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End Games 

There's still time to see performance artists bare all in Cleveland. But hurry.

To allow cockroaches to crawl over your naked body, you either must have no gag reflex at all or you must be a performance artist. Miya Masaoka is a performance artist. Fittingly, her Ritual--With Giant Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches was the opening act in the twelfth and final Cleveland Performance Art Festival, which started April 16 at the Cleveland Public Theater and is slated to run until Sunday, when, with the interactive piece Jackie Gleason Meets the Chakras, the whole thing emits its last gasp.

The organizers don't really want the days of wine and roaches to come to an end. But they have little choice. National Endowment for the Arts funding for performance art was slashed in 1996, and momentum against such ventures had been building long before then. Watching roaches skitter along Masaoka's bare midriff last weekend, it wasn't hard to see why. Hot-button issues like sexuality in the age of AIDS (to name one) tended to bring out the Jerry Springer in many performance artists, and their inquiries into pressing social questions often weren't much more insightful than the showstopping speeches in which Jerry exhorts his brethren to "take care of yourself and each other."

In 1996, performance artist Jubal Brown vomited on paintings in a museum; Eugene Calamari Jr. came clean by allowing people to vacuum his body; and, in what now seems like ancient history, the avatar of NEA outrage, Karen Finley, smeared chocolate frosting over her bare breasts to protest the mistreatment of women. None of these acts occurred in Cleveland, but they demonstrate the lengths to which performers will go in practicing an art form whose influences can be variously traced to vaudeville, Dada, the theories of Constantin Stanislavsky (the Moscow Art Theater guru whose mantra was "You must live the part every moment you are playing it"), and the mixed-means theatrical pieces from the 1960s known as "happenings."

Not surprisingly, this year's Cleveland festival includes Springeresque sideshows and occasional flirtations with shock (and schlock). There are also, wonder of wonders, some serious works which provoke "icebox moments"--Alfred Hitchcock's phrase for what happens when a moviegoer, disturbed by something he saw at the 8 p.m. showing, wakes up in the middle of the night to raid the refrigerator and mull over the problem.

Springeresque in tone, though not in content, were 2funBastards, a duo in tie, jacket, and sunglasses who toted (and made ample use of) police megaphones and who, having determined that there were exactly 114 problems in the universe, took this opportunity to solve them all. Their method: Interview audience members about their problems, write the responses on wooden tiles, and then present the tiles, one by one, to a confederate in karate get-up who "solves" them with a swift kick or potent arm chop.

The idea seems to be to establish a confessional environment and then raise hackles by presenting a ritualistic solution that has no healing power whatsoever. It's both a parody of Springer, whose confession-fests yield not insight for the participant but a voyeuristic leer at the spectator, and a crude swipe at the Catholic confessional. But in the end, it relies too heavily on a single conceit to make its point. And while it raises doubts about the viability of ritual as a problem-solving technique, it does so with the subtlety of a monster-truck rally. All those Yugos crushed, and so little to show for it.

Infinitely more thought-provoking was Vicarious by William Scarbrough and Eric Voelker, in which a large movie screen was initially divided into four equal sections, each of which offered a real-time view of the same empty room from a different angle. Then, in a series of abrupt cuts, the images were presented sequentially. Like a poet establishing his meter at the beginning of a poem, this was an announcement about what lay ahead: Reality would be dissected into its component parts, but reality itself could be seen from several different angles.

After a few minutes of on-stage laughing uproariously about nothing at all, during which several TV screens at stage right and left showed images of men and women laughing as well, Scarbrough and Voelker entered a door at the center of one of the screens. Suddenly, the artists were in the empty room we'd been watching till now. Accompanied by the hysterical laughing (or crying, or orgasmic screams, it was hard to tell which) of the men and women on the TV screens, one then undressed the other and washed him with soap and water. As a film projector showed flickering images of what appeared to be Holocaust victims, the man who'd been washed was wrapped in plastic, tied into a small bundle, and dragged to the door projected on the screen.

To everyone's surprise, the duo then reemerged from the stage door through which they'd disappeared. The caregiver, who'd been laughing so hard at the start of the show, seemed now to slump from the effort of dragging this plastic bundle across the stage. The piece ended with the lifeless man encased in plastic on the floor and each of the TV screens blowing out with a bang until there was no more laughter.

The piece stirs feelings about the humiliation suffered by Jews in Nazi concentration camps, where concepts of what was "real" about human behavior were given a huge reality check. It also recalls the chilling experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram in which he duped subjects into thinking that they were giving a man life-threatening electrical shocks--and in which most volunteers dutifully upped the voltage, even as the experimenter's confederate yelled in mock pain. Obedience to authority was being tested, and the news was not very flattering for the human race. The man doing the washing in Vicarious is like a concentration camp guard--he does his duty and knows how to tie a heck of a knot. But when all the televisions go blank and the theater is silent, he's left to contemplate his deeds and seems on the brink of a horrible self-realization.

Also disturbingly effective was Erica Blue's The Harpy, for which the artist wore wings (and nothing else) and knelt in a five-foot cage for the better part of a day. With her face and body painted white, Blue came across as a sad and saddening creation whose stylized movements represented forlorn attempts to communicate with other people. All about imprisonment and being caged within oneself, this piece confounded expectations and inspired respect for an artist who'd choose to convey her anguish in such a vivid fashion.

Few of the other offerings on Friday and Saturday were this disturbing or this effective. The collective of eight women artists known as A.K.A. explored the ways women learn to hate their own bodies in a piece called Body Counts. There was a heavy reliance on videotaped, anecdotal accounts (shades of Oprah), but, in an atypically moving episode, a Japanese woman told of how her mother, withering away in her final days, remarked with satisfaction that she was finally losing weight, though her breasts didn't look all that great.

There is much to be said about such a corrosive preoccupation with looks (and writers like Naomi Wolf spend a lot of time saying it), but Body Counts didn't bring much to the discussion. Images of women slapping their bodies with measuring sticks, attempting to sew up their genitalia, and then gathering at the front of the stage to lather their bodies with soap and water are angry gestures. Unfortunately, there was little of the irony that could have leavened such chest-pounding theatrics. It wasn't clear, for instance, whether the artists were lauding the Japanese woman for her candor about her mother or if they were attempting to use the mother as a proxy for all women. The difference counts: If it's something like the former, the artists are pointing to a possible way out of the appearance obsession (by questioning its origins); if it's something like the latter, they're indulging in simple-minded polemics.

Not polemical but definitely obsessive were Miya Masaoka and her giant hissing cockroaches. Oddly, despite its mildly revolting aftertaste, this piece may have been one of the least exploitative performances of the bunch. Though the shock value of getting bug-naked is undeniable, Ritual was less social commentary than it was sonic experiment. Masaoka is also a composer and Ritual seemed more about music than anything else. Lying naked with the cockroaches crawling all over her, Masaoka was also surrounded by several lasers that detected the motion of the insects, which in turn triggered previously sampled cockroach sounds. Only part of the noise came from the "live" cockroaches; their sucking sounds were combined with pre-recorded chimes and percussion effects, not to mention a montage on the big screen behind the artist of a pre-recorded version of the well-fed insects crawling on her body. With Ritual, Masaoka found a new way of encouraging chance musical effects, and one sensed the ghost of John Cage hovering over the proceedings.

This year's Cleveland festival has been a mixed bag so far, as glib as it is thoughtful. Nevertheless, it's a shame that this is the festival's last year, and that Clevelanders have only until Sunday to sample its offerings. If Jerry Springer can pursue social rehabilitation via a major motion picture, why can't performance art seek similar absolution for its frequent sins? Better for artists to lay down with cockroaches, after all, than to see an entire festival exterminated for lack of funds.

Cleveland Performance Art Festival, through April 25 at the Cleveland Public Theater, 6415 Detroit Avenue. All events begin at 8 p.m.; all tickets $10, 216-221-6017.

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