When Willow Smith was a girl, she would get so anxious sometimes that she would tense what seemed like all of the muscles in her body. Years later, at 19, she can still feel the aftermath of the strain; one of her vertebrae is shifted to the right, causing her neck pain.
Smith’s anxiety stemmed from feeling out of control. She would let her thoughts spiral through the same thought patterns, fretting over the fear of the unknown.
“We’re on this planet and anything could happen, like the thing that just happened with Kobe [Bryant]? That was really a knife in the heart,” said Smith. “Every moment is precious. And I think everyone has a fear of just not knowing what’s going to happen in the future, not knowing if you’re on the right path, not knowing if you’re making the right choices.”
At the suggestion of her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow began seeing a therapist. But ultimately, she found more relief in meditation, nature and reading Buddhist texts — “accepting that we don’t have control over what Mother Earth and the cosmos are gonna do, and coming back to the acceptance of things all being in a divine order.”
Smith is aware of how hippie-dippie this all sounds. She and her brother, Jaden, have long been lambasted for their bohemian-speak, which includes frequent references to duality, the quantum world and energy forces. In her free time, she practices vinyasa yoga and has a private teacher lead physics classes for her and her friends. And when she moved out of her parents’ home last year — her father is Will Smith — Willow chose to put down roots near Venice, where she can frequent the organic, vegan restaurant Cafe Gratitude.
So she’s already prepared herself for what the reaction will be to her next unconventional move: a 24-hour performance art event at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary in which she will transition through eight stages of anxiety from the inside of a box. (The performance is not official MOCA-curated programming but rather a rental event.)
On Wednesday, starting at 9 p.m., Smith and Tyler Cole — her creative collaborator/maybe boyfriend (more on that later) — will begin cycling through emotional states: paranoia, rage, sadness, numbness, euphoria, strong interest, compassion and acceptance. Visitors will be separated from the duo by a glass wall, but the three other sides of the box will be composed of canvas, on which Smith and Cole plan to paint and write affirmations.
They will spend three hours in each emotion and do not plan to speak, although, Smith said, “We might grunt or scream — it’s going to be very primal.” They will not be forgoing sustenance or sleep, and they will exit the box for bathroom breaks, which they want to keep to no more than two minutes apiece.
Audience members will be allowed to observe Smith and Cole in the box for about 15 minutes, but after exiting visitors will be welcome to loiter in a room with a video feed, self-help books and stations to donate to mental health organizations. (The art installation also will be streamed live online.)
“This is not so that people are like, ‘Oooh!’ This is for awareness,” Smith said, anticipating the public’s reaction. “The first thing we’re going to be writing on our title wall is something along the lines of: ‘The acceptance of one’s fears is the first step toward understanding.’ So then you know this is on something real. This is for a real cause.”
The idea for the exhibit, Smith said, emerged during a late-night studio session with Cole while the two were recording their album, “The Anxiety.” The music — a mix of alternative rock and punk — will be released immediately following the performance art show this week. As the pair reached the completion of recording, they began talking about the catharsis they felt after putting their emotions to music.
“We were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be so interesting if we could personify this experience? Starting from being scared and feeling alone and moving to a place of acceptance and joy?” said Smith, sitting at a spare table on a Venice sidewalk and wearing a patchwork jacket over a dress with the Venus symbol on it. She eventually brought the idea to her mother, who was supportive but urged her daughter to make it clear that “everyone’s anxiety takes different forms.”
“We understand this is a very sensitive subject,” Smith continued. “And we don’t want to be like, ‘Our experience is the experience.’ This is just us expressing our personal experience with this.”
Cole, who moved to L.A. from Detroit when he was in middle school, met Smith through a mutual friend on an outing to Pressed Juicery roughly five years ago. The two bonded after he gave her a copy of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and they slowly began to open up to each other about their anxiety struggles. Cole was so nervous about impending doom — “always thinking that things can’t go well for too long because then something terrible and tragic is going to happen” — that he used to wake up every morning and vomit.
Sharing such revelations brought the friends closer, and before long, they were being snapped by the paparazzi mid-kiss. Both are hesitant, however, to characterize their relationship as a romance.
“We are the best of friends,” insisted Smith, who doesn’t believe she’ll ever get married. “I like to think about it in terms of friendship, because I think that a lot of attachment and control issues come in when you start down that romantic road.”
“She just has a different perspective than a lot of people,” said Cole, 23, who was wearing a pair of jeans on which he’d written things like “We’re in love and the world is ending” in black Sharpie. “She’s smarter than most people that I know.”
It was Super Tuesday, and the friends had just come from voting for the Democratic presidential candidate. Cole said he went for Bernie Sanders, but Smith would not reveal whether she selected Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. She said she doesn’t like to talk about politics because “it becomes so emotional that we lose sight of what we’re actually trying to do.”
“I was so stressed,” Smith said. “I was looking at the ballot and all of these thoughts were coming into my head: What if I don’t make the right choice? Am I contributing to the death of America? Am I contributing to the death of the world?”
Climate change is, in fact, one of the biggest sources of Smith’s anxiety. She said she feels overwhelmed when she sees photographs of the wildfires in Australia or the Amazon and often feels like not eating meat and taking cold showers are doing little to combat the issue.
“The fact that we only have 50 years to survive? Like, great. Looking at your phone as a young person and seeing that, how are you supposed to feel?” said Smith, who in person is so earnest that she somehow comes across as more endearing than pretentious. “But you can’t completely just go, ‘Whatever.’ You have to have awareness that you’re just doing your part and that’s all you can do. ... Whenever I have a negative thought, I zero in on that thought. But when I have a positive thought, I brush it aside. We have to retrain our minds to see the perspective of gratitude.”
Smith didn’t always think like this. The transition started after the release of “Whip My Hair,” her first single, which came out just before her 10th birthday. The 2010 song went double platinum in the U.S., she joined Justin Bieber on tour and was signed to Jay-Z’s record label Roc Nation. She was the toast of the pop world — an adorable kid with famous parents, to boot — but she was miserable. She began to self-harm — something she only recently revealed to her family on “Red Table Talk,” the Facebook talk show she co-hosts with her mom and grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris.
“I felt like I was creating something for myself that I would be very regretful of in the future,” Smith said. “The music was not my truth, and I needed to find my truth. I didn’t want to be fake. I wanted to have a real message and not feel like I was being controlled. So for three or four years, I cocooned and went into hibernation.”
Smith spent those years exploring other passions — sneaking into her mother’s meditation room, taking science classes and even taking a college tour at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She ultimately decided not to pursue university because she has had such an unconventional education — she only went to traditional high school for one year — and feared she wouldn’t fit in.
“I’m still kind of debating it,” she acknowledged. “My mom always tells me, ‘You would really love it. I think that could be really cool for you.’ I’m honestly scared. All these thoughts are coming from my ego: ‘Are you smart enough? You’re not smart enough. You can’t be in there with those people.’”
In the meantime, however, she has returned to music. Her last three albums have been decidedly anti-pop. She describes them as having “more of a psychedelic, shoe-gaze, soft-rock kind of feeling.” With “The Anxiety,” she said she was able to “scream and get raunchy,” letting out a side of herself she’d previously contained.
Which is why she thinks the performance Wednesday will be so cathartic for her. She and Cole aren’t rehearsing anything, though they’ve already decided what they will be painting on the walls — symbols like the flower of life or the E=MC² equation. And if you’re expecting her to scream for three hours during rage or bawl her eyes out for the entirety of sadness? Think again.
“Honestly? That’s not what it’s about,” she said. “I’ve learned so much from being in the public eye that you really can’t care what people think. You have to do art because you want to do it and because it inspires you. And whoever likes it? Amazing! And whoever doesn’t? Amazing! I’m doing this because I’m inspired by this idea and I see that anxiety around me is an epidemic and people don’t talk about it. And so as long as it’s bringing awareness and a positive light to the darkness, it doesn’t matter if you don’t enjoy it.”
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday-9 p.m. Thursday