Posted by Cindy on September 18th, 2010
Sitting in the reception area of Latitude 53 for a great majority of my time this week, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the people coming in and out of the ProjEx room where Chun Hua Catherine Dong is performing her piece, Hourglass. I’ve also hovered around quite a bit while others help her paint the grains black, one by one. One thing I’ve noticed is that most people, shortly after sitting down with Dong, proclaim that they find the task of painting the rice very meditative. Some are too frustrated by the overwhelming enormity of the task to continue, while others are content to sit for long periods of time, engaging the artist in conversation about the performance, her other work, and about whatever else comes up. Of course, whenever there is an opportunity to connect with the artist and learn more about their work, especially within the context of a performance, I am a strong advocate of taking advantage of the situation!
Speaking of which, there are 2 feedback sessions on festival projects today (Saturday) – Kelly Andres and Alison Reiko Loader talking about Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden at 10:30 AM at Latitude 53, and caribou x crossing talking about Miles of Aisles at 6 pm at Latitude 53. This is your opportunity to find out what inspired some of the works in the festival and have your questions answered by the artists themselves.
In the case of Dong’s work, however I am also eager to encourage you – if you have a chance to sit down with Chun Hua Catherine one-on-one over a couple of bowls of rice, please take the time to talk with her about her work!
So I was talking with the artist about the work, and about how people have engaged with it, and she was telling me that indeed, most people seem to claim that they find the process of painting the rice very meditative. I suspect that if the project did not involve grains of rice but, let’s say, tiny plastic pellets, and if Chun Hua Catherine Dong was not Asian, it would be harder to solicit participation in the performance and that those who did participate would almost universally reject the notion that it is a soothing, relaxing or meditative experience. She said that in fact, when she performed this project in Vancouver, people tended to bow to her when they got up from helping her paint grains of rice, thanking her for sharing the experience with them.
With a gleeful laugh, Chun Hua Catherine (who seems to be developing a sophisticated practice around the notion that you simply cannot judge a book by its cover) explains that this performance is the farthest possible thing from the Buddhist meditation ritual people are perceiving the work to be, a ritual which is performed without goals – the meditation is its own goal. Conversely, her project of painting rice is very goal-oriented; she has set out to complete a very labour-intensive task, and when people volunteer to participate, they are not entering into a ritual that she is leading for their mutual betterment, they are entering into unpaid labour towards an enterprise of production for a thankless and endless task. And then they thank her for the opportunity!
It occurs to me that the viewer might easily replace the stereotype of the Asian zen-master in this scenario for that of the sweatshop.
Of course this is not to negate the experience of the participants; you will recall from earlier blog posts that I also found the experience of painting rice grains compelling. Rather, I think it is important to try to recognize the quiet deployment of well-worn stereotypes during activities and interactions we engage in which are deserving of deeper reflection.
Chun Hua Catherine and I talk about some of her other work, including a project called Looking for a White Husband where she has distributed promotion proclaiming herself to be “an exotic, compliant and artistic Asian girl, looking for A WHITE HUSBAND who would like to take me to his home and live with him for a day as his mail order bride.”
This husband-seeking project, as many of her other projects, I can see, has much to do with the exercise and exertion of power. I start to think about this in the context of the work she is presenting at Visualeyez, partly relative to her interactions with the participants, but also in terms of the content of the work itself, which aims to “reconfigure the established centralized power in order to create an equal, fair and balanced world.“
My friend Suzette Chan arrived at the Visualeyez launch party, and I was introducing her to the performances and installations throughout the gallery spaces. Chun Hua Catherine Dong had not yet arrived and in fact had not performed on Thursday at all, so the performative space appeared very different from how I had been experiencing it to date – quiet, and because of the employment of precision implements (tweezers, tiny paintbrushes, tiny ink bowls) and stark white colour, quite sterile. I recounted to Suzette the story Chun Hua Catherine had told me about the bowing participants and their reading of the work as meditative. (To be fair to the participants, the artist really was only too aware of this potential reading of the work from the beginning and is quite obviously exploiting those stereotypes in this work, especially upon reading the rest of her Rice Performance Series, where reliance on Asian stereotypes is essential to the work.) I think Dong’s amusement in this case resides not in any reading or misreading of the work, which is in fact very multilayered and engages stereotypes through employing them quite literally and humorously; it lies, I think, in the reactions of participants, which have been uniform enough to carry some important revelations about the work and how it is understood. If only I could decode what revelations those might be…
So Suzette and I were looking at the performance site sans artist and I was telling her how other people were reading the work, when she told me that upon first glance at the unpeopled work, POWER is the FIRST thing she thought of. And that the bowl of painted rice, contrasted against the clean and controlled space looked, to her, very violent.
I started thinking about the work in that context, and about forced change in nature; the compulsion to control and change people, plants, culture. I first read the work quite literally as an attempt to correct the power distribution to a white/non-white parity but now I am starting to read it also as the attempt to achieve a balance of the “natural” versus the “controlled,” and to see the artist as an agent for that control, much as she is in her other performance work.
Now, I know that white rice is already a pretty heavily-controlled commodity – cultivated, cleaned and packaged. But in this project it’s being taken from something useful and nutritious and being made useless. If this work is indeed about colonialism, is it about addressing and correcting a colonial world by taking half of it back, or is it the artist who is colonizing the rice, one grain at a time?
Posted by Cindy on September 17th, 2010
Adina Bier performed her piece On Boulevard de Clichy tonight during the Rooftop Patio Launch Party for Visualeyez at Latitude 53. “Rooftop Patio Launch Party” was a bit of a misnomer; it was too cold to go outside, so the launch party was not on the rooftop patio. That doesn’t mean the evening was a disappointment, however! In fact, it meant that wherever partiers chose to hang out, they were in the midst of performance art.
Kelly Andres and Alison Reiko Loader were busy making edible culture in Culinary Cultures of the Kinder/Garden – from birthing fetal tomatoes to creating a “vinegar mother” to serving mint agar desserts in petri dishes, their space was bustling with activity and bursting with life all evening. This is one project to keep coming back to, as their work will evolve and literally grow over the course of the festival. Their performance doesn’t officially start until tomorrow (Friday), but they’ll be in the gallery from 12-5 every day for the rest of the festival.
Though she wasn’t scheduled to perform either, Chun Hua Catherine Dong couldn’t keep the participants away from the installation for her performance Hourglass. Everyone wants to help paint a few grains of rice black – just enough, it seems, to really grasp the overwhelmingly impossible nature of the task. By the time she arrived once the party was already in full swing, I’d heard from at least half a dozen people who wondered if they’d get in trouble if they started without her.
It was Adina’s project that really captivated the crowd, however.
As I mentioned in an earlier post about Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s work, I really respond to artwork that challenges the audience to take a risk, to make themselves vulnerable in a gesture of solidarity with the artist. For Adina’s project, I was prepared to simply NOT be nauseated by the bananas in the gallery, but I didn’t know if I would be able to give her any more than that.
For On Boulevard de Clichy, the artist dressed in a bodysuit made of “nude”-coloured sheer nylon, standing amongst 365 fresh bananas. With one banana (still fully encased in its peel) shoved into her brightly painted mouth and one banana in each hand, Adina Bier handed gallery visitors bananas. Signs instructed participants to peel and eat the banana, depositing the spent peel in her bodysuit when finished.
Borrowing the name for her project from the street in Paris famously home to the historic Moulin Rouge and other notorious cabarets of the period, Bier puts herself on display seemingly for the gratification of the crowd. Though Clichy was once home to artists from Van Gogh to Degas to Picasso it is best known today for its strip clubs, topless cabarets and sex shops. As the artist stands silently in the gallery I wonder briefly if she is referencing the art history of the area at all, or simply the viscerally decadent sexual subculture. Then I remember that they’re hardly inseparable, and that the art scene at the height of Boulevard de Clichy’s heyday was a very hedonistic and indulgent one.
I watch some of the first people take their banana, eat it, and stuff the peel timidly into the arm of Bier’s bodysuit. Every new person to enter the gallery is offered an outstretched arm, banana in hand. Posted signs explain how the audience is to engage with the work, but it seems to me that the artist’s eyes are much more communicative than the posters. With them she pleads with each new visitor to help her; take a banana, please. Just one banana. I can’t possibly eat these all myself.
I’m reminded of the definition of performance art that requires the engagement of ‘bodies at risk.’ The artist appears so vulnerable and so much in need, and I can see that the audience recognizes this too. Almost every person I see in the gallery has taken a banana. Every new person that arrives at the party is dragged into the gallery by someone asking “Do you like bananas? You need to help.”
It has been less than an hour since she has started her performance, and I can see Bier suppressing a gag reflex constantly now. Eyes tearing, her banana-plugged mouth silently begs me to eat a banana.
I have never eaten a banana.
But finally I am worn down, at least as much by my sense of responsibility to the art and my commitment to engaging with the work as by the artist’s manipulation. I take a banana as I tell her that I have never eaten one before. I feel as though I am sharing a special moment with her, that we are both vulnerable and at risk in this moment. (I worry that she makes everyone else feel this way too; that I am indeed not special, that everyone who takes a banana from her believes that they are the only one, or that their banana MEANS something which the other bananas do not.)
Failing to understand how to open a banana and thereby destroying my first, Adina peels a new one for me and I take it, feeling ever more vulnerable in my banana-virginity against this world-weary apparent banana whore. Watching her strangle on her own banana-gag, I start to choke down my first ever banana and feel that I somehow understand what she is going through.
Managing to eat the entire thing without retching audibly, I wonder silently – If I write in the blog that I’ve never eaten a banana, will readers think it’s somehow significant that I’m a queer woman? It’s not, really. It’s not like I haven’t sucked my fair share of cocks. (My fair share being relative, I suppose, to the fact that I’m a queer woman. So maybe it’s significant. I guess.) My distaste for bananas has nothing whatsoever to do with their phallic nature and everything to do with their – well, uh, I’m not sure. I mean, it must be the texture, mostly. As a classic case of the orally-fixated, I certainly like putting things in my mouth, so it’s not that, that’s all I’m saying.
The crowd at Latitude is loosening up now. Banana jokes are flying. People are wondering if Adina’s jaw is getting sore. Partiers are showing off in front of their friends, conversation is getting louder and ruder. Yet, I don’t feel that Adina is any more at risk than at the start of the evening. While normally, I expect that performance art plus alcohol eventually leads to someone going home in tears (and I programmed performance art year-round for eight years), this crowd which has been protective of the artist from the beginning is getting, if anything, MORE protective. Sure, the banana peels are starting to be pushed deeper and deeper into her bodysuit, but now I see people taking their second and third bananas, against their own better judgment and the pleading of their stomachs. I talk to people who are hanging out shiftily in the back corner of the gallery, or unwilling to return into the gallery at all, who uniformly explain that if they look her direction again they’ll have to take another banana, and they just can’t handle any more. I talk to a woman who the artist has literally CUT OFF from the supply of bananas, fearing (after the woman’s 7th banana) for her health and safety.
So now I’m thinking about a performance I saw in Vancouver during That 70’s Ho at the Western Front. Curator Victoria Singh invited female performance artists born in the 70’s to remake or update work of feminist performance artists from the 70’s. During an evening cabaret, Maya Suess, reinterpreting Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, invited viewers to cut the clothing off her body with scissors provided for that purpose. It could have gone any direction, but the audience in this instance opted to treat the project like a dare. Instead of being shy or respectfully modest, or protective, each visitor took his or her turn to one-up the previous cutter. You cut off several inches? I’ll cut off a couple of feet! You cut off the portion of the dress covering her breasts? I’ll cut off the portion of her skirt covering her crotch! You cut off her panties? I cut off her shoes! You cut off her gloves? I cut off her hair! That work seemed to operate as a game, and the objective of the game was to see who could upset the artist. The challenge seemed to have been put to us thusly, and from reports I heard afterwards, we succeeded. I guess she didn’t really think people would take her up on her offer. Not really.
But it made me wonder (then as now) what does an artist do to make an audience behave appropriately in the context of their performance? What I mean is that in the performance I saw at Western Front, the project seemed out of control. In a way not intended by the artist. I’m sure that audience was feeding off of just that energy, the energy of a runaway performance. The artist herself now likely recognizes the power in that volatility and claims it as her own, though at the time, it did not go well for her at all.
Adina Bier, though, has harnessed exactly the response she needs to make On Boulevard de Clichy a success. Though there are still two-thirds of the bananas remaining, it seems quite a feat to have engineered the consumption of 125 bananas over the course of a few short hours, to wordlessly convince dozens of people to stop what they’re doing and eat a banana for art. Over the course of the evening, an entire party full of people have done their best to protect this plainly vulnerable woman from the great banana menace and yet, as the fog lifts and people start to realize what they have accomplished, there the artist stands, completely covered in banana leavings: bloated and lumpy, old and saggy, the banana bukkake princess of the world.
I still want to have a good talk with the artist once she’s had a chance to digest (so to speak) what’s happened tonight. She’s already decided that she won’t be continuing the project tomorrow; it somehow seems anticlimactic after such a concerted effort by such a large crowd. Plus, she’d have to make herself get back into that bodysuit filled with grey, mushy, cold day-old banana peels. I have doubts she could stand in one spot again for a second day in a row, but I should never underestimate the commitment of a performance artist. (I once programmed Kelly Mark, who did a piece called Smoke Break. She stood outside city hall all day, chainsmoking. As soon as she butted one cigarette out she lit up the next. From the minute they opened until the minute they closed, she smoked. I don’t remember how many packages of cigarettes she went through. Eleven? The first thing we did after the performance was head to dinner, and I listened to Kelly describe how taxing and toxic and nauseating it was to smoke that many cigarettes in a row. The very first thing Kelly did AFTER dinner? She lit up a cigarette.)
Anyway, I am curious to talk with Adina more about her work, and to see what she decides should be done with the rest of the bananas.
Chatting with her briefly after the performance tonight, Adina said that she is actively manipulating people into performing an act, which, (thinking about it symbolically), might be considered morally reprehensible. Out of all the people who interacted with her, only one couple took a banana, debated eating it, and then returned the banana to her, explaining that they “couldn’t do that to her.” Of course, they immediately understood the symbolism behind the work, which is not to say that nobody else did. It just means that they considered it seriously and applied it to their moral system before choosing not to engage. It seems to me that any of the other participants may have had a similar internal dialogue before submitting to the artist’s plea to take a banana, but acquiesced on the point that, in this setting, it is better to help an artist by engaging in their performance than to refuse to engage on moral grounds that are arguably spurious because the project in fact aims to address and challenge our relationship to those moral standards themselves.
Posted by Cindy on September 16th, 2010
Adina is in the gallery in her banana peel-gathering bodysuit sharing bananas with people, who have slowly heard the call and been arriving to eat her bananas.
I had a great series of conversations this afternoon about salt, music, art, bananas, Guatemalan food, and about getting around Edmonton.
I’m starting to get antsy – I want to get into the gallery, see the art; dive into the fray and talk with people. Plus, I just got handed some free drink tickets. So I’m going to sign off for now, and write later on.
Look for another post from me late tonight. It’s bound to be the juiciest one so far!
Posted by Cindy on September 16th, 2010
Adina Bier didn’t perform On Boulevard de Clichy this afternoon as originally scheduled; she’s decided to postpone until tonight when there will be a gallery full of people here for the Visualeyez Rooftop Patio Launch Party!
So if tonight’s party is the only Visualeyez event you can attend, definitely bring your appetite for bananas!