By Michelle Lacombe
When I arrive at Dundas and McCaul Street, a public has already gathered, creating semi circle around a woman who is holding a sign on which “MISPLACED WOMEN?” is hand-written. She is casual and seems to be waiting for something to happen. The public waits with her.
Meanwhile, I scan the area looking for Tanja Ostojić. I have met her and so I know that she is not the woman holding the sign. I find her sitting in a nearby bus stop. She looks straight ahead, also waiting. She shares her shelter with a shopping cart filled with carefully stacked reusable shopping bags, a medium-sized suitcase and a half-empty bottle of coke. She blends into the site seamlessly and so I try not to call attention to her presence. I take my place in the crowd.
Eventually Ostojić exits the glass cubicle, rolling suitcase behind her, and positions herself between us and “MISPLACED WOMEN?”. She removes her shawl and, rather brusquely, begins to empty her pockets, then her bag, then the bags contained in her bag until all of the contents, reduced to their smallest parts, litter the ground. She then shifts her attention to the suitcase. Clothes, after being inverted and having pockets and seams searched, are thrown onto her back. Anything else is pulled apart and added to the pile on the ground. She is looking for something, thoroughly searching in even the tiniest spaces.
The last item she removes is a large black garbage bag and her motions slow down. She explores this object more curiously than the rest, eventually stepping into it, crouching and pulling it over her body. It fits. She then steps into the suitcase. Her body, in the garbage bag, again fits. She pulls the suitcase flap closed. She squirms, reaches out an arm and struggles to close the zipper. An audience member steps in to help. Seemingly concerned, an elderly man hovers around while Ostojić is stuffed in her suitcase, which is now clearly a tomb. I notice her body relax.
To me, this part of the action, a pause of sorts, is the most evocative, striking and difficult moment in the work. As black plastic gently rustles over Ostojić’s contorted limbs, I think about the people whose bodies are found like this, in suitcases and in garbage bags: Guang Hua Liu, Melonie Biddersingh, Lin Jun, Tina Fontaine, and countless others who I am sure exist, but who I either can’t recall or do not know about. Most of these bodies are women, most of these women are Indigenous or racially marginalized. Sadly, what we are being presented with is a horror that is easy to imagine. It is familiar and right in front of us.
Eventually Ostojić emerges, lights a cigarette and smokes it. In solidarity, she has just embodied something and sits upright in the open suitcase to visibly reflect on it. She then slowly returns order to the pile of scattered items.
As Ostojić repacks her things, a woman who has clearly just finished her shopping, arms full and ear buds in, walks over and hands her a fresh plastic bag. This simple public intervention sticks with me and I feel like an asshole when I realize how we must appear to those who do not register this as a performance. Quick to help her get into her tomb, we are now collectively distant as Ostojić works to recover and move on, back to her glass shelter. This woman however, tried to help.
[This post also reprinted at https://misplacedwomen.wordpress.com/2016/12/15/misplaced-women-performed-by-tanja-ostojic-dedicated-to-the-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-in-canada-sunday-october-16-in-front-of-the-art-gallery-of-ontario-7a11d-2016-toronto-can/]