“It wasn’t real until the light disappeared.” That’s how Billy Curmano described his feelings on being buried alive outside his studio in Rushford, Minnesota, on Sept. 16.
The burial and subsequent exhumation Sept. 19 culminated several months of preparations for Curmano’s “Performance for the Dead.”
Curmano began training for the project in January, fasting and getting in shape for the ordeal. Along the way he enlisted the help (and dollar donations) of many friends and sponsors, among them the Wisconsin Art Guild, the Winona County Arts Council, St. Mary's College and the Food Learning Center of Winona.
And if the sound of the dirt being poured over the gravesite was “a little bit unsettling” to him, the whole affair was probably a tad unsettling to many area residents. After all, it’s not everyday that somebody, even an artist, gets buried when they don’t have to.
And performance, or conceptual, art isn’t exactly a commonplace occurrence in southeastern Minnesota. One person even suggested that people in the area were a little “provincial” if they didn’t understand Curmano’s work, which has included other off-the-wall performances like his “intergalactic concert tour” last year. Curmano, though, disagreed. “It’s not that they can’t understand it,” he said in an interview before the performance. “They just haven’t been exposed to it as much as people on the coasts.”
That’s certainly true. It was definitely my first real-life glimpse of this type of thing. Oh sure, I’d seen a couple conceptual art pieces on TV – I vividly recall one in which the performer had someone shoot him in the shoulder – but I didn’t know quite what to expect that coldish September day when I packed up the Datsun and headed up to Winona with my photographer Shawn Dalton.
When we arrived at a beautiful Victorian home in Winona, a New Orleans-style jazz funeral was already in full swing. A small crowd was gathered on and around the sprawling porch, listening to the solemn sounds of the Gate City Jass Band. Friends dressed in appropriate mourning gear milled around, talking, tapping a cup or two from the keg at the back of the porch, taking a glimpse inside the coffin to view the “dead” Curmano, who did a remarkable job of keeping a straight face throughout the proceedings. (“I saw a couple smirks,” a friend remarked later, but quickly added: “But they say that’ll happen to the corpse at times.”)
The whole atmosphere was much more festive than I anticipated. The crowd became downright ecstatic when a huge clap of thunder broke and the rain started to pour. (“Way to go, Billy!” shouted one fan.)
Later, an impromptu rendezvous at the Hei & Lo Bar (ever see 15 cars do a U-turn at one intersection?) extended the festive mood as the “pallbearers” carried in Curmano for a “visit.” When the procession finally arrived at the ultimate destination, Curmano’s Art Works USA studio outside Rushford, the party rolled on into the night. I guess it’s like Curmano said: “Because I’m not actually dead, there’s really no reason to mourn.”
Inside the burial vault for the prior few days was a different scene altogether. Curmano concentrated on his art. He played his vibraphones. He recorded sounds. He danced. He sought visions.
They came. One, the brilliant white light we all associate with death. A vision of a brown, dying cactus. Images of his father and other figures. And faces with skin falling away from them (“a product of B horror movies,” Curmano said).
When it came time to be exhumed, Curmano was disoriented, but knew he wanted it to end. Unfortunately, his coffin was lifted out feet first, head down. Later, he said: “I don’t think there’s any respect anymore.”
That statement seemed rather ironic, considering Curmano’s predilection for taking stabs at polite society, like his subtle jabs at the art establishment in Performance for the Dead. (Curmano’s work doubled in value while he was “dead”; after he was dug up, it promptly reverted to its original value.)
Now that this performance is over, the artist plans a short rest before traveling to Minneapolis to participate in a program staged by a Los Angeles conceptual artist next month. Seems like it will be a while before Curmano can make good on the statement he issued to fans and media at a post-event reception:
“I was planning retirement,” he said, when asked about his future plans. “It’s slightly unorthodox, but then a lot of my work has been unorthodox. I thought retirement should follow death directly.”
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in Earfood magazine in 1984. Looking back on a long career traveling the country writing about music and other creative endeavors, this is definitely one of the most unique artists/performances I ever covered. It's part of my Weird Midwest story collection. To learn more about Billy, I recommend this 2015 article by Marcia Ratliff for the Winona Daily News. -Starling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in a small Wisconsin blue-collar town, Mike Starling ditched the assembly line for a long, sometimes circuitous career working with words, sound and images. His original music is heard on numerous recordings and soundtracks, and his stories and photos have been featured in books, films, mags and other media. Among his other interesting career moves, he has edited a beer magazine, played bass in a reggae band and sold potato chips door-to-door. Inspired by the life-altering events of 2020, he launched a year-long web-based project called I Remember Travel in January 2021.
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I REMEMBER TRAVEL
Journeys in sight and sound by Mike Starling
All text, images and music in the I Remember Travel weblog ©Mike Starling unless otherwise noted. Music published by Bean Hoy Music (BMI). All rights reserved.