'What Does the Apocalypse Smell Like?' 

As we move into an uncertain, potentially dystopian future, Lindsay Tunkl uses performance art to explore death and the end of the world.

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click to enlarge "Untitled" by Lindsay Tunkl. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LINDSAY TUNKL
  • Photo courtesy of Lindsay Tunkl
  • "Untitled" by Lindsay Tunkl.


For Julian Carter, critical studies chair at California College of the Arts and one of Tunkl's former professors, Tunkl's work manages to be both elegant and conceptually sophisticated, without feeling overly didactic in its message. And her work matches her spirit. "On the one hand, 'This is my project, and this is what I want to do.' On the other hand, 'Here, have some fun, play with it, tell me what it's like for you.' It's so kind and generous," he said. "Her material is super, super serious but also with a kind of lightness to not be overwhelmed by it. There's no pretentiousness to this work."

When it comes to Tunkl's performance work, Carter said he admires how she creates simple and safe yet appealing spaces for "material that most people understand as messy and uncontrollable," he said. Carter joined Tunkl for a session of Parting Practice: Rituals for Endings and Failure — the series she held in Mountain View Cemetery — and found that his prior musings on death weren't as thorough as he had previously thought. Her questions tapped into a larger wisdom he had been contemplating for years, but with a sense of newness. "I feel like she got me every so slightly high," he said, laughing.

Ribas-Tugwell, a former art gallery manager and art editor of Exberliner Magazine, sees Tunkl's biggest artistic strength as asking life's hardest questions while making viewers feel immediately comfortable through familiar, everyday objects and aesthetics.

"I'm so excited to see what her work is like in the next 20 years and so on, because I'm certain she's on a path that will inevitably result in some extremely profound work, which is not to say her work isn't profound now," she said. "She's only at the beginning of her career but has already tapped into this space in contemporary art, which is to make art accessible but also challenging. It's the goal of most contemporary art, but most of the time it doesn't happen."

It's worth noting that Tunkl doesn't charge people for her one-on-one sessions — evidence of her anti-capitalist beliefs as well as her complicated relationship with money. She grew up poor with her mom, accustomed to sharing one bed with her and her sister as well as constantly moving between hotels and condemned housing. But her father was a wealthy art dealer — a level of commodification of art that Tunkl doesn't believe in — and his large Hollywood hills house eventually became her home. It's a big reason why much of her art is not for sale. (But she does have to pay rent, so some of it is.) It's also why she focuses on human connection.

That said, she's working on a new body of work that doesn't include a one-on-one aspect. ("You know how some painters, they just do the same painting? I don't want to do that with the one-on-ones. I don't want to just do the same painting.") Instead, the eventual exhibit, A Knife Under the Bed Splits the Pain in Two, will build on a question she's been asking for a long time: How do we decide if something is meaningful or meaningless? One piece, for example, will be two large, side-by-side prints of the entireties of two plays: Romeo and Juliet and Waiting for Godot.

"In Romeo and Juliet, everything matters, love is so important, everyone dies," she explained. "In Waiting for Godot, nothing matters, they talk about killing themselves, they stay alive indefinitely."

She'll continue to wrestle with the deep unknowns of life, but in a more everyday way instead of on a deadly or cosmic level. "Politically, how do I wake up every morning, knowing what's going on with the world, and just have a daily life? How do I make sense of it? It doesn't make sense. It's unrecognizable," she said. "How do I not play into feeling like the world is a trap?"



About halfway through our Parting Practice session in Mountain View Cemetery, I laid down, closed my eyes, and listened to birds singing, planes flying overhead, and Tunkl's soft voice guiding me through meditation.

"As you take four breaths, become connected, aware of the ground that you're laying on, gravestones around you, the caskets under you, the bodies that have been here for 150 years," she said.

"The first truth about death is that death is certain. Once death comes, you cannot change it. It is also true that your life is constantly running out. You cannot replace any of it. ... The causes of death are infinite. You could die because of a storm or an accident. You could die of cancer or heart disease or old age. You could die of fear. You could even die of a broken heart. And on the other hand, you could be diagnosed with a terminal illness and it may not be the cause of your death. What this tells us is that your body is extremely fragile and vulnerable. Your life hangs by but a breath. Take a deep breath in and a deep breath out."

Then, Tunkl placed a baby blue sheet over my entire body. In this art practice, I became a ghost. What did it feel like to be a ghost? What would I do if I were a ghost? Would I haunt my loved ones? Would I wait for them in loneliness?

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