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A serious laughing matter

Jana Perkovic: BACKFLIP: Feminism & Humour in Contemporary Performance

“Q. How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? A. That’s not funny!” With this joke, curator Laura Castagnini presents the stereotype she wants to challenge in the exhibition BACKFLIP: Feminism and Humour in Contemporary Art. The four short performance pieces reviewed here were presented at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery on the closing night of the exhibition: a theatrical dialogue, a dance work, a performance lecture and a drag performance.

Castagnini may have done too good a job, because the broadness of BACKFLIP reveals the absurdity of the cliché. It is not that humorous feminist art is a rare beast, quite the contrary: both feminist and humorous contemporary art are huge, overlapping categories, and BACKFLIP amasses a great deal of art without ever quite answering the implicit question: as opposed to what? Without a clear distinction between art about women or gender and feminist art, or specifying the brand of humour on display, the performance pieces had therefore a sort of cataloguing purpose. I did not recognise a unifying theme in the evening, but a lot of ground was covered, resulting in a broad compilation of themes and styles.

The four performance pieces were diverse. What united them the most was possibly unintentional: a certain existential anxiety, an underlying forcefulness, as if coming from a struggle to be seen and heard. The works seemed largely stuck halfway between articulating a statement and merely articulating an existential claim: we are, we exist, hear this.

Mish Grigor’s performance lecture is a good illustration of this halfway-thereness despite, or even contrary to, the material of the work. Grigor, in shirt and trousers, with a fake beard, calmly delivers verbatim a rant by notorious right-wing American shock-jock Rush Limbaugh. The rant covers the damage that ‘feminazis’ wreak on American civilisation by demanding access to contraception, and ends with the highlight of a promise to pay for the feminazis to have safe sex if they promise to post the videos online. It is a singularly horrific thing to hear, not least in May 2013, when Julia Gillard is being barraged with the vilest misogynist abuse of her career, and many Australian women are spending their days in a state of ongoing shock. But Grigor subjects her material to so little critical or artistic force, it is so profoundly unclear what she wants to communicate, that the clearest and most energetic component of the performance remains Limbaugh’s misogynist statement. The atmosphere in the room remains anxiously charged, unresolved to the core. How this experience differs from exposing oneself to the daily attacks on Gillard in the media remains unanswered.

Atlanta Eke presented snippets of her dance performance Monster Body. A sequence of ordinary movement synchronised to otherworldly growls and shrieks—unfortunately, this time merely in a nude bodysuit—lost a lot of its primal weirdness under the bright lights of the gallery. Better located was her urinating vamp performance at the entrance to the gallery, on a little podium. Dancing, urinating and pouring sparkling wine over a pyramid of champagne glasses, surrounded with an audience already plied with the same sparkling drink, in the same glasses, Eke was the predatory, oversexed woman of music videos and television, selling us decadence and champagne and youth and a female body all in one disturbing, grotesque package. Eke, who has performed in conducive international environments, creates work with immense clarity and strength, despite working in an often inaccessible tradition of ‘hard’ performance. Where the other works—both performative and visual—frequently used ambiguity as a screen for their muddled thoughts, Eke demonstrated how to make a point elegantly and without too many rhetorical interjections.

I found the inclusion of Agent Cleave’s piece troubling, although the work itself was excellent. It is a perfect drag performance, lip-synched to “Where The Wild Roses Grow,” with Agent Cleave, an extraordinary gender-scrambling performer, inhabiting with equal ease the femininity of Kylie Minogue and the masculinity of Nick Cave. Through the song, Agent Cleave strips, revealing, under the mourning dress of a southern belle, a masculine body covered in bruises.

This was a performance full of pathos and beauty, but it was firmly situated at the alternative end of drag performance. I am not sure it belonged in the program, not because it was not feminist (all drag performance, ultimately, is) but because drag performance has its own commercial mainstream, its own complex subversive aesthetics, and is relatively under-represented in the official histories of Australian performance art (eg, Anne Marsh’s seminal overview of Australian performance art, Body and Self, does not mention it at all). Agent Cleave’s work, which sits rather close to the queer performance mainstream (Cleave has performed with Amanda Palmer and Peaches, and is a successful pole dancer) first needs to be appreciated as skilled, well executed drag—a performance genre much bigger than performance art—before it can be placed in a gallery. Presenting it in the context of ‘feminist humour’ is particularly problematic, because of the sincere pursuit of gender-scrambled beauty that is, perhaps, at the very core of the political project of queer performance, and very much of Agent Cleave.

A short dialogue between Zoe Dawson and Anna McCarthy, of feminist performance collective I’m Trying To Kiss You, most successfully resolved the tension between being something and meaning something. It is an excerpt of a longer work of theirs, a conversation between two ‘frenemies,’ in which two women sweetly duel, establishing which one is more successful on the planes of lifestyle and achievement—career, sex, relationships, looks—and papering over their fiercely aggressive competition with the evasive, syrupy language of chatter. The competition breaks into fits of abuse and graphic descriptions of erotic longing, exposing the seedy underbelly of communication anchored to the imperative of perpetual niceness. That it is explicitly set in the gallery event is a stroke of genius, exploding the whole event from the inside, like a suicide bombing. What remains is delicate, although descriptive: the ambiguities of female friendship, the psychological darkness of mandatory politeness.

Ultimately, I never felt I got the answer to my question: what is feminist performance? All performance made by women? About women? About gender? In drag? Is it humorous simply by virtue of not being angry? Now that it seems we finally have so much performance by women that it looks less like ‘women’s performance’ and more like just ‘performance,’ I am ready to start classifying it by subject matter rather than the sex of the author.

BACKFLIP: Humour and Feminism in Contemporary Art, performance evening and closing night, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, 23 May

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 37

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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