One day in 2015, Erica Felicella invited a few friends over to destroy her house. They scattered paper and pill bottles. They made mountains of mail and hills of dirty dishes that threatened to reach the ceiling. When every room was ruined, Felicella invited people into her home to tour and touch anything they wanted.
“I break the rules,” she says. “With me, you must touch the art.”
The piece was called Behind the Closed Door, and it was a typical Felicella performance: creative, cathartic, and admittedly strange. Most of the 43-year-old artist’s work includes at least one impressive feat of endurance, and this time, that meant going a whole week without sleep. The artist wanted to portray a woman wracked by agoraphobia and anxiety, so while she focused on insomnia, her set designer friends turned Felicella’s home into a walking nightmare of trash, bills, and disarray.
“In the society we live in, how many people do we know are behind closed doors?” Felicella says. “I wanted to let them in.”
The patrons who walked through the house were treated like ghosts. They could roam while talking to each other or the artist, but Felicella would never respond. Then, before they left, they were given a pad and pen to write a letter to the piece.
“Life is a pressure valve, and sometimes we don’t know where to find the release valve,” she says. “No one wants me to be their therapist, but through my work, I like to offer some sort of resolution or acceptance.”
As 2020 ends, Felicella hopes to once again direct people to a release valve. Her latest show, Resistance, Re-Live and Proceed will take place from sunrise to sunset in an abandoned lot at 1801 Sanger Ave. on Tuesday, December 29. This time, patrons are invited to jot down a struggle, a phrase, or anything they want to share, then discard the pencil and walk away.
Felicella will be on hand to help patrons unload their burdens. Literally. The artist will be laying on a bed of stones. As guests walk through the show, they’ll place a stone on Felicella’s body.
If you have any qualms about piling rocks on a stranger’s body, don’t worry: Felicella wants you to do it.
“My soul has a hole in it from this year,” she says. “I think people need this, and I need it, too.”
Felicella has held multiple consultancy roles with The Cedars Union and served as executive director of Aurora, the organization responsible for the wildly popular drive-thru event Area 3.
For her, performance art was never the goal. She started her career as a conceptual photographer. Then all of her gear was stolen, and Felicella lacked the insurance and the budget to replace it. That’s when she decided to give this new style of art a try, even if she didn’t know what it was at the time.
“People came to my first performance and said, ‘Oh, you’re a performance artist,’” she recalls. “I went home and Googled that, and realized, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I am.’”
That was in 2012. Felicella, who is bipolar and suffers from an anxiety disorder, was tired of the stigma people often face when they talk about any kind of suffering. So she did what felt right and natural: she locked herself in an acrylic box for 48 hours.
“I wanted to do something that gave me no option other than to lose it, to put myself in a situation where I would fall apart,” she says. “If you do 48 hours in an acrylic box where you have no conception of time other than the sun, and you just write the same sentence over and over again, that’s the definition of insanity.”
When people left that 2012 show, many of them weren’t talking about the lady in the box, or the fact that she filled up three reams of paper with the same sentence (“To see myself, i went inside my own shell”). Instead, patrons were buzzing about a certain medical instrument Felicella had to use to pull off the show.
“Everyone was like, ‘You had to wear a catheter? What was that like?’” she says. “And I’m just like, ‘…I had to sit there for 48 hours! Let’s talk about that!’”
Whatever Felicella goes through is ultimately beside the point. The experience of the guest is what truly matters to her.
Her 2014 show Unburden is proof. The show was the only Felicella performance designed for repeat acts. To pull it off, the artist constructed a prison visiting room and cast herself as the inmate. Guests visit her behind bars and, using a prison phone, tell her anything they want. They could share stories of heartbreak or loss. They could admit to crimes or share dark secrets. As long as Felicella was confident the visitor wouldn’t hurt themselves or others, she promised to never share a word of what they say.
“Some of these people who come are people I know pretty well,” she says. “I’m always impressed by their strength. I mean, they’re sharing some really, really heavy stuff, and they know they’re going to see me again. How brave is that?”
Resistance, Re-Live and Proceed is the result of a snap decision and a series of last-minute conversations. Be it photography or a performance, Felicella has put on some kind of show every year since 2002. While she could be forgiven for sitting out 2020, she decided shortly before Christmas that she couldn’t break her streak.
Patrons will use a card and pencil to write down whatever they want and place the card in a jar. Then, they’ll pick up a stone made of recycled concrete, navigate an uneven, rock-filled terrain, and find Felicella in the center. After placing their stone on the artist’s body, the guest will finish the show by writing any other thoughts they have in a journal open to all visitors. Felicella hopes the show gives guests some kind of release or closure.
“My No. 1 objective is, ‘If I didn’t affect one person in a positive or negative manner to where they deeply felt something, then that work failed,’” she says. “It 100 percent failed. It makes me feel braggy, but I have yet to have a piece where that happens, which I am incredibly grateful for. But I always wonder, ‘Will this be the one?’”
The latest show bears a few key similarities to that performance from 2015, when Felicella invited guests to witness the mess in her Oak Cliff home. Guests will once again be invited to jot down their feelings, and hopefully they’ll leave feeling some kind of resolution.
“I was so tired after that show, but I couldn’t go to sleep without reading those letters people wrote to the piece,” Felicella recalls. “So right after everyone left, I grabbed the letters, went to my porch, and started reading.”
The letters moved her to tears. I feel this way, people wrote. Now I feel less alone. I feel like I can reach out. Once the sun came up, Felicella wiped her eyes, went inside, and slept.
Resistance, Re-Live and Proceed takes place from 7:29 a.m. through 5:50 p.m. Docents will be on hand to ensure patrons follow strict safety protocols, and the show will also be available for livestream on Vimeo.