Just off a two-lane road surrounded on both sides by the ongoing construction of Walmart’s new headquarters, in the crisp air of early October in the Ozarks, a woman in a swimsuit with a towel draped across her waist walks her wet dog.
For a handful of days last fall, in what was once a cheese factory in Northwest Arkansas—an unsuspecting brick building, which, at its tallest point of five stories, stands stoically over the quiet town below—you could temporarily find 25 tons of sand, 13 vocalists in swimsuits, and the aforementioned dog (plus another). This unlikely landlocked scene was the avant-garde climate-crisis opera, Sun & Sea (Marina) taking place at the Momentary, the time-based arts satellite of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The theatrical installation Sun & Sea, spearheaded by the all-women creative team comprised of filmmaker and director Rugile Barzdžiukaite, writer Vaiva Grainyte, and composer Lina Lapelyte, was commissioned for the Lithuanian pavilion by curator Lucia Pietroiusti at the 2019 Venice Biennale, where it received critical acclaim, winning the Biennale’s coveted Golden Lion Award. Word of the work’s sensational reception—“as surreal as it is profound”— rolled back to the United States, where art and music fans alike lamented the lost opportunity to experience how the amalgamation of opera, performance art, and mundane everyday action could be thus described.
Then, amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the announcement came that Sun & Sea would make its American debut in the fall of 2021. Four stops—Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Bentonville, and Los Angeles—would play host to a faux beach and its accompanying performers, a practical mix of trained, touring opera singers and locally cast, volunteer beachgoers.
For those in Texas, like me, who still held a healthy skepticism of air travel in October of 2021, yet an itch to escape abundantly familiar surroundings, the drive to Bentonville, Arkansas, was perfectly doable. Especially when the promise of live performance—something increasingly rare these days—was the impetus for travel.
Inside, the stairwell of the Momentary led to viewing platforms, where I was hit with two things at once—dry heat and a siren chorus—both reverberating off concrete walls as I climbed. Upon reaching the balcony and peering through the mass of other people huddled around the banister, my sight caught up with my other senses. Nearly 15 feet below me, a section of the former factory space, about the size of a community pool, had been partitioned off from the rest of the first-floor gallery to emulate a nondescript beach. My attention was drawn away from speakers and theater lights perched on eye-level scaffolding due to the amount of simultaneous activity happening upon the sand-filled stage below.
In one corner, two women bounced a shuttlecock between them; in another, children weaved in between beach chairs to play a game of tag. At the center of the faux beach, identical twins in identical outfits adjusted their towels, sweeping off infringing sand. Others, ranging from young to old, applied sunscreen, checked Instagram, played Go Fish, and poured water for their dogs to lap up.
For me, being around strangers again—watching how they interacted with each other, examining the books they were reading, crafting meaning behind their visible tattoos—brought a sense of absolute euphoria. Yet, audibly rising above this sense of normalcy created by the hum of everyday conversations was a warning tone as performers reflected on the effects of climate change on our planet. Thrust into the middle of these beachgoers’ vacation as a voyeur, I caught their private lamentations on litter, extreme currents, and the collapse of the Great Barrier Reef. One character notes their fatigue caused by extreme heat: “My eyelids are heavy / My head is dizzy / Light and empty body / There’s no water left in the bottle.”
Occasionally, the other vacationers’/singers’ harmonies joined, echoing remorse for a world on the brink of uninhabitability. Lying under the same unbearable sun, they repeat in unison: “MY EYELIDS ARE HEAVY / MY HEAD IS DIZZY / LIGHT AND EMPTY BODY / THERE’S NO WATER LEFT IN THE BOTTLE.”
These beautiful notes turned bitter as they began to take up space, tickling the part of my brain that I have been trying to ignore since March of 2020—the part that lets fear dominate. And as I left the platform, my back to the beachgoers below, their notes followed me down the stairs, reminding me as I stepped out of artificial day and back into the sunlight, that our existence on Earth is not promised; that while the tides will always come and go, there is a chance that there will not always be beachgoers on the beaches.
Sun & Sea (Marina). Photo: Ironside Photography, courtesy of the Momentary.