The problem with a performance art festival is that it is sometimes too rich--like several months worth of food put down at the table at once. Some courses inevitably get passed over, and there is little time between dishes to cleanse the palate, digest, and fully appreciate what is being served. The table gets messy and bones pile up on the plates. I will revisit one of the "plats du jour."
The performance took place in the over-crowded foyer of the Western Front. There was only room for a limited amount of people to see the action. The people of the stairs were completely out of luck (no room at the table). The actions themselves were so intimate that every person in the audience had a widely varying point of view. The artist wore a black jacket and black pants (the nomadic international artist costume/uniform). She carried a spool wrapped around a pink cotton wool, the end of which was stuck into one nostril. She flung the spool on the table until the string became unraveled. Eventually the spool became detached from the thread and rolled off of the table and onto the floor.
The audience was quiet and focussed, giving their attention to the artist as if they were all working on solving a challenging puzzle in silent concentration. Camera people moved in and out, swooping in like magpies to feast with their eyes. Now that the thread had unraveled, Vassileva carefully tried to smooth it into a straight line. Still attached to her nose, it was like a bubble gum-colored trail of snot. Using a single razor blade, she carefully cut the thread into inch-long pieces attempting to use only one hand. She tried to space each of these pieces out evenly, and straighten them out--an impossible task, since they curled into themselves. Failure was built into the process, and still she used all her energy to complete her secret internalized mission.
Once all the string had been cut, she unrolled a length of double-sided invisible tape and wrapped it around one hand, scrunching her fingers together. At this point she raised her hand and then slammed it on the table, creating a loud "bang!" Some of the pieces of pink thread stuck to the tape. Vassileva tried to re-form the remaining threads into a straight line. She repeated the pounding gesture, and re-formed the line in between each slam. I cringed and recoiled every time she banged her hand on the table. Once the table was clean, she paused and thanked us.
In the round panel the next day Vassileva said she thinks performance artists have an expanded capacity for awareness, which I thought was an interesting observation. Performance art often serves to give us a heightened awareness of political context, physicality, emotional prejudice, and so on. This is in contrast to pop culture, which tends to numb and pacify us into a malleable hypnotic state. The bitter medicinal quality of some live art is not to everyone's taste. The acts that emphasize the liminality of the body, its messy orifices and body fluids can be very unappetizing. Certainly Vassileva's piece made us aware of the female body taking ownership of her own (self-inflicted) pain.
The violence particularly rattled me because I had seen Iwan Wijono tenderly performing a healing ceremony on one of her wrists (the same one?) the day before. I was angry she had undone all his good work. Furthermore, her self-inflicted pain was an act of sacrifice that wasn't on the menu. She gave it to us anyway, as we were a captive audience, trapped by conventions of respect and politesse.
Perhaps the gesture comes from a place of hyper-stimulated empathy--a way of expressing and expelling absorbed emotions from the people around her, from the social tension in the room and even from the residue of built-up psychic energy in the building. (The Western Front formerly held a funeral society, the Knights of Pythius.) What did her action do to the body of the consumer/viewer? Do we recoil, as a the rifle bruises one's shoulder? Do we leave the feast, angry, tired and a bit tender or do we just keep on eating, handing out our plate for more?