Thursday, October 3, 2019

Physical/Labor

As many books about the subject can attest, performance art calls into question passed-down notions of identity and subjectivity. At one extreme, the art attempts to dislocate (if not outright erase) identity. Think of Ron Athey’s staged physical obliterations at the verge of ritual’s limit. Or of the trio of artists featured in curator Philipp Kaiser’s Disappearing—California, c. 1970: Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth earlier this year. This show traced the various organized disappearances of the artists within the context of the California art scene in the early seventies.

At the other extreme, performance art stages an identity, albeit one that may be more fictional and more temporary than not, as an extension of that identity’s performativity. Here, think of Laurie Anderson’s narrative pieces in which she plays a version, often extreme and technologized, of herself. Or of Karen Finley, who in March 2016 brought her show The Jackie Look to Dallas. In it, Finley performs onstage as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, effectively reactivating Onassis’ public trauma as if it were an extension of Finley’s—or Dallas’—own history of, or history as, trauma.

Further intensifying the clash between these two extreme modalities of performance art is the fact that often the sheer identity performance artist is enough to bring into question such fraught terms as identity, subjectivity, performativity, and affectivity, especially when an artist performs the most mundane of activities but within an art context.

In The Artist Is Present, for example, Marina Abramović, who decidedly was not present at all times during the exhibition, nonetheless both staged her absence by casting other performers in her (former) roles, yet also made manifest her presence only insofar as it negotiated with the barest of narrative and artistic content: she sat in a chair facing audience members one at a time. But MoMA’s context, and even the iconic dresses she wore almost as if in costume, guaranteed an expanded understanding of both performance (she’s just sitting there) as well as of art, in this case, seemingly as if to say that because a performance artist is doing the activity, then that activity is necessarily art.

Operating within the nexus of questions that performance art opens is New Orleans native (and currently Dallas-based) Jer’Lisa Devezin’s 2019 mixed-media work Kiss My Ass. This piece was performed Saturday, September 21, as part of curator Liss LaFleur’s Cosmic to Corporeal: Contemporary Queer Performance Practices opening at The MAC. With an impressive 25-year history of programming challenging exhibits, The MAC also prides itself on presenting “performance practice which is often underrepresented locally” in Dallas, said executive director Rachel Rogerson. Having an international open call, Rogerson explains, “ensured that a diverse range of techniques and approaches are represented” in this exhibit that has been in the works for a few years now.

At 7:00 pm, Devezin entered the back door of the museum carrying a bronze of a truncated human form, specifically an ass but also including the thighs and hips. If not for the time of day and the crowd gathered, one could have easily dismissed the action as one performed by a museum worker in the installation of any number of works. The MAC recorded over 150 audience members throughout the evening, with about half that number present during the performance.

But there is another aspect that indicates that the artist is not a mere installer: she carries the sculpture in her formidable arms. A worker would presumably be more detached, perhaps pushing it on a cart. Devezin instead grips it tightly in a bear hug and pushes her way through the crowd into the front gallery where the work is to be performed/installed. Though she is not a museum technician, she takes on this role, rendering visible the rarely seen labor of installation.

There is little question that the sculptural work is hers, though to what extent remains an open question: Did Devezin cast the work herself? Is the ass cast of her own body? And to further exaggerate the questionability of performance with which she engages, she ends up over-installing it: the pedestal upon which she raises her bronze ass is more than six feet high, requiring that a majority of people will need to stand back and look up at it. In other words, she demands from the audience a posture and a gaze that is typically coded as subservient and deferential. Not so much kiss my ass as worship my ass.

Through the bronze, rope, steel, and performance Devezin overturns the binary of high and low art. She literally erects an ass over the audience’s heads. But this work is more than an easy tongue-in-cheek joke. The sculpture as well as the performance are firmly encoded by narratives of queered Black bodies, labor, women’s work, and feminism. But even if we made an effort to ignore its contexts, it would be difficult to not think of the history of American slavery and the policing of Black bodies while watching the artist secure ropes tightly around the stand-in ass so that it can be controlled, restrained, and then raised.

We see Devezin struggle with and through the work: she perspires, grunts, tugs, strains under the weight, wipes sweat from her brow, pushes her long dreadlocks out of her eyes. The 20-minute performance shows itself as labor in both senses of that word. In the artist’s statement, Devezin reveals an interest in depicting a new strong Black woman, one not overly oppressed by history, gender, and sexuality. By unfastening and unhooking the ropes once the sculpture is in place, the artist allows for the ass to be free from such weighty constraints even as it invites the audience to look and admire.

The ass becomes another work of art in another museum, decontextualized from its own origin, from its own narrative, with nothing but the residual traces of the labor it took to get it there. What’s more, the fully installed ass is de-racialized in that the bronze neutralizes the race of its model. And the sculpture of the ass once again discloses itself as de-gendered in that it has neither overtly male nor female sex organs. Freeing the sculptural work from the semiotic relationships activated by the performance (by way of race, sex/gender, sexuality) highlights the radical queering that took place in that performance. This, I think, is the greatest testament to Devezin’s artistic practice.

Cosmic to Corporeal: Contemporary Queer Performance Practices in on view through November 9, 2019, at The MAC’s newly renovated exhibition space at 1503 South Ervay Street in the Cedars neighborhood. Two more evenings of performances are scheduled for Saturday, October 12, and Saturday, October 26. If Devezin’s work is any indication, you won’t want to miss the other performances. Many thanks to The MAC’s executive director Rachel Rogerson for providing details and quoted material above.



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