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‘Out There’: New performance art at the Walker

My first exposure to performance art was in Los Angeles in the early ’90s. I was living in a building called the Nirvana, on Orange and Franklin just around the corner from the Chinese Theater.

My first exposure to performance art was in Los Angeles in the early ’90s. I was living in a building called the Nirvana, on Orange and Franklin just around the corner from the Chinese Theater. It was, and is, a bright red apartment building covered with Chinese dragons and Buddhist mandalas, and, as with a lot of buildings in Hollywood, a series of urban legends had sprung up around the building. Its original owner, residents claimed, was Errol Flynn, whose mansion was a few blocks away, and who had a tunnel built under the streets of Hollywood so that Flynn and his friends could make clandestine trips to the building, which he kept filled with prostitutes and opium. 

This wasn’t true. The building had been owned by a movie performer, yes: Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star. And while the building had a history of being occupied with sex workers, that history began in the ’80s, when Hollywood was in decline and many of its apartments became slums. It was during this time that a woman named Linda Sibio lived there, and, convinced her apartment was haunted, she began to research the building. She uncovered scores of tragedies, but they were the everyday tragedies of urban life: suicides, overdoses, domestic violence. She built a performance piece around it called “Apartment 409,” which she debuted at the LACE Gallery, then downtown, now, oddly, just a few blocks from the apartment.

I read about the show in one of the newsweeklies and found my way downtown to see it. I wasn’t sure what to expect — what I knew of performance art was mostly limited to the caricature of it that was then bandied about by Republicans in Congress, who were trying to staunch the pitifully small amount of funding that went directly to artists by pointing out that, say, about $100 had wended its way toward a Minneapolis performance by Ron Athey. This HIV-positive performance, they claimed, has exposed his audience to his own blood. This was a preposterous misrepresentation of his piece, based on a Star Tribune account written by a writer who had not attended the event. But then, as now, certain politicians make great political hay with the bugaboo of homosexuality — of the four performers who had grants vetoed by Congress in 1990 (the NEA Four), three were gay. And one was Karen Finley, whose performances the media caricatured as involving a lot of nudity and yams.

Had I been told Linda Sibio’s piece would eventually involve her unclothed and writhing on the ground, crying out that she was the Virgin Mary, well, that’s about what I would have expected. But there was an awful lot more to the performance, which was, like the building she based it on, haunted. The set moved on its own, rising and falling behind her like the demon-possessed bedroom in “The Exorcist,” as Sibio assumed character after character, each a former inhabitant of the building, each with his or her own tragedy to tell. The performance had the feel of a possession, and the results were terrifying and engrossing in equal measures. I left the LACE Gallery hooked on performance.

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Thankfully, the Walker Art Center has an annual showcase of performance called “Out There,” which in now in its 24th year, and, under the curation of Philip Bither, is often genuinely stratospheric. Bither has a taste for artists with visions that are at once idiosyncratic and forcefully articulated — often Out There performances give the sense of being a peek into a entirely different evolutionary line of theater and performance, as distinct from the mainstream, but as fully developed, as, say, a sea cucumber is from a mountain lion. Even when the performances are in English, the language of the performances themselves often seem foreign, with their own grammar and idioms, and it takes a while before we start being conversant. This runs the risk of being enormously alienating, and is probably why unscrupulous politicians could make such a public fuss about something that costs so little and tends to be seen by so few. This sort of performance is not for people who prefer to be unchallenged by art, and who want art that reflects their biases and assumptions. Like a lot of contemporary art, performance sometimes expects the audience to do some of the work. Depending on your tastes, this can be terrifically upsetting (and it genuinely can be; I attended a performance of “Hamletmachine” that the Walker offered a decade ago that lost at least a third of its audience due to walkouts) or it can be an adventure, and often is both.

Take the first performance this year, starting this weekend: “Untitled Feminist Showby New York-based artist Young Jean Lee, who starts every piece with a very curious question: “What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?” From this starting point, everything is bound to be a little uncomfortable, and she magnifies that discomfort, working with material that she described as sometimes trite, staging it a way that emphasizes its problems, and keeping the show as unsettled as possible, so that no final version of it ever exists.

"Untitled Feminist Show” by New York-based artist Young Jean Lee
Photo courtesy of Young Jean Lee
“Untitled Feminist Show” by New York-based artist Young Jean Lee

With this show, Lee has tackled one of the least tackle-able subjects of the last half-century: feminism. And she begins in the way that many performance artists began in addressing the subject, with the exposed body. All six performers in this piece are naked, all the time, and Lee has been deliberate in selecting performers with a wide range of body types.

One of the pleasures of Bither’s curation is that he has about as international a perspective as anybody — the Out There series typically offers work from throughout the world, and it’s often startling how many of them are addressing similar themes. This year, for instance, there is a strong sense that we are living in economically uncertain times. The three pieces offered by Japanese artist Toshiki Okada and his company, chelfitsch, are all set in the mundane world of office workers in their early 20s, whose quotidian conversations (they discuss where to eat, or how cold the radiator should be) mask a deep uncertainty about their financial stability, emphasized by Okada’s selection of sometimes intensely disoriented music and lighting effects, and the fact that the office workers tend to physicalize their dialogue with odd, compulsive gestures. 

Similarly, the Argentinian piece “El Pasado es un Animal Grotesco (The Past Is a Grotesque Animal)” by director Mariano Pensotti follows what seems to be an almost soap opera-like tale of young adults in Buenos Aires, their interlocking lives represented by a set that is built into a rotating drum — as it spins, they move around within the set, growing older. The performance is set in 1999, and, as time advances, the Argentinian economy collapses, which is always in the background of the characters various romances and MTV-style life dramas.

If these pieces share any theme, it is that the job market can be a pretty dispiriting place; in one piece, it might even be deadly. Beirut-based performer Rabih Mroué tells of a missing employee in a piece that is titled, simply enough, “Looking for a Missing Employee.” Over the course of the performance, he lays out the facts of a puzzling case of a man who just went absent one day from work, and his story is accompanied by an enormous amount of documentary evidence. He sorts through the evidence on a table before him, and all of it is projected behind him for the audience to see. But is the story true, or a fabrication made credible by a surplus of manufactured evidence? It’s not just the economy that seems unstable in Mroué’s piece, but reality itself, which can be built from scratch to support whatever narrative we prefer.

I should mention that the performances themselves are only part of the Out There series. The Walker also schedules additional activities, including after-performance drinks with the show’s creators, talk-back sessions, and, best of all, workshops with the artists. I attended almost every one of the workshops last year, and there is no better way to understand how a piece of performance art is created than by having the artists themselves walk you through the process. The experience can be a little unnerving — it’s a bit like being asked to give a public speech in a language you do not speak. But, then, if you’re like me, part of the pleasure of this sort of performance is that it is a little frightening.