Surviving America

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Home is both a seat of power and a prison for the women in The American Chestnut, a work by America's anti-Sweetheart, Karen Finley. "I think we feel more comfortable with women where we allow them to make choices and decisions in the home," the performance artist says of the project. "And I think we feel more comfortable allowing women to have more power at home ... it's the only acceptable place."

Many will remember Finley as the performance artist who--at least according to Sen. Jesse Helms--threatened to unravel the very fabric of society and weave it into some sort of hippie lamp shade when she smeared her naked body with chocolate onstage. Although some of that notoriety has faded, her eminence as a visual artist hasn't.

Completed in 1995, The American Chestnut, which Finley will perform in Oberlin this week, addresses the pain and humiliation of survivors of tragedy, whether it be war, losing a spouse to AIDS, or everyday misogyny. As in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the work's characters are treated with a blend of pathos and compassion. There's Lily, whose husband has left her for a younger woman; she spends her lonely mornings calling the library with encyclopedic tidbits about plants and animals. And Nicky, the young library worker who's talked down to and sexually assaulted.

However, The American Chestnut does not share Our Town's reticence. Any tight-lipped townsfolk are given voice through Finley's ongoing narration, which makes Joycean leaps from Winnie the Pooh's feces fixation to "questioning God's choices of public appearances." For part of the performance, Finley's on her knees scrubbing floors, wearing only an apron; elsewhere, she's vacuuming, dressed in a bridal gown turned backward. Humor fast becomes horror; likewise, from brutality springs fragility.

One of the artists dubbed the "NEA Four" during the attack on National Endowment for the Arts funding, Finley is no stranger to the courtroom. "I lost my sense of humor, but I definitely have it back," she says of the legal battles she's been involved in since her NEA grant was revoked in 1990.

"We're in a political climate, and it's affecting all art, where it's just a little bit more like in the 1950s. But you know what, I can't be concentrating on that. You can only concentrate so much, and then you have to move on."


Finley performs The American Chestnut at Hall Auditorium, Oberlin College, 67 North Main Street, 440-775-8665, on Friday, December 4 at 8 p.m. The performance is free but ticketed; tickets will be available beginning at 6 p.m.

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