Thursday, September 29, 2011

Day before the end

My friend Robbie works in a Pediatric clinic, where he sees the gamut of disease and accident that come though the clinic door. There are cases of morbid congenital syndromes and homicidal neglect. It is a difficult job, seeing children die, telling the parents of their child’s illness, working with the Child Welfare Services.

Robbie accompanied me to Saturday evening’s presentation of the Live performance festival. Kurt Johannessen from Norway, Suvi from Finland and Arti Grabowski from Krakow, Poland presented work. Robbie’s a tough sell on performance art and he posed some difficult questions about the actions.

Several broad categories of work have been presented at the festival. Vassan Sitthiket and Robin Blass presented work that engaged the audience with an overt message or concept. After their pieces were over we all could talk to each other pretty confidently concerning what the piece was about. Sitthiket for example engaged us concerning colonialism and the violence wreaked upon the third world by the first world. Robin Blass spoke of memory and the Native American experience.

Kurt Johannessen’s piece on Saturday night was obscure. No one in the room could speak with any confidence as to what the piece was about. What did the stack of paper mean? Or the vase full of sesame seeds? Or the small paper envelopes placed so carefully on the floor? Why did he strew the sheets of paper on the floor? Or show the contents of the small envelopes to just a few people in the audience?

Most likely Johannessen himself would have no clear explanation as to why he placed the bits of dust on the woman’s shoe, or why he manipulated the pencil leads and placed them in the small glass vial. Further Johannesssen would likely object to my attempt to infuse these actions with an explanation.

Perhaps his action of strewing the sheets of paper one by one onto the gallery floor was evocative of the destruction of the Twin Towers that morning when the paper of hundreds of offices rained down upon the streets of lower Manhattan. Perhaps not.

When Johannessen pushed his hand into the vase of sesame seeds with such effort, and then removed it to allow the seeds to rain down upon the sheets of paper each with a final tiny click, what did it mean?

Rodolfe-Yves Lapointe posed a similar question in his performance rebus last Sunday, “Watt Ham High Dough Wing Ear?”. This of course remains unanswered, and I was not able to respond to my friend’s questions either.

Suvi on the other hand presented the crowd a spoken narrative and a subject. It was a bit difficult to follow her English, which was unfortunate because what she had to say was interesting.

Her piece was about kissing. I know this because she had members of the audience kiss the stranger next to them. Her patter was all about kissing, asking us to muse on the kiss of the frog and fruits, of crack addicts and movie stars. The video screen also presented an animation that continually morphed back and forth between a face and two luscious red lips.

On three army cots there were forms covered in white sheets, which Suvi revealed one by one. The first form uncovered was of “Rescue Annie”, a doll used to practice mouth-to-mouth resuscitation techniques. The face of this doll is that of the “L’inconnu de la Seine”, a nameless young woman fished out of the river Seine in the late eighteen hundreds.

Her death mask was considered to be the quintessence of beauty in the early part of the twentieth century. The people who made “Rescue Annie” took her face as their model. As such the face of this anonymous suicide became the most kissed face in the world.

The second cot contained another doll used to elicit responses from abused or traumatized children. On the third cot was “Britney Bitch” a blow-up companion complete with several orifices.

Suvi ended the piece by showing us how scensters in Finland circumvent liquor regulations at music events. She injected an apple with a dark liquid, presumably hard alcohol. Taking a bite she gagged, fell to the floor and feigned death till she was awakened with a kiss.

After the show Robbie told me that this was how Alan Turing died. (The inventor of the computer.) His favorite movie was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. After being persecuted in England for his homosexuality, he injected cyanide into an apple and took a bite. This apple later became the logo for some computer company.

Arti Grabowski should have 911 on speed dial when he performs. He crushes drinking glasses with a heavy river stone duct-taped to his shoe. He nails the other shoe to a chair. There is drinking. There is a session of mumbly-peg with a long sharp kitchen knife.

One imagines the conversation with the doctor in ER, “Mr. Grabowski, why is there a large stone duct-taped to your shoe?”

Mr. Grabowski is a clown. We know this because he spray paints his face just like one. First the whiteface, then black for the eyes and then a broad red smear for the mouth. He adds accents in black by placing his hand over his face and spraying again.

The soundtrack is a voice repeating in big greasy tones “No, No, No”, as he pulls out the long and very sharp kitchen knife which he stabs into the seat of a wooden chair, on cue it changes to the word “Ouch”.

Using a small hand held video camera the size of a thumb drive, Grabowski filmed himself and the objects of his destruction in extreme close-up. The images were projected onto a screen behind him.

The result is a disturbing close-up on his absurd unfunny actions. We all like to laugh at the misfortune of others, but Grabowski pushes the effect to an extreme. He walks with one large stone taped to his foot, the other foot nailed to a chair. He spray paints a finger blood red and sticks it between his lips, slowly moving it, in and out, for a juicy and xxx-rated clip on the big screen behind him.

After difficult crossing from one side of the room to the other, tearing off a sleeve, smashing a row of drinking glasses on the floor. He made his way to a kitchen table.

By rapping its surface with his hands and again stabbing it with the kitchen knife it became apparent that the table was miced. He began playing the table, its high-pitched modulated sounds mixing with the voice on his soundtrack.

Arti concluded the piece by hacking the stone off his show and freeing his foot from the shoe nailed to the chair. He climbed up on the table and played a game with the knife, dropping it above his naked foot, which he moved a way at the last instant.

Climbing down back onto his chair, he leaned over the table and taking the table knife he hacked off one of its legs. At that point he fell off the table, once his feet touched the floor he stood up and threw the table into the centre of the room. Finis.

Again it would be impossible to say what Grabowski’s piece was about.

In his “Notes to Literature”, Adorno speaking on the problem of modern art suggests that the modern work of art tells the truth about society “all the more accurately, the less that it takes society as its subject.” The tension between expression and meaning remains unresolved, as we witnessed Saturday night.


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