Love Letters to a Surrogate, presented by Warren Neidich, Torrance Art Museum ZOOM2 Series, July 10, 2010
I only made it to the final hour of this sprawling afternoon event, but I was lucky enough to catch three notable performances in that time.
Lindsay August-Salazar and Micol Hebron collaborated on Me, U & a Txt, a fascinating interactive exercise with many layers of references. Viewers were instructed to text “send me a drawing” to Hebron’s cell phone. Hebron, who was not present at the event, would then text back a drawing prompt. August-Salazar, wearing a backless black dress and no shoes, sat waiting on an old-fashioned, bench-style, art school easel. The viewer was invited to use his or her finger to draw a rendition of the prompt on the artist’s back. The artist would simultaneously try to draw what the viewer was drawing on a sheet of paper.
I received the prompt, “an existential crisis.” This was either the easiest or the most difficult assignment, depending on which route you took. Not having a lot of time to reflect, I decided to draw a big question mark with a grimacing face inside of it. I straddled the bench behind August-Salazar and slowly drew on her back with my finger. This was a ridiculously intimate and sensuous experience that wasn’t too far from the realm of lovemaking, incorporating as it did the urgency of communication with the touch of normally unexposed flesh. While I drew on her back, she drew on paper, and this was the result:
It seemed at first that communication had completely failed, but did it? What she drew was a displaced abstraction of the thing that I was trying to draw, and yet it wasn’t such a bad rendering of “an existential crisis,” in fact it was probably a lot better than the simplistic cartoon that I had started with. It went in a different direction but in so doing, it kind of came back around to capture the concept. Admittedly this piece was a bit of an anomaly. Looking at the other drawings posted, accuracy seemed to be more common than not:
Through chatting with August-Salazar, I found that the artists grappled with many different issues when developing this piece, and Yves Klein’s Anthropométries was one of them. Certainly his ironic use of a woman’s flesh in service to his own yearning for immateriality figures in this piece, with the invisible Hebron standing in for Klein and the barefoot August-Salazar serving as the “living brush.” Art history’s preponderance of images of nude or scantily clothed women also haunts the work, along with the archaic idea of the artist’s commission. Placing this work firmly in the postmodern era, however, are the fractured, triangulated play on authorship; the distance and anonymity of text messaging; and the likely failure of communication. The sensuousness associated with representational imagery was enticingly complicated by the random and frenetic quality of contemporary technology.
In the library of the museum, there was an ongoing performance by Analeis Lorig, Andrew Berardini, David Levine, and Gretchen Reyes. At a large oval table, Berardini and Lorig sat across from each other and engaged in dialogue that consisted of Berardini questioning Lorig about various aspects of her life. Frequent reference was made to her Filipino background, in spite of the fact that Lorig is blond and most likely not Filipino. Lorig was nervous and tried to present herself as plainly as possible; Berardini harped on the fact that she was Filipino and insisted that he did not have a good sense of who she was. This seemed to be a re-enactment of an immigrant interrogation, in response to the recent legislation coming out of Arizona. The visual disconnect and the tension resulting from their failure to communicate evoked the blind fear and lazy scapegoating inherent in SB 1070.
The final performance of the day was Emily Mast, by Emily Mast and Jerome Bel. Mast got onto a bare, spot-lit stage that had a chair, a boombox, and a few other miscellaneous items like a water bottle and journal. She took off her shoes and socks and proceeded to address the audience directly with a focused monologue that lasted about 15 minutes. She spoke at length about herself—when she was born, what her horoscopes say about her, how long she’s lived in LA, where she went to college, whether she is married, what her parents do, etc. etc. etc. Right away, this performance addressed the audience’s common and insistent, but problematic, need to know about the life and personal details of a performer. Whether it’s in a fine art or popular culture context, we often have the urge to know what makes a particular artist tick, as if that will explain the work of art before us. In this piece, Mast made the disclosure of her full biography (or a facsimile thereof) the performance itself.
The monologue became more complex as Mast delved into key incidents from her creative life and shared thoughts on her own practice. She talked about her early forays into theater and how a particularly terrifying stage role as a young rape victim caused her to stop acting altogether. This and other events evoked the thin line between reality and fiction, authenticity and play-acting, and caused Mast to ask, “Can I still be authentic if I’m playing myself?” A couple of times, she broke continuity by forgetting her lines and stopping to consult her script, accentuating the “fakeness” of the activity she was engaged in.
About midway through, she suddenly shifted her focus to the audience: “The audience, my audience, is often the subject matter and content of my work. My ideal audience is made up of people who are willing to be a little lost and who don’t make decisions about what they see before they see it. Performance and theater often involves imitation or fictional narratives. One of the only real elements in either is the audience… Even though every piece of mine is, in some way, a sort of self-portrait, I hope that it can become bigger and broader than me. I’d like to think of this as a collaborative effort in which we are all attempting to arrive at a (hopefully meaningful) moment together.”
Mast then resumed talking about herself, discussing a few recent projects that shared the element of viewer involvement. While living in France, she sold a subscription of handwritten letters to a complete stranger via a newspaper advertisement; for six months, she sent him weekly stories in which he was the fictional hero. For a nine-week residency project, she repeatedly played the song “This Is the Rhythm of the Night” (which she cued for us as well) at social gatherings in order to “infect” her peers. At a group show, she hired an actor to show up unannounced and unmarked and whistle “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, thus putting performer and audience on equal footing.
Emily Mast ended with a further reveal of the artist that equally implicated the audience: “Part of me wants to be seen, but I’m also terrified of being seen, especially for who I really am… But one thing I have to remember is that this story, my story, isn’t me. Me is just me. In allowing myself to be seen I am giving up control over how you see and perceive me. In a way, I now belong to you.” Cueing the whistle version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, Mast put her socks and shoes back on and left the stage, but not before declaring, “There is no moment when the performer is more ‘real’ than when she emerges from the performance and bows, when the performance is over. At this point, she is unencumbered by art.”
Through a very well-constructed script, Mast and Bel skillfully moved from an expected obsession with the artist, to an unexpected transfer of responsibility to the viewer, and finally to an emancipation of both performer and audience. In the process, they wove together unstable notions of “authenticity” and “artifice,” complicating our grasp of each.
(Thank you to Emily Mast for sharing the full script of her performance with me. Note that Emily Mast will be re-performed at the Perform! Now! event happening in Chinatown July 29-August 1.)