Looking Vivian Straight in the Eyes: Opia
Late in 2017, I shuffled into the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, perched on frozen cliffs overlooking Øresund Sound in Humlebæk, a small Danish town outside of Copenhagen. I got off the regional train and trekked a forest skirted kilometer into the florescent foyer where I flashed my member card and started to defrost. The freezing jaunt inspired by the type of boredom only possible while enduring northern winters. 18 hours of darkness brings out a strange mania, couple it with a healthy dose of red wine and a modest lump of hash and a Marina Abramovic retrospective two hours from your apartment in zero degree weather is a really good idea.
Abramovic’s performance The Artist is Present is one of her most famous. She sat for incredibly long periods completely silent, staring into the eyes of whoever was brave enough to sit across from her. Sitting in a state of extreme vulnerability she connected with her audience in the most human of ways, simple eye contact. And while I cannot imagine how strange it must be to stare into the eyes of one of the most intense humans out there, the rendition of this performance on exhibition at the Louisiana really threw me. Instead of staring into the stone face of an artist who understands full well the power in consensual gaze, both parties involved in the stare were museum-goers. And instead of an open room of onlookers, it was a small walled cubical. Incredibly small and intimate, with normal people, like myself, who really did not know what they were getting themselves into. The most powerful part of the experience was the first moment when the older women across from me and I locked eyes. We pulled seats out and shuffled ourselves into them looking at our feet. When we were seated our eyes shifted around, looking to find anything but each other. Finally, in a mutual moment of release, our eyes met and I immediately wanted to be anywhere else. In one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life, I stared into the eyes of an middle-aged danish woman and was intimately connected with someone I did not know. The forced, and often accidental, intimacy of locking eyes with another human being creates the unique anxiety, defined in John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as opia. Vivian’s latest release of the same name, Opia, gave me the same strangely uncomfortable feeling at first listen.
I squirmed in my seat a little and looked around. I felt like I was invading her space and she was invading mine. I settled into it, listening to it through on the second try and I found a brave and thoughtful record fresh out of Fiji. Through listening to the project start to finish a few more times, I developed my own ideas on what it was and what it meant. I was lucky enough to catch up with Vivian via FaceTime and her perspective on the project gave it new life, new meaning, new intentions that I may have missed on my first few times through. Then, sitting down to write I actually looked at her Spotify page and hit play on the first track on her home page. I closed my word processor, realizing I had to go through the whole thing again. Through context, Opia again changed for me. It felt like every time I finally had it pinned down it turned to sand and slipped through my fingers. Its shifting nature beginning to feel more and more like prolonged eye contact. Uncomfortable at first, then settling, then all of a sudden uncomfortable again. Ultimately, what I’ve settled on is that Opia, is Vivian’s best work so far and it feels distinctly human in a way that many artists fail to accomplish. The ambience and minimalism let the listener breath their own life into the spaces and construct their own narratives.
Vivian hails from all over the place. Naming the California Bay Area as her home, she has spent time in Atlanta, Los Angeles and currently resides in Fiji where her family lives and conducts business. When we got to chatting at 4pm pacific standard time it was 11am the next morning in Fiji. Her Fijian setting was critical in the development and writing process of Opia. The tranquility and simplicity of her island home is woven into the arrangements and the airy vocals take on a ‘wind through the trees’ like quality, softly rustling and sometimes thundering through the jazzy compositions. The sounds of Fiji are not only replicated through vocals and instrumentation but are actually apart of the songs. Vivian began recording and compiling the ambient noise of the island and uses them as a canvas. She lays her sound on top of the natural. It feels like you’re sitting in her small island home listening to her play live. This feature adds to the intimacy of the record. Vivian lets the listener into her way of life and perspective through direct connection. She sits you down in Fiji and plays for you. The emphasis on atmosphere and space immediately reminded me of a sound bath; a room filled with the vibration of a singing bowl or other more conventional instrument, conducive to meditation and sound healing. What I took for casual association at first listen turned to intention after our conversation. Vivian is a trained sound healer and well versed in sound baths and other meditative sound practices that have a holistic healing effect on the human body. Opia, while still a conventional singer-songwriter record, trends closer to sound healing piece than a pop record.
The minimalism that defines Opia is markedly different from Vivian’s most well-known material. Her songs Games and Possession boast a quarter of a million plays on Spotify. They are heavily-produced studio neo-soul tracks that would easily slot onto any top 40 radio station. They are very well done tracks that have earned Vivian her following but Opia is a deeply personal piece of art that tracks away from the mainstream and Vivian reveals herself.
The first track, Touching the Intangible, features an old voicemail from Vivian’s late great-grandmother. While the device has been used plenty of times, the personal nature of Opia makes the recording all the more touching. The gentle first track creates the mood that resolves in the dark and triumphant final track Rediscovery. The build-in power through the short EP is refreshing. In its short play time Opia moves quickly, building and letting down in subtle waves. It ebbs and flows without any discernible direction, but by the time Vivian reaches her destination you realize how far you’ve come.
Looking somebody in the eyes is hard work, whether or not its purposeful. Human connection is uncomfortable and Vivian’s Opia forces the issue. Whether or not you connect with her, she’s reaching out and making herself vulnerable. The music invites you into a small Fijian cottage to chat with somebody you don’t know. You start off a little awkward, settle down, get excited about a few things and ultimately relax into new friendship. Or you leave a little uncomfortable and decide the leave things at that. Either way, you won’t forget about it. Either way, you’ll remember listening to Opia, and I think that’s exactly what Vivian intended.