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Lunch With Artist Mirra Helen is Like Eating With a Friendly Ghost

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View of city on sunny day through chain-link fence over highway
A new view of downtown San Francisco from the pedestrian bridge over U.S. Highway 101. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

I hand over my phone and wallet to receive a pencil carved from soft stone, a chalkboard and a sparsely drawn map marked with just two points, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art and an expensive-looking French-Japanese restaurant in the Mission called Bon, Nene. At noon I will meet the Wattis’ Capp Street Project artist-in-resident Mirra Helen for lunch, which I’ve been told I am welcome to spend in complete silence. The gallery is picking up the tab.

Every day from Jan. 27 to May 27, Helen intends to have lunch with one person at Bon, Nene as the public component of her Capp Street Project residency, which she calls set lunch towards speechlessness. These meals will not be documented or compiled. On the project’s website the artist advises that there should be no expectations.

Established in 1983 by Ann Hatch, the Capp Street Project was the first residency in the United States to focus solely on the creation and presentation of new work. In 1998, it became part of the Wattis. Hosting artists like Barbara T. Smith, Mona Hatoum, Kara Walker, Mike Kelley and most recently, Raven Chacon, it’s been open, unrestrictive and experimental from the start.

Gray building with white sign and intense shadows
The starting point for ‘set lunch toward speechlessness,’ the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in Potrero Hill. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

Mirra Helen’s work is well-suited for such an environment. Grounded in minimalism, it spans mediums—including weavings, written pieces and Trisha Brown-like instructions for movement—and has been shown at places like the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and the Whitney in New York. Much of her work deals with scored encounters or invited assemblages. It is conceptual, often about choreographing attention or experience. One of Helen’s most evident influences is John Cage; it seems her practice is about a mentality rather than a material.

And so, the walk from the Wattis itself seems integral to the art experience—ambulating has played a major role in Helen’s practice. Playing along, I attempt an almost performative reverie by listening for the sounds of the city, noticing engravings in cement and making sequences from shop signs. Following the stripped-down map, I find myself on a pedestrian bridge above U.S. Highway 101. I stand for a while in its center, stunned to discover a new angle from which to see my city.

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This respite wears off when I arrive at the restaurant about 20 minutes before the artist. Waiting without a phone or book is uncomfortable. I can’t help but feel ignored by San Francisco’s residents, sleek people in exercise clothes walking by with greyhounds and hypoallergenic poodles. The dogs approach me while their owners tug them away, not troubling to acknowledge my existence.

I tell this to Helen when she arrives and she is quiet for a long minute before responding, matter-of-factly, that I might be a ghost.

Concrete walkway lined by high fences recedes into distance
The passageway between Potrero Hill and the Mission, over the traffic of the freeway. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

Wearing a long green coat and matching green socks, Helen herself looks slightly elfish. Wrinkles around her mouth instantly convey a history of wide, beaming grins. I barely have time to notice this before the artist is smiling at me, silently revealing her own matching soapstone pencil and chalkboard. These are then put aside and never thought of again.

Helen orders a hot sake. I have a green tea. We sit through five minutes of silence.

Perhaps because she senses my discomfort, she speaks. “At my best,” she says in a quiet, patient voice, “I am a friendly ghost.” Then we are in silence again. Helen sheepishly looks down and disappears, reveling in the thought. I consider what it means to be a ghost, and note the strangeness of having a comfortable amount of time to think while sitting with a stranger.

I finally say that I’ve rarely felt like a ghost. The closest I came was when I lived in a foreign country, and spent months surrounded by an unknown language.

When our tofu dishes arrive, Helen offers a definition of beauty. She says it is when something exists just as it is, without interference. That’s not my operating understanding of the word. I think of beauty as an ephemeral quality, or a force to be applied to the world’s constant decay—an illusion or a brief miracle.

But I don’t interrupt. I want to hear how the thought relates to her art practice. And though I inquire, I never find out: Helen artfully talks around her practice and I get through the whole lunch without gaining any understanding of the work she makes.

An outdoor patio structure on a residential street
The setting for the lunch: the Bon, Nene restaurant at the corner of 21st and Alabama in San Francisco’s Mission District. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

With the meal as the public component of her residency, Helen avoids sharing any new art. Or, if the lunch itself is her piece, she is making nothing but a sort of presence, one that is mediative without being didactic.

I ask if we are in a performance and she rejects the description, but then tarries, saying everything is a performance, or nothing is. Either way, the word has no meaning.

At the table next to us a man is sitting with a woman and her newborn baby. It’s difficult to understand how they know each other. They speak constantly, asking about work, respective spouses, vacation plans, new furniture acquisitions, the man’s dog and the woman’s child.

At our table, something very different is happening. “I won’t be asking you any questions,” Helen cautions at the outset of our meal, “but please don’t take it as a sign of disinterest. I just don’t believe one learns about another through exchanging information.”

I think back to my walk, when I passed dozens of new housing developments. The structures felt at odds with the streets, which were sparse and unfriendly—emptied out. For the very first time it occurred to me that the demand for condos in San Francisco comes from the needs of solitary people who want to live alone. In this era of technology and the isolating reality of the pandemic, social life has often meant little more than the exchange of text messages, leaving comments or writing posts. Almost every day I open my phone and flick through photographs of people I don’t know, I read their thoughts in an endless scroll. All the information amounts to nothing. We feel more alone.

Woman walks behind orange barricades under scaffolding of building
Construction on Alabama Street just north of Bon, Nene. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

Helen asks if I’ve heard the saying “Not knowing is the most intimate.” I haven’t, but now it feels like the key to understanding her project.

Her motivations for using language—which we agree can be isolating, meaningless or sublime—are unusual. Throughout our conversation she questions everything and often contradicts her own statements. Helen seems invested in stripping language of its hold on communication, making it something looser, less precise. Maybe the idea, in itself, that language is not a way of learning about another person is what the conceptual artist is stressing with her lunches.

Once the meal is finished, Helen stands up briskly, almost bows and thanks me for lunch. I make the return trip to pick up my belongings, accompanied by the ghost of Mirra Helen.

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Mirra Helen is the Capp Street Project artist-in-residence through July 10. A few spots for lunches are still available. Details here.

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