2009-11-22

Performance Art: So Much Nudity

Performance art has quite a reputation for being ridiculous and pointless. I haven’t seen too much of it myself, and though I figure a great deal of it is absurd, I’ve believed that its reputation was somewhat exaggerated. Last weekend, however, I attended a performance art show and was horrified at, if not scarred by, the sick, outrageous things I saw. These things included nudity, bodily-harm, butt-plugs, pooping, and an adult man having his diaper changed. Disgusted yet?

Let’s start at the beginning. While making plans for the evening, Terri mentioned that she had met a man at a bar the previous night who dresses up as the baby Jesus and nails himself to a vagina. She wasn’t willing to give him her phone number, but she would gladly accept the flyer to his event. I wasn’t sure that it would be a good show, but I figured it would be an experience of some sort. Stacy agreed that this guy’s shtick would at least be entertaining. Though we were put off by the fifteen-dollar tickets, Terri argued that it would either be the best or worst fifteen bucks we’ve ever spent, so we accepted the gamble and went to the show.

Upon entering the performance space, a man dressed as a female nurse approached me and asked if I would like a “crotch shot.” I wasn’t sure what that was, but I was the designated driver and not interested in drinking alcohol, so I declined. The “nurse” told me I was missing out and proceeded to find someone else to participate. Curious, I watched the crotch shot in action. As it turned out, there was no alcohol involved, just some strange thing that involved the nurse placing his head between the volunteers’ legs and nuzzling his face against their crotches. After seeing that, I was glad I didn’t agree to participate; I can only imagine what would have happened if I had thought I was receiving a drink and was sexually harassed instead.

But that was just the pre-show entertainment. Soon after, we were moved to a large room for the show; there were no seats so most people just took a seat on the floor. The first act was some sort of skit with three men wearing elaborate pumpkin-monster costumes. There was almost no dialogue, but a lot of exaggerated crying and dying amongst the characters. With a lack of narrative and deeper meaning, it was like watching third graders perform a skit. Plus, the damned thing dragged on for nearly fifteen minutes. As I asked myself “why is this still happening and what is going on?” I decided to calculate what percentage of my weekly income I had spent on this ticket. In essence, people could do anything on a stage and call it “art” and these people were taking full advantage of this fact.

The next act was a pair of men, one wearing a robe and one in nothing but his underwear, with a variety of props. They used half a roll of packing tape to attach a sharp blade to the microphone and I winced the whole time at the possibilities. If they were going to sing and talk into the mike (which they did plenty of), there was a good possibility of slicing their faces open. I guess the real reason for the blade was to create some excitement. There was a box, taped shut, attached to the ceiling. One of the guys held up the microphone stand from the bottom and used it to try to cut open the box. Slicing the box open proved difficult, requiring literally dozens of attempts, including a couple botched attempts in which the guy would lose control of the mike stand and it would start falling – blade first toward us sitting in the audience. If the objective was to terrify me, it worked: I was pretty sure someone was going to be impaled. Finally the box opened, and about fifty bouncy balls fell from the sky. It was exciting, but the anticipation of what was in the box (as well as potential bodily harm) outweighed the actual event.

From there, the men did whatever they felt like. Bouncing balls, eating bagels, singing metal songs. Periodically, they would mention that we had paid a lot for these tickets and rhetorically asked if we felt like they were giving us our money’s worth. It was like they were thumbing their noses at us, laughing at the fact that we agreed to give them artistic license to do whatever. They also made reference to the fact that it cost a lot to have this show because the clean-up costs alone are astronomical since blood and shit stains are hard to get out. Unfortunately, I don’t think this was a joke. The guys continued to do random activities, most notably the one in just underwear fried an egg on a hot plate, then afterwards put his own head on the hot plate, which was still operational. I’m not sure what he was trying to prove. Though I didn’t notice it myself, Terri later claimed he became visibly aroused while doing that, so maybe it was a sadomasochism thing.

We were moved to another room for the next piece, which had mazes of upside down golf tees set up all over the floor. These props were secondary to the toilet in the center filled to the brim with fertilizer and a naked man in the back corner pooping into a bucket. A butch woman came out and spoke about the maltreatment of people afflicted with mental health conditions while plunging the “soiled” (get it?) toilet. She mentioned some kerfuffle of a schizophrenic with a police officer than resulted in pain and passed around the evidence in a ziplocked plastic bag. When I was handed it, it looked like hair and blood, and I decided I didn’t even want to know for sure what was inside, so I passed it along quickly. This story was supposed to make us mad, apparently, and the main performer (as opposed to the man pooping on the bucket – still pooping on the bucket, might I add) encouraged us to pick up a golf tee and chuck it at the wall whenever we got mad during the piece and she showed us by example. Not one person throughout the piece threw a tee; I’m not sure I was ever “mad” as much as I was disturbed.

Anyway, there was more of the same for a while, but here’s where things really got weird. The woman got bare-ass to correspond with the pooping man and the two of them took pieces of floss that had books tied to one end and stick it in their teeth, leaving the books dangling from their mouths. They then got down on their hands and knees and very slowly crawled toward us in the audience, knocking over the golf tees in their wake. I grew uncomfortable as they approached me, trying to shift backward into the audience so that they wouldn’t end up brushing against me. Still, nothing was quite as disturbing as when they passed by me. It wasn’t until then that I realized that each performer had a butt plug in his or her bare ass. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. They pair continued to crawl toward the door, which had a dozen rolls of toilet paper sitting in front of it. I figured something dramatic would happen once they reached the paper, but instead they just pushed passed it and proceeded to exit through the door and crawl around outside.

Right next door to this performance space is a more traditional gallery that was hosting its own opening. It featured nice, traditional paintings and a lot of people showed up, many of whom were standing just outdoors to smoke, drink wine, and have conversations. They were most likely unaware of what was occurring next door… that is until two naked people with butt plugs crawled outdoors. Fortunately, there were windows in the room that allowed us to peek outside and watch all of this unfold. It’s one thing to know you’re going to watch a non-traditional show and another thing to have the non-traditional show ambush you. Watching the art-goers oblivious smiles turn into horrified expressions once they noticed the naked duo was immensely enjoyable. Terri said that this part was worth the price of admission alone, but I’m not sure I’d go that far. Still, that was my favorite moment of the night. I guess the point of this piece was to make sure to take better care of people with mental health conditions… or they’ll put on this show for you!

I should probably mention that I openly laughed pretty frequently during all of the acts. No one else was doing it, but if you’re going to put weird shit out for me to interpret on my own and not offer an explanation, if I find it funny, I’m going to laugh and not apologize. Put your genitals away and make sense if you feel differently. The rest of the audience was largely artsy unaffected twenty-or-thirty-somethings that stared emotionless as if they see this sort of thing all the time. Maybe they do and maybe that’s why they’ve been rendered emotionless. My favorite person in the audience, however, was a middle-aged woman who was most definitely a mom that did not ever go to these types of events. From the beginning, her jaw was wide open in shock at what was occurring around her. It was often horrifying, so I didn’t blame her. But by the end of the show, she was just laughing. I think she finally realized what a joke all of this was and just let loose, openly laughing at it instead. I loved watching her transformation more than the actual art.

From there, we moved back to the first room, now cleaned of all props, and saw a nude woman standing in the center. Again with the nudity. On one wrist she had a handcuff with about one hundred pieces of paper attached. She began telling a story about how her dad raped her and she is now a lesbian, but then stopped. The rest of the story was written on the pieces of paper attached to her handcuff. She walked around the audience and we were all to tear off a sheet of paper and read the bits of story aloud to make it more interactive. The order wasn’t important, and the voices could read simultaneously. Afterwards, we had all been provided with markers. She invited us to come up and write on her skin. Only one person did. I actually wanted to go and write on her naked body for the novelty of it – like behind her knee or somewhere tame – but since no one else was doing it, I felt weird being that guy. I don’t know that the piece was successful since the audience did not participate in the way she expected, but at least I understood what the greater symbolism (we, too, could “rape” her body) and feelings she was trying to convey. Still, it was weird.

And then finally the night ends with the Jesus guy. The lights go up and there is an obese man wearing nothing but a diaper. He is made to look like Jesus and is crucified on a nine-foot tall vagina. A band in the corner, costumed as Roman soldiers, begins to play and Jesus sings cover songs like some sort of lounge act. Eventually, he breaks free of his vagina crucifixion and gives us party favors – baby rattles and pacifiers. We shake the rattles as he sings and explains that this piece is about a breakup – a breakup with his mother. It’s clear that at least Jesus is not taking this as seriously as everyone else and is having fun with it. Nevertheless, he’s making people uncomfortable as he crawls and ambles around. He had greased himself thoroughly with baby oil, so whenever he would brush against someone, they would essentially be slimed with the stuff.

He sang to us for a while and then laid on a makeshift changing table just feet away. One of the Roman soldiers came and changed his diaper, providing us with a full, naked view. There was a whole lot of baby powder utilized, which then wafted in the air. Though it smelled pleasant, I knew that that powder had just bounced against his naked butt and I didn’t like the particles falling all around me. The previous night, this man had told Terri that he had waxed his entire body for the role – including his asshole – because there was a “diaper change” in the act. We interpreted this to mean a costume change of some sort, not a real live diaper change.

And so concluded the night. There were actually two acts listed on the program, but apparently the artist involved pulled out of the show after the previous night. In some ways, I was thankful, because I really don’t know how much of this I could have handled. But one of the acts was to feature someone eating dirt, while the other involved someone submerging himself in a vat full of Gatorade. They seemed a bit funnier in concept than some of the other acts, so I do regret missing out on them a bit, but as I figure, they’d probably find a way to make those gratuitous and un-watchable too, so it was perhaps better to just get out of there.

I can’t un-see what I’ve seen, but I can make a point not to experiment with experimentation again. This night might have ruined art for me – not just performance art, but water colors and ceramics, too. It’s all art and it’s all disturbing. One thing is for sure: I will probably never have a reason to see anything even resembling these acts again, and that I can be thankful for.

Take care. And beware performance art.

2 comments:

Gay LDS Actor said...

I've only seen one piece of performance art (also including nudity), but not nearly as weird as the one you saw (but still weird, nonetheless).

When I think of performance art, I think of exactly the stereotypical B.S. you describe. I find performance art (and the idea behind it) soooooo pretentious, and it sounds like what you saw only furthers that belief.

It made for a very enjoyable read, however.

Kim said...

OMG, I can't believe I missed this post! I was waiting for this one. But now I am going to have nightmares. Thanks a lot.