedicated to pursuing experimental and radical artistic expressions.

“Before we had our own space at the Tannery,” said Indexical’s executive director Andrew Smith, “Indexical was doing performances all over the place. We did a big performance at the Lighthouse [on West Cliff Drive] in 2019. That involved cyclists converging from all over town and dancers and singers coming into the Lighthouse area. And the year before that, we did a program called ‘Melt Me Into the Ocean’ out at Seabright State Beach that was pretty spread out and where the performers could kind of move through the audience there. So we definitely have a history of doing things in strange places.”

“Beyond the Grave” consists of six separate hour-long performances, spaced over two weekends. The first happens Friday at 6 p.m., followed by two performances on Saturday, at 1 and 6 p.m. That schedule repeats the weekend of April 22-23. (In case of rain, any postponed performance will be made up on Sunday at 1 p.m. both weekends). The designated audience space sits about 40 people per show.

The "high-low" Boston-based Departure Duo of soprano Nina Guo and double-bassist Edward Kass
The “high-low” Boston-based Departure Duo of soprano Nina Guo and double-bassist Edward Kass performs the next two weekends at the “Beyond the Grave” series.
(Via Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

Each performance will feature four acts:

➤ Improvisational dancer and choreographer Madi McGain, who will do a different improvised dance piece for each show, without sound or music, inspired by her surroundings as a meditation on the cemetery as a place of silence.

➤ The Boston-based Departure Duo, featuring soprano Nina Gao and contrabassist Edward Kass, performing “Evil’s Peak” by Jamaican composer Mikhail Johnson. The composition is inspired by the composer’s experiences living in Jamaica, and the church-state attitudes and policies toward death.

➤ Santa Cruz based poet and performance artist Angel Dominguez, reading epistolary poems directed at the long-dead Spanish conquistador who attempted to eradicate the Yucatec language of the Mayan people.

➤ Artist Aja Bond, who will close each show with a guided meditation with the audience wearing sleeping blindfolds filled with compost material, as a way to contemplate the organic process of decomposition and the biological cycle of turning death into new life.

Performance artist Aja Bond explores the conception of organic decomposition
Artist Aja Bond explores the conception of organic decomposition in her piece to be presented this weekend and next at Evergreen Cemetery.
(Via Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

Bond, a Canadian-born artist who has been living in Santa Cruz since 2016, is making more than 200 silk masks filled with soil – a bit of it from the graveyard itself. “Not only will people not have access to sight,” she explained, “but, if they choose to participate, they’ll have the fragrance and the temperature and the dampness of the soil literally on their face in this proximity that we’re not really used to. Hopefully, it provides something novel and something moving.”

“I’m really interested in the kind of material way that these artists are approaching this,” said Smith of the “Beyond” program as a whole. “They’re not romanticizing death or [conjuring] ghosts or anything like that. It’s a way of acknowledging this fact of life that happens, grappling with it, and giving the audience the space to sort through their own emotions about it.”

Tickets to “Beyond the Grave” are $20 general; $12 MAH members.

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