Posted on September 18th, 2015
Ming Hon’s Patricia: Qu’est-ce que c’est, “dégueulasse”? / What is a “scumbag”? is a 4-hour long durational piece that establishes a rigid framework of referential action right off the bat [See Appendix B] then picks it apart like an itchy scab. She moves with a dancer’s precision and a comedian’s timing, shifting from phase to phase in a series of repetitive cycles [See Appendix D] with zero intermediary steps. The performance is wedged in a corner of the gallery made up like a sketchy apartment [See Appendix C, Appendix A] where detritus and lifestyle choices encyst the space. The audience surrounds her, some on the couch that bisects the middle of the set, but most with their back pressed against the wall, as far from the action as possible while still able to witness Ming’s procedural collapse.
Initially, her movements are crisp and clean. For the first few cycles I’m busy noting the correspondence between the titles on the wall and the phases of her nihilistic pantomime. Then the cycle repeats, and the mind spools. Free to watch, I begin to see, and it’s hard to stay riveted to this endless human machine of self-destruction — but even harder to turn away.
This sense of impending doom is exacerbated by the frequent breaks, both those that are scheduled and those that emerge stochastically throughout the action. Every twelve-minute cycle is punctuated by five minutes of “out of smokes” [See Appendix D]. With Ming off-stage, the audience seems to relax. But laced throughout the chatter and the jokes is a tension that makes our jocularity seem brittle and forced; because we know she’s coming back. We know there’s more. By the same token, the invisible barrier between performer and audience is permeable, it shows hairline fractures that spread like snakes as the performance endures. Ming slips on a handstand and bounces her face off the floor, or she shatters a glass in a desperate frenzy to find her cellphone, and members of the crowd cannot help but challenge the theatrical façade and empathize with the human being who’s right there. Some cringe and reach towards her, consciously suppressing the urge to break the performative distance. Others clean up during the void periods between cycles. But like a friend’s downward spiral of obsessive depression that the piece mimics so well, there’s only so much you can do with someone else’s shit when they keep piling it on.
There’s trauma in this piece, but there’s also a smattering of humour. Every masturbatory “bored” phase is followed, almost instantly, by “scratch the play area,” and it’s hard to tell which style of rubbing is more manic. These intentional chuckles merge with the aforementioned pockets of empathy to grant the piece an essential dose of humanity, without which the Nietzschean eternal return would simply be too bleak to stomach.
At the same time, these fissures in the otherwise clockwork degradation serve to instil a false sense of hope that maybe, just maybe, things will change on their own. Maybe this train won’t follow the tracks. It’s an illogical hope, but one I find myself entertaining in spurts. Maybe she’s not drinking as much beer as it seems. Maybe she’s not swallowing all those donuts. Maybe the slips and the falls, the broken glass, the filth and detritus is all on purpose. Maybe she’s in control.
I tell myself all that, and I watch, as the pattern continues to fray…
The piece hinges on structure. Its reality is embedded in the near-repetition of a microcosm suspended on a chain, and the tension that comes from waiting to witness the weakest link bend beneath the pressure. Within an ever-shifting organic scaffolding, Ming collapses in direct proportion to the expansion of crud in the space. The porous borders between what’s within and what’s without overflow, with pizza boxes and paper bags strewn about the gallery, donuts flattened underfoot, red bullet-wound-like stains on her wifebeater [See Appendix B], footprints on the wall, lipstick smeared on the mirror, and the slick slime of spilt beer and wine.
Whenever Ming loses traction, the performance clicks like a bone sliding back into its socket. Whenever chance dislocates her well oiled machine of movement, the piece finds new legs. Eventually, the macrocosmic clockwork falls apart. The needle scratches one too many times on the record player, and suddenly there’s no more music. For almost an entire cycle, the humour dissolves, and we are left with the slow grinding of a turntable head cutting a trough through vinyl as it warps along the disk’s face.
She ends up skipping a few intervals to fix the music, but it happens other times as well, when a fur coat stays over her head too long, or she masturbates a bit too much, and there’s no time to “scratch the play area.” She spins out of control, the tight moves superseded by shifty slips.
She keeps falling apart, and we keep watching. As the structure breaks, so too the character.
Then, about half an hour from the scheduled end, Todd Janes (the festival curator and Latitude 53’s executive director) comes out from the green room, turns the music off, and lets us know that Ming Hon is “indisposed” at the moment. The audience applauds, does their best to help with the mess, and shuffles off into the night.
The title of the piece is a reference to the last line of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle / Breathless. Basically, a French dude and an American lady romp around Paris in a bout of existential dread-fueled mania. [Spoiler] At the end the dude is shot in the chest, and his dying words mock his fate. They’re something like: “It’s disgusting, really.” But the crowd that’s gathered around his still-cooling corpse mishear, and one dude in the crowd is like: “Yo, he called you a scumbag,” to which the lady in question replies, “What is a ‘scumbag’?” since her French isn’t the best.
The line is is an act of confusion, and the concept of dégueulasse isn’t precisely translated as “scumbag.” It also means “disgusting.” Its exact conceptual shape is lost in translation.
References to the film abound in the performance. The set [See Appendix C] is a life-sized diorama riven with nods to the movie, and her activities [See Appendix D] mimic the film’s protagonists, down to the telltale thumb-to-lip swipe that makes the final scene of the movie so damned eerie.
Correspondingly, Ming’s actions present an exaggerated mimetic cluster. She is a copy of a copy, re-enacting the bits and pieces of meaning from the film, running in an endless loop like a broken projector that is slowly catching fire.
The gallery is done up like a sketch-ball apartment, the kind that makes me squeamish enough just remembering all the times I’ve crashed in one just like it.
On the wall, cigarette boxes spell out: “POUR”; a stencil on the adjacent wall says: “Home is where the story begins.” Beside the stencil hangs a mirror which provides a view of the action on the carpet depending on where you sit. A small photo of Humphrey Bogart is pressed in the top right corner of the mirror. He grasps a gun in one hand and holds his other out, like he’s saying, “Arrête!” Two roses are pinned behind the mirror, opposite Bogart. The dustbin is upended, as there is no chance it could hold the accumulating detritus. Empty bottles of booze form a shrine upon one end-table, empty beer bottles mingle with packs of smokes on another. A heap of ill-tended records is stacked and flopping, falling over in the corner, crammed in beside a turntable that squats on the floor. This huge, ratty couch bisects the space. Other artists from the festival perch upon it, as do administrators, but I doubt the crowd in general would, as they mingle against the wall. There’s also a votive candle with Bogart’s face, another reference to À bout de souffle. Bowls full of useless, unspendable pennies litter the apartment, and a thick carpet is spread over the middle to absorb the run-off from her impending lifestyle choices.
Note: The actions accumulate over time. Each cycle brings more donuts, more booze, more smokes — even more coats into the space, until there are heaps of filth upon the floor.
5th floor walk up – Ming stumbles into the space, wearing a thick fur jacket and snakeskin pumps; she’s carrying a paper bag of donuts and smokes
something more comfortable – she takes off her shoes and jacket, unloads her goods upon the room (on the floor, couch, or whatever)
something sweet – out of the paper bag she pulls a donut and shoves it in her mouth
soften the edges – cracks a tallboy and slurps it down; often this is a proper “chug”
dollar bin tunes – rips the needle off the turntable, leafs through the record pile in the corner, eases the needle back into place; music wails through the speakers (e.g. Chicago – 25 or 6 to 4; Tears for Fears – Shout)
find a connection – hunt through the archeological piles for a cell phone; toss it aside after a moment’s consideration
daydream – writhe against the wall and grab her mouth, push her forehead then rear up against the wall, grab her neck, act like she’s gonna vomit, grab her crotch and her throat simultaneously, do a handstand against the wall and thrust her pelvis, tumble to the ground and writhe until she is tapped out, puts her hands in her hair, and recovers on the carpet; (dependent on the music, in terms of the rhythm, but the same violent/erotic activities each interval)
embarrassed – howls, blows air through puffed cheeks (into her mirror or at the crowd) and makes the Breathless thumb motion [See Appendix B]
paint – slams lipstick around her gaping mouth, lounges back and sits with her knees up; or polishes her nails, which then smears on her stomach with the next phase:
bored – varies, but always masturbatory. rips open jeans and shoves hand down her pants, humps the sofa-arm, lies on top of the people on the couch, or in the middle of the carpet, or on a pizza box for good measure
scratch play area – takes a lotto ticket from her hip pocket and rips away at it with a penny
release – lights a cigarette, flips through records, lounges on the people on the sofa; maybe the only chance to chill
bus fare – rifles through the jackets on the floor; flips over a bowl looking for “real” money
bored to tears – puts a fur coat over her head, screams through the pelt; the sound is muffled
soften – takes another swig of beer
sweeten – plunges a donut down her throat, (sometimes chases it with some brew); an entire donut, bruv
out of smokes – (lasts 5 mins) grab a jacket, put it on hastily; find and put on shoes, take off around the corner, into the kitchen/off stage (meanwhile the music keeps playing)