I wanted to share some random thoughts and observations about Peter Dobill’s March 20th performance Sans Tête.
Image of Peter Dobill in the midst of his Sans Tête action performance at Grace Exhibition Space
Like all successful performance art, Sans Tête taps into a rich lexicon of imagery and social meaning. From historical fiction to contemporary reality, his latest work weaves together disparate narratives to communicate something about our culture and its obsession with victimization and heroism–which are not mutually exclusive.
To see my post about the March 20th performance of Sans Tête, visit here.
George Cruikshank, The Radical’s Arms (1819)
The title translates as “no head.” The use of French reminds me of the French Revolution (1789–1799) and that time period’s most infamous form of public execution, the guillotine. As a heinous form of public performance, it was a powerful symbol of the early Revolution and its ability to overturn and destroy the establishment.
Outside of France (particularly in
England) there was a perception that the godless revolutionaries were
lawless ugly butchers who threatened not only themselves but all of
An infamous image of torture from Abu Ghraib as broadcast on CBS News
Visually, the most obvious allusion in Sans Tête is to the horrific images from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which in the popular imagination still represents American imperial hubris and a nation no longer a land of freedom.
The hooded figure is the most recognizable Abu Ghraib photo (pictured above) and the man depicted in it was forced to endure countless hours of torture, which included electric shocks, fatigue and the anxiety of unknown danger. While many of the other images that emerged from Abu Ghraib displayed the victims naked while they endured humiliation, here the figure is cloaked in a bizarre black fabric. Dobill combines the two types of imagery and pulls off the cloak to make sure all is revealed.
Rorschach ‘’superhero” from the graphic novel, Watchmen
Dobill’s mask suggests Rorschach of the graphic novel Watchmen. Not only is the character of Rorschach the “pure” hero, one who will not compromise his values for any belief in a greater good, but he is an alienated outsider who never seems to fit in. The character sees his mask, comprised of an ever changing Rorschach blot, as his true face. In Dobill’s performance, his blank hood or mask changed throughout the performance as audience members painted and smeared its surface with paint and other materials. The white mask highlighted the alienation which the performer and his audience shared. Without a face, Dobill was abstracted into a contemporary everyman of sorts.
Left, Marc Chagall, “Samson Destroys the Temple” from the Bible series (1957), Right, Victor Mature in Cecil B. DeMille’s in the 1949 classic Samson and Delilah
Bound between two columns, Dobill evokes the power of the Biblical myth of Samson, who kills himself while trying to kill the Phillistines (an old skool suicide bomber I guess). As a symbol of power, Samson is also remembered for his Achilles heel, his hair. The myth reminds us that all power is tempered by weakness.
A still from the classic 1933 film King Kong, starring Fay Wray
But at the same time the positioning between two columns also evokes
pop cultural images that suggest other interpretations. The
helplessness of the heroine in King Kong is the most obvious example. Lashed between two columns, the sacrificatial lamb ends up taming the beast.
Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne
Framing is crucial to Sans Tête. At the top of the white gauze-like wall that hangs behind our protagonist is a fringe of yellow grass. On the floor a runway. And a halo of peacock feathers makes him look like some form of vain deity. The layers of careful arrangement make the composition appear extraordinarily delicate and beautiful. Each element has a meaning but none dominate.
If Sans Tête’s “performance” was the main event, its relic evoked sacred and secular associations of its own. The most famous is the Holy Shroud of Turin, which for centuries was revered as a holy object that wrapped the body of the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ, during his internment.
The ghostly imprint on Dobill’s patched together cloth doesn’t do much to suggest a human form as much as an apparition.
Relic of Sans Tête
The Shroud of Turn held by Catholic Bishops
A composite image showing Yves Klein painting the body of a woman who would imprint her body on paper or canvas for his renowned performance pieces known as Anthropometries, or visual measurements of the human body.
In the 20th C., Yves Klein used the female
body as his brush and created canvases of women’s imprints. Dobill’s
work eliminates the mediation of the model. The audience paints the
artist. While Klein objectifies the women, Dobill alienates the
audience and temporarily objectifies himself.
Peter Dobil, Absolvor (video still – 2007), “Pinned by spears, dragged down by hearts that hook my body, I exist between breath and flesh.”
Performed live at English Kills Art Gallery (Brooklyn, NY) in 2008.
This Friday, March 20, (7-10 pm) Grace Exhibition Space will be presenting Sans Tête, a new action-installation by Peter Dobill. Sans Tête will feature the Tête Astrale Guitarkestra – (Sir Ryan Dobran + Sir Amery Kessler).
Incorporating endurance action with a live sound accompaniment directed by the artist within an installation, Sans Tête will offer a special exchange for audience members in attendance.
Dobill’s work focuses on the body in actions. As he explains: “With my body, I alter and construct my vessel of experience, intrinsically connecting and emptying myself to a singular moment and time. Within these moments, I can then seek to communicate, focusing on energy exchanged between the audience and myself.”
I spoke to Peter to ask about his mysterious new work and his practice in general:
Hrag Vartanian: Can you tell me what exactly is Sans Tête?
Peter Dobill: Sans Tête is French for “without head” or “headless.” The term will make sense in the context of the work.
What will the “special exchange for audience members in attendance” be? That sounds quite mysterious.
I can’t really reveal the exchange before hand, its mystery will have to continue until Friday.
Since your work is quite grueling, I am curious how long it takes you to prepare before a performance. Do you have a particularly routine in the days leading up to a performance?
In terms of preparation, its depends on the installation element and the action itself. The larger the installation or more grueling the action, the longer it takes me to get my head into the mental state I need to accomplish the work. Unlike what one might think, physically demanding work depends on the mental state of the person within the action more than anything else, and for me to be honest in the work it requires a certain state of mind before and within the work.
The only routine leading up to the performance is working to get the installation elements correct. I don’t practice any facet of the action itself. This is a general idea of how performance art as a whole, specifically endurance work, separates itself from theater. Without practicing the action, the body receives the information as a new experience, which gives an honesty to the expression within the action.
You use the term “actionist” for your work, why? How does that differentiate what you do with performance art in general.
I call myself an “actionist” instead of “performance artist” due to the way in which I work, public actions for an audience and private actions for a camera. As I don’t always deal with a live audience in this way, I feel as though “performance artist” is misleading, a term, which for me at least, assumes a live audience for all work. “Actionist” and “actions” also read as a much more primal signifier for my work.
Semantics aside, my work is fully within the genre/canon of performance art as a whole.
Grace Exhibition Space
840 Broadway, 2nd Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11206
As a painting snob, I’ve always held performance art at arm’s length. I do appreciate the Feminist tactic of using its designation to elevate the drudgery of “women’s work” to an aesthetisized level, subverting the elite realm of high art. (Witness the glorious Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution at P.S. 1—my nominee for one of the top five shows in New York in 2007—which included many such paradigm-shifting works.) On the other hand, there’s an element of spectacle in much performance that borders on schmaltz and publicity stunts, like David Blaine wrapped in critical theory. When asked specifically about the difference between “performance” and publicity stunt during his 2007 sculpture/performance piece “Flatland” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sUPYptuzNU) at Long Island City’s Sculpture Center, Ward Shelly stated “The context is actually the only real difference, and the intentions of the person doing it. Whether they want just to get attention or whether they want people to think about the subject. It’s really kind of a subtle difference. In a way it all depends on how it’s being presented and what we’re asking you to do with what we’re doing—not just what we’re doing, we’re asking you to think about it.”
Though “highbrow” syllogisms like these are what chased me out of the cafés and back to my studio, recent permutations of performance have become unavoidable, even for me. Perhaps it was Seven Easy Pieces, Marina Abramovi’s series at the Guggenheim Museum in November 2005, which recreated seminal works from the 1960s and ’70s by five different artists as well as two of her own pieces, that indisputably proved that performance might have a life beyond its fleeting moment of origin (and that it had been legitimized in the eyes of the bigs as a practice whose crowd pleasing bankability might one day match its purely aesthetic value). In this way it has been as influential to a younger generation of performance artists as the Saatchi Gallery’s Triumph of Painting exhibit was for new painters.
Young galleries have taken to using “performance” as a come-on to entice visitors to drop by an opening. The inevitable late start also gives the cash bar a chance to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a thirsty crowd. And so it was in early August at Fresh Meat, a mixed bag of a group show at Factory Fresh, on Flushing Avenue near Morgan.
At the entrance my hand is stamped by an affable, thick-necked “bouncer,” an affectation adopted from the club scene that seems a bit pretentious, even in this scruffy up-n-coming neighborhood. After perusing the works on the walls I hear a wave of whispers circulating the space. An area is cleared in the middle of the floor; rows of youngsters sit or squat in a circle. “Dream Story” by performance artist E. Greem is about to begin.
A figurative painting is laid out on the floor (ironically, a lot of performance work alludes to “Action Painting,” but that’s another essay). A heavily orchestrated classical musical number starts pumping through the sound system. E. Greem, cloaked in a white organdy veil that draws up to a recessed orifice over her still-shrouded face, whisks through the audience. She wears layers of blue and green undergarments, white tights and high heels wrapped in rough burlap. She kneels in front of the painting and, in sync with the musical flourishes, folds it in half, only to reveal another image on its back. Over the course of about five minutes she repeats this action several times, pausing at intervals to circle and observe her handiwork; each folding exposes another picture until the canvas (which by now has been replaced by smaller props) is reduced to the size of a saltine. As the music crescendos, she dramatically raises the bite-size painting and pops it in her mouth. Then, escorted by gallery assistants, she beats a hasty exit to a side door.
Despite the explanations I’ve received from the artist via e-mail (the pictures represent, among other things, various relationships and situations from the artist’s past), what stayed with me was the faux-mysteriousness and unexplained ritualism of “Dream Story.” Though masked, there was no question as to Greem’s gender, and, as I’ll discuss later, this allusion to the classic witch, sorceress or muse relates “Dream Story” to Essential Feminism and avoids the all too easy tropes of burlesque and hard core porn that infects much of today’s post-Feminist performance work.
Maximum Perception: Contemporary Brooklyn Performance at English Kills Gallery is the kind of late summer shindig that deserves mid-season primetime (except cold weather might require more clothing). Co-curated by performance artist Peter Dobill and English Kills director Chris Harding, Maximum Perception is conceived as an environment in which performance works could be seen in an ongoing context: four weekends, with performances all day from 1 till 9 pm, an all-encompassing block of action. To this end, the main gallery is surrounded by a battery of continuously running video monitors with headsets on plinths showing examples of the work. Documentary photos and artworks are hung nearby. Over the course of the show’s run, the project space is transformed for each piece, with some works spilling out of the gallery proper onto the sidewalks in front and Forrest Street as well.
As I peddle to the gallery on opening night, I nearly drove over Rob Andrews lying on the sidewalk against a dumpster, his ankle chained to a curbside lamppost. His stained yellow shirt, a couple of sizes too small, exposes a pudgy midriff; his tattered black slacks could have been ripped off a Bowery bum; his feet were bare. The only thing that cues you in that this isn’t just another homeless guy chained up in the street is the cobalt blue bull mask Rob wears. This is “Minotaur,” a signature endurance piece that the artist has performed at various locations. In this Brooklyn incarnation, among garbage cans and dumpsters, this recumbent ox seems somehow appropriate. Lying motionless for minutes at a time, the artist would occasionally stir, shake his head, scratch his crotch and rattle the chain like a cowbell, exuding a bovine petulance. I was told he started this action around 5 pm and continued it till way past dark.
In the main gallery, a sweaty, beer-lubricated crowd huddled around “hee-hoo / he who Meets Us will adore us,” a lengthy piece by Holly Faurot + Sarah Paulson that combines elements of dance, endurance and video. Two bare-breasted performers in gold satin miniskirts, accompanied by a third, clad in red shorts and top, who seems to lead the other two in a kind of movement call-and-response. Sometimes the dancers mimic a male figure that appears on one of three video monitors set up in the performance area. At other times, the monitors show a live feed from an overhead camera. As the piece progresses, the skirted dancers pick up thick slabs of stone and repeatedly lift them in front of their bodies until they’re so fatigued they nearly drop them. Then, setting the stones in front of the video screens, they retreat to platforms at the rear and to mimic the leg lifts of the red dancer. Catching only a brief part of the two-hour performance, any interpretation on my part would be a stretch, but the athletic exertion, the odd repetitions, the legs lifts in seeming supplication and the glistening perspiration on proud young breasts has a primitive erotic force that was stark, unignorable, and riveting.
A ladder leading six feet up to an open window in a black plywood wall is the entrance to Marni Kotak’s “Slumber Party,” another Maximum Perception offering. Climb up a few steps and peek through the frilly green curtains; inside is an over-scaled bedroom with a huge bunk bed (recalling Lilly Tomlin’s character Edith Ann’s giant rocker), a soda-and-chip-laden table, and a stereo blasting bubblegum hits. Several female performers lounge around in their jammies, interacting with visitors, joking and yakking like pubescent Valley Girls. Viewers are invited to climb in, join the party, and become part of the show.
Though I didn’t have the opportunity to experience all the performances, there are a few commonalities worth pointing out that seem to establish precedents and hint at future directions.
As with “Slumber Party,” the much discussed “retreat to infancy” is in play. This trend has analogous forms in painting and music and was a popular theme at the recent Whitney Biennial. It mixes childhood fantasy with pop culture and a dose of adolescent Surrealistic sexual angst. These can be potent subjects, but some works lose their bite and drift into a sweet blandness and a gutless aversion to the pathos of maturity.
A more macho vein is the endurance piece, like Andrew’s “Minotaur” or perhaps the work executed on the closing day by Mark Lawrence Stafford, “Temporal Exchange.” In “Exchange,” Stafford, dressed in a white, long-sleeved shirt, black slacks and walking shoes, spends eight hours trudging clockwise in circles on a field of granulated salt. He’s tethered to a black pole in the center of the space by a ridiculously long tie. References to punishment, dog runs, the mindless grind of office work and endless repetition are obvious. I calculated he’d walk about eighteen miles that afternoon.
Though I missed co-curator Peter Dobill’s performance, while speaking with him a few days later, he proudly displayed a series of small gashes running up the length of his arm (and further I assume) that he self-inflicted during his routine. Through video documentation and photos, I could detect the influence of the Austrian Actionists like Rudolph Schwarzkogler and Hermann Nitsch, as well as their American progeny, Chris Burden and Kim Jones. Much of this work is immersed in a grotesque infatuation with, and distortion of, the body’s forms, fluids and functions.
But perhaps the most disturbing and challenging are the post-Feminist works employing hardcore XXX-rated porn. Breasts, hips, thighs and buttocks are the universal eye candy that we’re saturated with daily. It was the degrading exploitation of these female attributes that so much consciousness-raising was focused on during the nascent phase of Feminism. A reaction against this kind of esteem-building (or perhaps an opportunistic glomming on to these same exploitive tendencies) is exemplified in the work of Leah Aron, stage name Amber Alert.
In a darkened gallery, dressed in high camp hot—platinum wig, skimpy satin bustier, garter belt, panties, high white stockings and platform high heels—the voluptuous Alert performs a bawdy pseudo-striptease to the soundtrack of a classical duet. Bumping and grinding, she removes article after article of clothing while applying white greasepaint to her breasts, then stomach, arms and thighs until the front of her body is covered. A video is projected over the performer, creating a visual frame; in the video, a crouching woman masturbates while her face is assaulted with ejaculate from a seemingly endless line of multi-racial penises. With each application of white paint (and each male orgasm), Alert seems to dissolve into the projection. Watching the audience, I couldn’t avoid wondering how many found this “artistic” presentation simply a convenient, guilt-free way to view porn on a balmy Sunday afternoon. Initially, I shuddered for the video porn queen, feeling her degradation, but after a while a desensitizing occurred and this all became pathetically, depressingly funny. While a performance like this can raise profound questions, is there a danger of pushing this genre too far? Will we move on to kiddie porn and snuff films next? Is the sensational and shocking just an attention-grabbing gimmick for the lazy or untalented? Should artistic ambitions or “aesthetics” trump decency and morality? Are there any limits? Should art care?
A video of "Fresh Meat" with E. Greem's performance can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tolMg7ETQ90
A brief our of the "Maximum Perception: Contemporary Brooklyn Performance" opening can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7uBsa2zqMw