Friday, September 23, 2011

Day 8: The itinerent panopticon

The Drag on Wednesday night was as much fun as an evening of durational performance art pieces can be. Seven young Vancouver artists in five performances strutted their stuff before a crowd that was herded from gallery to gallery and from park to gallery. Each act had about 45 minutes to present, before we were packed up and sent to the next locale.

The evening started at the 221A Artist run centre. I walked up East Georgia and saw a crowd standing in front of the picture windows of the gallery.

Golboo Amani was kneeling naked in the gallery’s big picture windows. From a bowl she took handfuls of what seemed to be mud (which I later learned was henna) and covered her body, first her feet, then her legs, pubis, belly, breasts, arms and hair. She avoided covering her face. Finished she took a sponge and dipping it into a bowl of water, she removed the muddy mix. She continued this application and removal throughout the piece.

I was particularly struck by the gaze of the crowd standing in the light rain outside of the gallery as it consumed the slow ritualized movements of the beautiful young woman. It reminded me a bit of the crowds one sees at Christmas, watching the displays of the big department stores. To further heighten this experience of the desiring gaze, a photographer, on the other side of the glass in the gallery space, circled Amani’s naked form taking photos for the ever-present and ever-necessary documentation.

Passersby on the street shielded the eyes of their children from the spectacle inside, but we, the audience outside, remained mesmerized.

Our next stop was the DRIL collective’s work at DOVA on Pendar. Here a young woman sat at a desk slowing working her way through a large pile of “Gold Rush” lottery tickets. As she scratched the tickets, a video projected on the wall allowed us to see whether or not she might win 2, 5, 10 or 10,000 dollars. An assistant kept a running tally of winning and losing tickets and the amount won.

In a nice touch the scratching of the woman’s coin on the surface of the tickets was miced and amplified into the gallery.

Though the action was repetitive, seemingly endless, the audience continued to follow it closely. Oohs and ahhs arose when the performer’s first scratches revealed a promising ticket. The rare 2$ winning ticket elicited applause.

After forty-five minutes we moved to the next venue leaving the performance to continue without us.

As I learned later the artists spent their entire fee on the tickets. I have to say I felt a bit cheated seeing only a portion of this piece. I wanted to see the artist run through the hundreds of tickets, and then take the winnings to buy more tickets, to scratch through and so on till the very last ticket was scratched and the last dollar was squandered. But we moved on.

The wild Cruz brothers curated the next intervention, a five-minute Performance Art festival in Pigeon Park. It was a carnival-esque explosion with six participants, two young women in jumper suits doing calisthenics, a young man in a trench coat and painted face emoting to a brick wall, a clarinetist wailing away, an old man in seedy suit and chipmunk mask badgering the audience with a series of questions which posed ethical dilemmas to anyone brave enough to respond (and there was another performer who I didn’t see!) The happening lasted just five minutes before Francis Cruz pulled the plug with the explosion of a confetti popper that spewed a cloud of multi-colored bits of paper over our heads.

The mini-festival within a festival worked well in the context of the evening. This frisson of action cleared our heads and cleansed our retinas before we headed off to the Shudder Gallery to see actions by Stacey Ho and the duo of Dave Chokroun and Fremke van Delft.

Ho’s piece took place in the basement, which was too small by far for the number of people in the crowd. She and a partner wrote texts in black marker on two facing walls in the basement. On one side we found citations from works of Jean Genet, the Algerian writer Assia Djebar, an excerpt of the manifesto of 121, and a study of the Japanese art school of painting, the Gutai group.

On the facing wall Ho and her partner continued to write out texts, also from Genet and other Algerian authors. Once they finished writing out a citation they immediately effaced it by washing it away with soap and water. Once the text had been more or less removed they once again wrote out a new text.

When the texts were washed away, the two performers placed clean crumpled sheets of paper in glasses of water. They drank the water from the glass then placed the sodden sheets on the floor. The action concluded with the washing away of the written texts on both walls.

Again with Ho’s piece, I felt the constraints of the limited time. Her action of writing and effacement could go on for days and days--the white walls of the gallery would slowly turn grey as the texts of the modern Arab experience appeared and disappeared.

We went upstairs to see a hear a curious audio performance entitled “Playing War Games”, by Dave Chokroun and Fremk van Delft. This was announced as a performance involving live bees. Those who were allergic were asked to watch the presentation from outside, which was a bit pointless because cloth screens covered the gallery windows. I braved the danger and squeezed back inside.

The performers donned clear acrylic masks and wrapped their heads in fine netting, which would be used to contain the bees on their person. As it began, it was announced that the bees would be released. The performers unscrewed the lids of a jar that hung around their necks. As I discovered later there were indeed live bees in the jars, but in the packed cramped space of the gallery they were impossible to see.

The meat of their action consisted in a musical performance, which involved one of the performers playing the miced seat-back of a metal chair with two string bows. The other performer seemed to activate some control; perhaps it was the light intensity of the hive-like sculpture, which glowed in the centre of the space.

Our last stop was the Gam Gallery to see the work of Lupe Martinez. She had spent the day gathering detritus from the neighborhood and bringing it into the gallery. A pile of broken bricks, pieces of roofing tiles, a rusted piece of banister, a paper crown, a wooden pallet, stalks and cuttings of weeds and wildflowers, most of which came from the vacant lot next door where the Pantages theatre had stood just a few days previously. These items were representative of the ideas of shelter, home and asylum.

The finale of her day-long action consisted of gathering handfuls of dust, pieces of stone and brick that she had gathered during the day and placing them on and near a triangular pile of brick that she had build in a corner of the gallery. In the middle of this slow movement of gathering material and carefully placing it on the pile of debris, there was a loud voice at the open door of the gallery.

Someone was asking if this was an event for native people, were natives welcome or was it only for whites? The response to the intrusion was an invitation to come on in, but to shut up. This elicited the comeback “This is my land, asshole. No one tells me to shut up, white boy.” The back and forth continued a moment longer, before the visitor moved on and there was quiet. Martinez concluded the piece by lying down upon the metal banister and singing a song in Spanish, evocative of home, asylum and shelter.


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