Niko Hallikainen’s sprawling performance poem reflects on heartache over synth and across countries for the Performa Biennial

“I’ve always wanted to become an object of affection.” Poet and novelist Niko Hallikainen makes this confession into the mic, his voice reverberating low and ancient. Within the dim umber walls of Tibet House, the declaration feels closer to a prayer than a line of poetry. With Lavender Deal—a “séance” inspired by the work of John Giorno and David Wojnarowicz—the artist reflects on a pandemic romance, packaging his heartache into an hour-long exploration of the dichotomies that made up desire during the height of COVID-19.

Hallikainen meets Carlo—“let’s use a generic Italian male name”—on the app Houseparty. He has “eyebrows like hedge maze” fences and lives in Milan, one of the cities hit hardest by the pandemic early in 2020. They begin a relationship from separate countries with the promise of the Schengen borders reopening. The poet himself remains at a remove—for most of Lavender Deal, Hallikainen stands spotlit in a corner of the room, flanked by two speakers behind a deck. Directly below him is a sculpture of a mermaid tail cut off at the waist by the Helsinki-based sculptor Man Yau. We, too, wait with the promise that these elements will soon be explained, the boundary between audience and artist broken.

“He declares that, ‘Every Instagram is a sexual favor.’”

Lavender Deal is at its best when Hallikainen leans into dichotomies—together and apart, hilarity and hysteria. He describes bodies stacking up in the Milanese streets as he and Carlo stream Sister Act 2. He declares that, “Every Instagram is a sexual favor.” Audio from the screaming lambs scene from The Silence of the Lambs plays, Hannibal badgering Clarice to speak her darkest memory. While FaceTiming, Carlo puts the phone in his mesh shirt, placing Hallikainen on his lover’s heart. The poet’s wordplay and vocal performance imbue each sentence with gravity—there’s meaning to “milkshakes / semen / tectonic plates / agreements.” It is within these meditations that Hallikainen discovers gulfs of perception between himself and Carlo. “Carlo looks like Thumper, I think Carlo looks like the emo love interest in Bring It On,” he says.

At one point, the poet describes feeling like a “cartoon ghost.” For all the humor of Lavender Deal, Hallikainen hits on the feeling of haunting one’s own existence, both an alienating and lucky experience for those living through the pandemic. He brings into focus questions of online relationships—the reality and unreality of them—as he and Carlo eventually fizzle, Hallikainen the one to break it off in anticipation of his lover pulling away. They “slept together over Zoom for three to four months, indoor spring to indoor summer.” Lavender Deal holds the history and the simplicity at once.

Toward the end of his performance, Hallikainen lights some incense, the strike of the match echoing in the quiet. He then descends from his platform, walks to the sculpture, and affixes the incense to the tail just below the waist. Then, contemplative, he walks around the audience with another lit match, the smell permeating throughout the room. A boundary is crossed. A promise is kept.