What does it mean to be touched by art?
That question lingered in my mind — and on my skin — after I experienced “As Far as Isolation Goes,” a one-on-one theatrical encounter devised by Tania El Khoury and Basel Zaraa.
“One-on-one” is perhaps a misnomer now. Zaraa, who performs the piece, was at home in Birmingham, England; I was in the woods near Rhinebeck, N.Y. Bringing us together, at an appointed time, was the Fisher Center at Bard College, where El Khoury is an artist in residence. The connection was perfectly smooth, but nevertheless entirely virtual.
That was not the case when I saw Zaraa in “As Far as My Fingertips Take Me” at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival in January 2019. In that piece, he told the story of his three sisters’ flight from a refugee camp in Syria to safe harbor in Sweden. As he did so, he drew figures on my arm — my actual arm, extended through a hole in the partition that divided us. The figures, he said, represented the journeys that so many Palestinians, and others, had taken. You could hardly get more touching than that.
The new work is something of a sequel and something of a workaround. The story Zaraa tells this time is not about flight but landing: what happens to refugees once they resettle. Even after 10 years, his own new life includes feelings of isolation, depression and what seems to be a fraying identity. A rap performed on video with two friends (in Arabic with English subtitles) describes their shared experience as a storm that “hit us and left us/Dead, mad, or injured.” It then asks: “How many times have you lost yourself?”
However many losses that adds up to for Zaraa, the pandemic has added yet another in preventing him from performing “As Far as Isolation Goes” the way he and El Khoury intended. Instead of drawing on his audience in person, we are asked to draw on ourselves. Perhaps the doubleness of that phrase helps explain why what follows, though so simple, is so powerful.
Having gathered the requested supplies — a paint brush, a permanent marker, a piece of cloth and a dish of water — I did my best to follow directions. First, I drew a line down my left middle finger to the center of my palm, where I sketched a box with a person in it. Then, dipping the paintbrush in the water, I wet that image until it blurred. Lastly I populated my forearm with figures in transit, some pushing wheelies and some wearing backpacks.
That was it: 15 minutes tops. Afterward, when Zaraa, a sad-eyed, 36-year-old musician and artist, asked if I had any questions, my first was this: What did the blurring of the figure in the box mean to him?
It was, he told me, a way of remembering those refugees who never found refuge, sometimes because they were lost at sea.
A paradox of well-meaning plays is that they can substitute a fleeting aesthetic experience for a lasting tangible one. They make us feel good for getting and liking them, when they may have preferred to needle us into action. Barn-burning outrage dramas are usually ashes in minutes.
“As Far as Isolation Goes” avoids that problem, reaching further with a smaller idea. It has no political agenda, only an emotional and physical one, built on the idea that you are the canvas — and now, to some extent, the artist.
Because even if your line is wobbly and your figures feeble in comparison to Zaraa’s — his own artwork has the boldly graphic quality of graffiti — drawing them yourself inscribes them in some small way on your conscience. Indeed, days later, though pandemic hand washing had nearly erased my refugees, I kept checking my arm to see who was left.
And even now that there are none, I’m still looking.
As Far as Isolation Goes
Through March 21; fishercenter.bard.edu