Debo Eilers and Kerstin Brätsch, KAYA 2, Various Small Fires, Venice, March 24, 2012

Kaya, left, with Debo Eilers boxed

I am still thinking about KAYA 2, last night’s revelatory performance at Various Small Fires. A close collaboration among New York–based artists Debo Eilers and Kerstin Brätsch and a 16-year-old girl known only as Kaya, KAYA 2 was nothing less than a total work of art, comprising painting, collage, sculpture, performance, social relations, and commerce in a complex explosion of dense energy with multiple levels of interaction among artists, audience, dealers, and buyers. It was chaotic to experience, but the strength and quality of the ideas at play linger long after the fact.

KAYA 2 was presented as a live painting performance and auction of the works produced. Yes, just a few of the art world’s most dreaded and despised genres, and this is where the genius starts. The event seemed to pander to the cheap and silly, but it instead drew energy from it that defied and transcended exploitation. Brätsch’s paintings command a pretty penny on the market, and there were, to put it very kindly, some pennysavers present who tried to leverage the situation to their advantage. They were roundly driven out, however, by the fluidity of the performance, which was improvisatory and ignored rules in favor of the integrity of the artists and their work. That is to say… no flipping allowed, assholes. Paintings went for $120 or less to art fans, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit Inner-City Arts.

The setting was terrific—beautiful works of art hung all over the gallery in long scroll form. They had started their lives as silkscreened collages produced by Eilers. Kaya, the daughter of one of Eilers’ closest friends from high school and a frequent collaborator with Eilers, then added an image of her own face, in some form, to each of the collages.

On the evening of the performance, Eilers climbed into a painted, coffin-shaped box with handicap railings on the inside and covered his naked body in plaster. Kaya sat next to him drawing all over his plastered body with color markers, while members of her family stood around and watched. Lying prostrate, Eilers intoned the titles of the works of art for sale into a microphone, which broadcast his voice throughout the gallery. As he announced each title, gallery assistants would prep the work for Brätsch’s final touch—her signature.

Kerstin Brätsch

Wearing distressed cherry-motif tights and stiletto boots, Brätsch would pick up one of two large sculptural “paintbrushes”—comically theatrical props that looked like something out of a Dada play—and dip it into a doggie bowl filled with paint. She would then scrawl “KB” across the painting, thus authenticating it just as the auctioneer called out for bids. Winning bidders could instantly pay for their goods with assistants who roamed around with iPhones that had those little cash register attachments on top.

Ross the auctioneer, right, coaxes bidders while Brätsch looks on

The signing/bidding action moved all over the gallery, drawing everyone with it. The last piece was signed and auctioned off around 9pm. Inside the box, Debo peeled the plaster off his body, which apparently took all his body hair with it. The hairy plaster scraps will remain in the box and be sold along with it as a sculpture. The two paintbrushes, with accompanying doggie bowls, are also for sale.

Eilers peels off his armature

The multiple levels of inquiry and exchange at work in this happening are something to behold. Even more impressive is how it all comes together and gels into a powerful, consummate, collaborative work. Much of what I see in the performative realm tends to be light sketches and tests of ideas, without a strong cumulative oomph. KAYA 2 had that, and it also wrested brilliant art out of tacky, crass elements, both planned and unplanned.

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