Fabricated Identities: Megan Steinman Considers Narcissister and Brian Getnick
Narcissister and Brian Getnick both performed in Los Angeles in July. Those who know their practices might not think there was an obvious correlation between the two. One is a New York–based artist who melds the strategies of photography, video and burlesque to enthrall audiences with her eroticized body and mask of complacency. The other is a Los Angeles performer who is currently color-coding a series of live installations based on love, loss and the destruction of organic bodies. What both evidence is a deep understanding of the foundational material that surrounds otherwise solo corporeal performances. In the hands (heads, torsos, and legs) of both Narcissister and Getnick, multitudes of hand-sewn fabric pieces extend beyond costumehood to become surrealistic appendages of each performer’s psyche, as if spilling forth from the place where their identities and artistic ethos originate. Perhaps for Narcissister and Getnick, this location is one and the same.
Before describing Getnick’s performance, I will offer the disclaimer that I only attended a single viewing of the multi-day presentation of his “G” series at Monte Vista Projects in Highland Park. This is important to note because each performance was meant to be a rehearsal and testing ground for the material (i.e. the stage, costumes, and Getnick himself) that will travel to New York later this month for a weekend of performances at Station Independent Projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Every iteration was unique and built upon what intrinsically worked or needed discarding.
The performance that I saw took place on Friday, July 26 and featured Getnick operating one head of two de-constructed horse carcasses that lay splayed across an intimate proscenium. Getnick’s horse whinnied and whistled and delivered a meditative banter on the activity of memory-making. While half-listening, I wondered what kind of contortions Getnick’s human body must have been making inside his horse’s head to facilitate its jaw movement, while simultaneously being completely convinced that, yes, this macabre macramé was indeed speaking to us. That is, until Getnick’s sweat-drenched arm thrust itself violently from the horse’s mouth, fingers extending wildly toward the audience. Was the moisture that glistened in the heat of the studio the artist’s perspiration or the horse’s bile? Likely a bit of both. Getnick thoughtfully arched his entire lower arm skyward and below as if to purge the final bit of emotional verse from his and the horse’s body.
This breach of the fourth wall did little to return me to reality. Rather, I imagined an explosion of raw emotion whose nucleus was truly to be found inside the patterns, textures and colors of Getnick’s fabricated (spirit?) animal. Mine is a messy read, for sure; yes, I’m suggesting that these fabric constructions are like streams of psychological vomit rising to be prominently displayed on stage. But love, loss and memory are topics that require high degrees of messiness if they are to be authentically dealt with both on and off the stage. Bodily fluids aside, the public reveal of one’s innermost contemplative and digestive activities results in a very captivating performance.
After expelling his contents, Getnick slowly rolled out of the horse’s head. Bare-faced, he then walked behind a dual-paned curtain created by four different types of green fabric. ranging from a dark taffeta to a pale flower pattern (Getnick later described this as something one might find in their grandmother’s home). The center swath was a pale pink chiffon that allowed the audience to see Getnick engulfed by his self-sewn stage. He knelt and exhaled a few last whistling whinnies, the wind of some other time and place still blowing, the horse in him still very much alive. He then stood and walked away slowly, disappearing into the fabric.
The next evening (July 27), Narcissister performed at Human Resources in Chinatown as part of the after party for Perform Chinatown, an annual performance art festival. The artist entered the stage innocently garbed in a flouncing dress of layered smocks, white stockings and a floor-length blue velvet hooded cape. The only “skin” showing was the unnaturally smooth plastic of her signature mannequin mask. Theme music suitable for any archetypal Disney princess blasted at high volume as she thrust her outstretched arms (in a move that recalled Getnick’s) over the heads of her audience. Whether she was calling for attention to an unseen liberator or attempting to drag this being down to earth and make it her personal devotee is unclear. Likely a bit of both. Narcissister then stopped at center stage to “face” us, before spinning around and dropping the hood of her cape to reveal a second Self: another mannequin mask as devoid of facial expressions as the first. Her arms and wrists deftly contorted around the front and back of her torso in a dance that belied which side was which.
The music switched to Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” (it was Saturday night, after all), and Narcissister proceeded to plant her arms on the floor, lifting her entire body into a headstand so solid and vertical that it alone received audience cheers. While her legs were up, gravity pulled the multiple layers of her dress and petticoat in the opposite direction to reveal a second two-faced mannequin head, seeming to emerge from her crotch. Now the music shifted to Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us,” and Narcissister proceed to twist and bend her body in multiple angles so that the heads could interact with one another.
True to her namesake, Narcissister’s passionate multi-faced and multifaceted pas de deux seemed to be enacted for the performer alone. In a move that recalled a central tenet of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A which restricts eye contact between the dancer and his/her viewer, the audience was completely left out of the conversation. The dance became a closed circuit of interior meditation and exterior projection. The four faces of Narcissister were aware that they were being watched and that they brought pleasure to their viewers. Their audience was an ocean of howls. But the controlled contortions of their supporting corporeal frame made it very clear that there were only five individuals in the room who warranted attention, one of whom was very deliberately articulating every gesture of their exchange.
Narcissister, whose real identity is kept a mystery in the press, is clearly a highly trained dancer, and much of dance training is about locating and mobilizing “the center.” A strong center of gravity allows the dancing body to protect its other parts as they move through choreography. For the performer (and the viewer) who seeks to construct the story of identity, this center can also refer to a metaphorical location of origin, a person to visit, or a home to return to. We all have experienced the geography of such a place (or persona). To test the relevance of center, we head out into the world, limber and out on a limb. To reconnect with this center we usually must unlearn bad posture and years of bodily ignorance. For both Getnick and Narcissister, I imagine this center as a composition of cotton, polyester, thread, plastic, wood, music and prose, meticulously woven into an identity that gets to play intimate reveal, universal truth and total fiction simultaneously. Their works suggest a Self based on completely fabricated realness.