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A philosophical feast

A stand-you-up wind off Lake Superior that felt cold enough to freeze eyeballs in their sockets couldn't keep a flock of seagulls from flying off with Carrie McKee's work, in front of a handful of hardy spectators and a gaggle of media.

A stand-you-up wind off Lake Superior that felt cold enough to freeze eyeballs in their sockets couldn't keep a flock of seagulls from flying off with Carrie McKee's work, in front of a handful of hardy spectators and a gaggle of media.
And that was exactly the point.
McKee, an interdisciplinary studies major, was completing her senior project at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The centerpiece was a man in a popcorn suit.
McKee's partner, Davin Heckman, dressed up in an actual business suit (on which hundreds of pieces of popcorn had been sewn), several layers of long underwear, sunglasses and a burlap bag for his head, layed down on a foam camping pad in the middle of the park. McKee poured a box of popcorn on top of him and waited for the gulls to attack.
A huge flock of gulls gathered, tentatively at first. After another box of popcorn was added, the birds took the hint and piled onto Heckman.
"It's working!" squealed McKee, who immediately began snapping pictures with a digital camera she had brought in a "Goosebumps" backpack.
McKee had planned, researched, and implemented the performance art piece -- which parodies how she thinks an American might handle the Tibetan Buddhist sky burial ritual -- to lampoon the hobbyist mentality she sees in American religion and spirituality.
She said Americans tend to dabble selfishly in religion, without making much real sacrifice.
"I just think it's not quite the right idea," she said before the event. "Because it's so huge if it's about God or about the universe. Whatever it is ... you should be serving this thing instead of having the religion serve you."
The popcorn and seagulls were Heckman's idea; McKee brought the idea of using it in a sky burial parody for her senior project, tying together studies in religion, philosophy and humanities.
The sky burial ritual is one way in which Tibetans "bury" their dead: putting the deceased out where birds peck away the flesh. The American "adaption" was intended as a contrast to this "profound, generous and philosophically sound practice," McKee wrote in an explanatory piece.
"Davin's performance will embody a non-sacrificial sacrifice (he offers nothing of himself nor anything of value) ... and a banal profundity (he takes a rich and powerful rite and turns it into a very shallow public spectacle)," she wrote.
Although it could be argued that lying in the Tibet-like temps was indeed a sacrifice, other choices were also symbolic. Popcorn is "quintessentially American" and associated with entertainment and amusement, she said, and the Canal Park location was chosen because of its tourism connotations.
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McKee, who is Catholic, was quick to point out that she's not discouraging religious exploration. "I think people should always be exploring religion," she said. "I don't think they should ... do it for fun and have that be the whole thing."
One of her advisers, Sharon Kemp, was on hand. She gave high marks to the student.
Citing the hard work that went into sewing the suit (reportedly 100 hours of work), researching the rite and the intersection of pop culture and religion, and putting it all on a Web site, Kemp said, "I think she should get an A-plus."
"This is the kind of creativity and originality that you like to see in students," she added.
The desire for "spectacle" was fulfilled. Despite the cold temperatures, spectators standing on the sidewalk stopped to get a glimpse of what was going on, and local media turned out in force.
It remains to be seen whether the point was made. Responding to a criticism from a friend, McKee noted in her explanatory piece, "... I suppose there are more positive ways of making a social commentary than through parody. I guess parody is just easier ... and funnier."
Afterward, Heckman sent an e-mail describing the two-hour event that saw him "picked over pretty well."
"They were surprisingly gentle," he wrote of the gulls, "and it was eerily breathtaking to have the wind blowing over my body while the waves crashed and the gulls pecked away at my suit."

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