Piles of second-hand clothes, a Wonder Woman costume, and a mild cacophony of women’s voices: on the one hand, BLUEorange Gallery’s current exhibition Public Communication: Performing Knowledge of the Body feels busy, even bombastic. But on the other hand, the repetitive actions in most of the works lend it a humming quietude. But whether the work is silent or screaming, it is clear that co-curators Max Fields and Joe Joe Orangias want us to engage with performance from women.
At times erotic, sad, willfully stupid, disgusting, and absurd, there is an enormous range of how female performance artists use their bodies as material here. One major trap of performance art, like land art or conceptual art, is how to realize the work physically within the confines of an exhibition space—and some of the works do this more gracefully than others.
The video work fares the best, providing the most depth by requiring our time and attention. Sure, with video we can simply walk away at any point, but those of us that are truly interested have the ability to relish multiple viewings, dissecting subtle words and movements.
Seeing a performance live gives us just one chance to process what we’re seeing, but the costume, wig and suitcase leftover from Sarah Hill’s They Wonder (2014), which was performed live on January 23, doesn’t do much more than give us hints. Her description on the gallery’s website makes the performance seem fairly straightforward: “I repeatedly spin around and around in circles until I fall down. I am interested in the repetitive action of spinning and getting no-where, falling down and getting back up.” Clearly the performance alludes to Wonder Woman’s iconic twirl as well as Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978), but the crux of the work seems to lie in Hill’s absurd determination to spin to the point of incapacity.
MPA + Katherine Hubbard displayed a compelling series of Polaroid photos of a performance. In Unique photographs from Polaroid Series, 2010 Hubbard alternately fucks herself with a weird wooden apparatus and wears it as some sort of high priestess garment. The snapshots provide a wonderfully agitating mystery, but the wooden apparatus’ potential feels cut short, as if it is little more than some accessory to a queer, deliciously horrific fashion show. This performance needs to be live.
Katharina Swoboda’s Zur Sache Schätzchen (2013) is a short, two-minute piece, spoken in German, which, for me, was a huge language barrier. Even more inscrutable is the subject matter: Swoboda is reenacting moments in the Munich zoo from a cult 1968 German film with the same title as the piece. The catalog tells us that her voiceover discusses the general display of the zoo, of what it means to stare at animals, and what it means for them to look back at us. But there are no subtitles, so all we get is Swoboda walking around. Being able to understand what she’s saying is the only key to understanding why she’s reenacting an obscure film, making Zur Sache Schätzchen incredibly frustrating.
In i.ii.iii (2013), Jessica Borusky looks terrified, facing the camera in the midst of a job interview. Sitting in an elevator hallway replete with all the beiges and taupes that adorn corporate America, she feigns enthusiasm, collapsing into severe anxiety until she explodes, screaming, “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!” at the top of her lungs. She then proceeds to repeat, “sorry sorry sorry,” at least a hundred times or so, a desperate attempt to recover an already lost job opportunity. The territory Borusky traverses here is interesting—the masks we wear with our faces, fumbling our way through parts of our lives that we would like to avoid altogether but must nevertheless endure. But the jab at corporate America seems obvious; the truth is these kinds of anxieties present themselves everywhere, and Borusky could have picked something less literal. After all, the art world is rife with anxiety-inducing moments such as these.
infused with sharp wit and endearing self-deprecation, Melanie Gilligan’s video Self-capital commands our engagement. The Tracey Ullman-esque character changes can, at moments, read as over the top, and she occasionally overacts her parts, but the scenes in which Gilligan is repetitively tripping over language, forcing out some words while delighting in others, is captivating. In one scene, thumbing through books at ICA London’s bookstore, she delivers the phrase “migrant worker” as if she were devouring it, savoring the rich flavors of each syllable. Watching her quite literally chewing on the phrase was laughable yet poignant: it’s amazing how we can spit out rhetoric with unknowing hatred in some instances while hanging onto a delectable phrase in others.
Autumn Knight’s Performance held in conjunction with the In-Situ In-Residence Program (2014) is heavy and profoundly emotional. While most performance artists will depend on some sort of crowd to watch and engage with the work, Knight performed this alone in what appears to be an old, abandoned warehouse. She paces, even runs through and around the warehouse’s columns and sits at the top of a ladder uttering a deep, throaty song that feels somewhat like a séance. It is unclear if this is documentation of a piece meant to be performed in front of other people, but the video makes a strong case that it should not. There is no overacting in this video—in fact, there is no acting at all. We sense that Knight is releasing something genuine and incredibly sad deep within her body, which is why it so important that we view her once removed through video instead of live, that we can watch her in the state of being alone. The pile of clothes in the corner is ineffectual, but the video itself is a powerhouse.
Public Communication, with all of its specificity regarding gender and performance, brings together work that delightfully tackles an enormous range of subject matter and emotion, as well as a variety of ways the body is used as a material. Although (at least in this exhibition) video makes the most sense, it’s always fun to see a Wonder Woman costume hanging up in the corner.
Public Communication: Performing Knowledge of the Body featuring works by Jessica Borusky, Melanie Gilligan, Sarah Hill, Autumn Knight, Katharina Swoboda, and MPA + Katherine Hubbard, will be on view at BLUEorange Gallery until February 27, 2015.