Postcards from Performa 11: Pt. 4
Spartacus Chetwynd, The Lion Tamer, 2011. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
Nicholas Weist reports on performances by Spartacus Chetwynd, Simon Fujiwara, Mika Rottenberg & Jon Kessler, and an evening of readings organized by Stewart Home
Spartacus Chetwynd, The Lion Tamer, 2011. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
It’s a rare thing to leave a piece of performance art smiling like you mean it, but Spartacus Chetwynd’s The Lion Tamer left no other choice. This exuberant mummers play, performed in paint-daubed outfits and tinfoil hats, was presented by the New Museum as part of Performa 11, in the museum’s new Studio 231 project space next door to its main building.
After they got a chance to mill about her bird-footed dioramas and faux-naïf paintings, Chetwynd called her audience to order underneath a satin-like, black wall hanging. She explained carefully and, it seemed, extemporaneously, that the performance would unfold in several parts. She noted that some parts would be more exciting than others. If there was extra time and everyone felt okay about it, we might squeeze in a little more at the end. Her self-conscious table of contents at a close, the performance began in earnest.
A golden-haired youth in a red jumper stood encircled by black-clad attendants, who set him ablaze with an inferno of construction paper. The ritual complete, our fiery Prince Charming took a turn about the room and returned to his retinue to be extinguished. It set an appropriately carnivalesque tone, calling to mind the jester-as-king social release valves of the high Middle Ages. Now free to once again wander around the installation, the audience tried on costumes and the performers – all of whom previous Chetwynd collaborators – drank beer or chatted with the DJ. Some replaced their outfits with gorgeous high-shouldered unitards or white, cotton Pierrot suits emblazoned with amatuerish circles in primary colors. A rumpus-room feel took hold, and started to edge out the standoffish default setting of most of the attendees.
In yet another section of the room (the audience traveled with the mini-shows, in and around the installation), Chetwynd played the part of her eponymous lion tamer, and her performers the lions. The pitch-perfect big top dramatics didn’t diminish her dark subtext: the lions – critics, capital, egos, what have you – could only be controlled for so long, before they turned on their master. Soon a glamorous giant who looked something like a hand-painted Martha Washington grabbed a mic and started yowling a song that could best be described as forthright, if only that word didn’t sound pejorative.
As the evening hurtled toward its finale, the house band Ectopia’s version of the calypso classic ‘Jump in the Line’ (1946, and made famous by Harry Belafonte in 1961) started up, and the performers formed a King Kong conga line. Think jungle natives dancing around a Victorian explorer about to be made into soup. A giant alien brain-being was hauled out, and audience members were encouraged to stick their heads into its ‘mouth,’ within which they received a kiss on the forehead from one of the performers. One left sharing in the palpable joy of Chetwynd’s band of merry adventurer’s acts of making.
Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler, SEVEN, 2011. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
Over on the west side at Nicole Klagsbrun Project Space, the king and queen of tinkertown – Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler – had teamed up for Seven, in which Kessler’s intentionally rinky-dink, kinetic sculptures made a perfect environment for Rottenberg’s bizarre orchestrations of man within machine. In the precisely timed performances, actors took turns punching a timecard (which read either red, yellow, orange, blue, or others down the rainbow), riding a stationary bike to power a sauna-like contraption, or sitting within the sauna itself. While there, a light corresponding to one of the colours of the rainbow shone on them while they rotated slowly over a basin that collected their sweat. The sweat traveled through a network of small pipes to a large machine, manipulated by a woman in a lab coat, which soon pumped out a correspondingly coloured vial of liquid. In a nod to Vedic mysticism, the machine was called a ‘Chakra Juicer’ (and in fact each chakra can be described according to an associated colour of the rainbow).
Assaulted by so much information, it took a few cycles to realize that the performers in the space were also interacting with a cast of black actors in a video meant to look like a live feed. These traveled into an African desert-like expanse to dig up cylinders of clay to be ‘sent’ to the project space, which were in turn fashioned into vessels somehow important in the formulation of the coloured liquid. The dynamic between the First and Third World ‘offices’ of the performers in the gallery and the video was distinct but mysterious, as was the purpose of all these machinations. That is until the perfunctory end when six vials were sent to the video world to be poured into the earth, starting a cartoon rainbow geyser gushing. As with Rottenberg’s other cyclical, elusive, body-centric narratives, the performance had no real resolution. And while the endearing bait-and-switch magic of Kessler’s homegrown science apparatus was immediately apparent, it seems the chakras will keep their secrets for now.
Simon Fujiwara, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, 2011. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.
In 1958, painter Patrick Heron completed his Horizontal Stripe Painting: November 1957 – January 1958. It was purchased by the Tate in 1972 and installed in the inaugural show of its St. Ives location in 1993, where an 11-year-old Simon Fujiwara accidently poked it with an erection. Maybe. The story was part of the sparkling, meandering narrative that Fujiwara, with the help of ‘best friend’ Phineas Pett and child actor Isaac Jin Solstein, presented in his Performa 11 commission The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
The curtain opened on Pett, alone at a wedding dinner. He delivered some cringe-worthy best man humour before quickly making the excuse that Fujiwara wrote the script. Here was the first self-reflexive turning-in, setting a tone of sly authorial maneuvering that persisted through each of the subsequent vignettes. The stage rotated, and we saw the Heron painting flanked by two larger-than-life mirrors: a literalized allusion to Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage. Fujiwara was auditioning Solstein to act the part of child-Simon – in the play we are watching. We learned that Fujiwara tried and failed to write the scene wherein he sees the Heron painting, realizes he wants to be an artist, and becomes sexually aroused by aesthetics. It’s a charming duplicity that lets him tell the story that he promised at the outset was never written, reinforced by smiling asides like his detour into the idea that stage and screen are ‘the lies that tell the truth.’
The next scene took place in a 1970s-looking hotel lobby in Catalan Spain. A dark figure with outsized costuming – more a memory than a person – played flamenco guitar. Salumi on a fly bar descended from the ceiling to complete the evocation, and Fujiwara bound onstage to explain that we were in his parents’ hotel, which they ran during and through the end of General Franco’s regime. Having closed by the time Fujiwara was born, the hotel became a stand-in, a stage, for a fantastic imagining of another life as the warrior-king of a secret sexual empire, who masturbates in opposition to dictatorship. Although treated lightly, it’s a powerful distillation of a lineage of thought stretching from Jean Genet to Georges Bataille to the post-Structuralists. And it turns out the detail here I was most incredulous of – that a couple years ago Fujiwara anonymously submitted to the kinky chapbook Straight to Hell a fictitious first-person account of himself as his father willingly forced into sex with a Guardia Civil soldier – is actually true. Or, at least, someone wrote it: it is anonymous after all.
Stewart Home reading at ‘Psychedelic Noir’, 2011. Photo Elizabeth Proitsis. Courtesy of Performa.
Fujiwara’s hot sex and gun oil porn climaxes, if you will, with Franco’s death. It’s a story similar to the orgy of revolutionary sex and violence in Stewart Home’s writings, excerpts of which were read (or rather, declaimed) during his ‘Psychedelic Noir’ event, the following evening, at the Westway – a former stripclub on the West Side. During the event, which ended up somewhere between a performance and a reading, the energetic Home stole his own show from the other authors he and curator Mark Beasley had invited to participate. He began by shredding a copy of one of his books, to prove that ‘art is greater than literature,’ and continued with an hilarious incantation (given while standing on his head) of invented art historical spam emails from his book Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie (2010): ‘Seven inches just isn’t enough to pleasure the Guerrilla Girls,’ and so on.
Next on the docket was young author Jarett Kobek, who read a piece entitled ‘Paris Hilton Uses a Computer Topless While Preparing to Smoke Marijuana from a Dragon Shaped Bong with Tommy Hilfiger Model Jason Shaw’ followed by an excerpt about Disney’s The Jungle Book from his 2011 novel ATTA. Unfortunately Lynne Tillman could not be present to read her own work due to unforeseen circumstances – but Sadie Laska, a member of the band Growing, stood in for her with a funny but moving rumination on a female sex addict’s search for self-realization through copulation.
Ken Wark’s first offering, a pell-mell Situationist caper, foundered, but he hit his stride with a re-presentation of a speech he gave at Zucotti Park’s Occupy Wall Street encampment. Using the ‘mic check’ call-and-response method of street protestors, he and the audience together channeled the activist fervour of the past two months. After denouncing the dead hand of capital in a haunting, gothic call to power, Wark called up the ghost of Georg Hegel to end eloquently: ‘When the lights come on, and the zombies are gone… The Owls of Minerva have already flown. They flock at dawn.’ Home returned to the stage, and after ignoring Beasley’s possibly scripted suggestion that we were out of time, took up Wark’s revolutionary thread to end where we began. In his dystopic imagining of the war on the bourgeoisie, skinheads gleefully fornicate while London burns.
In the end, the copious sex talk and enticing lies of both the Home and Fujiwara presentations resolved into thoughtful, captivating spectacles. Or maybe Fujiwara had it right when he told the young actor he had hired that engaging Performa audiences is a cinch, because ‘these people are here to see an art performance. So they expect to be completely bored.’