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The artist as stripper: when is ‘too much’ enough?

Varia Karipoff: Melanie Jame Wolf’s Mira Fuchs

Melanie Jame Wolf, Mira Fuchs Melanie Jame Wolf, Mira Fuchs
photo Bryony Jackson

Increasingly, for contemporary feminist thinkers and creators, there’s no such thing as ‘too much information.’ It has been used to flag inappropriateness, a listener’s discomfort, perhaps concealing small-mindedness. Confronted by questions of intimacy, bodily functions or sexual idiosyncrasies, the phrase puts a lid on discussion, harking back to old-fashioned notions of ladylike propriety and, at worst, stymying progress on women’s reproductive health rights, as if what happens between the sheets or in a woman’s body is ‘too much.’

Mira Fuchs, the pseudonym Melanie Jame Wolf has employed in her eight years as a stripper, presents a performance ‘essay’ on her former life and in the chapter titled “On Shame” a short video loop displays a close-up of, we assume, Wolf’s genitals. But I tear ahead. The work is not confessional; in a way its dismantling of the notion of ‘too much’ is perhaps more successful than its exploration of sexual transactions and whether or not stripping can be considered feminist.

Like its subject matter, Mira Fuchs is revealing, most of all of how we the audience react, what level of comfort we cling to, what our own assumptions are on the exchanges of power that happen during a lap dance.

A consummate performer, Wolf is adept at withholding information; just as in her resume there are omissions so her years as a stripper are unaccounted for. In previous performances, most memorably a one-on-one as J Dark, she has absolute dominion over the performance space. “What’s your real name?” is the unimaginative nightly interrogation strippers endure and which Wolf can dodge like a bare-knuckled boxer. While seemingly letting you into her confidence, she won’t tell you anything she’s not prepared to part with.

With the audience seated in a circle, Wolf enters the room and holds the gaze of every member by turn. Often she will turn to address a specific person. “My job is to make you feel like you are special,” she says, this time while staring me squarely in the eyes. Put on the spot, I feel my body stiffen as the room turns to look at me. Soon she disrobes completely, but then slips on a flesh-coloured body suit and towering stripper heels.

Melanie Jame Wolf, Mira Fuchs Melanie Jame Wolf, Mira Fuchs
photo Bryony Jackson

Presenting chapters that chart a career encompassing an estimated 30,000 lap dances and expose the group dynamics of her patrons, Wolf carefully feeds us information. What health and safety regulations must be adhered to—customer’s feet wide apart, bottom deep in the back of the chair to support the dancer’s weight as she gyrates on your lap. What men receiving lap dances would most likely say when her g-string came off—“So, what are you studying?”—as if ascertaining whether exposing herself was ‘worth it.’ How she saw her made-up face in the mirror looking back at her as her father in drag. The time she had only made $20 all night and in an act of defiance, spent the last 15 minutes of her shift supine, arms and legs raised stiffly like road kill.

When she redirects attention back to the audience, we watch each other receive or reject lap dances. One woman’s face becomes a mask of arousal and it feels wrong to watch. Is this act private? Is it too much? Tellingly, men are shy to accept, stripped as they are of the drinks, the throb of music, the late night blur; this strip show becomes a different beast.

In a video recording Wolf playfully imitates her own open-mouthed face of seduction, incrementally exaggerating it until her jaw is almost unhinged and her eyes feline-slits. “Too much?” she asks onscreen and the audience titters. The answer is no. Wolf files her essay with an intellectual vigour but also warmth. It’s a safe room in which to learn.

Perhaps the most powerful and, dare I say it, poignant admission came when Wolf told us that she was a stripper for such a long time because it meant that she could perform every night.

Arts House: Melanie Jame Wolf/Savage Amusement, Mira Fuchs, choreography, performance, video, text Melanie Jame Wolf, sound design Carl Anderson; North Melbourne Town Hall, 2-22 June

RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016 pg.

© Varia Karipoff; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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