YES, BUT IS IT ART?NOBODY WATCHING FRANK MOORE'S PERFORMANCE REALLY CARED, WHICH MAY PROVE THAT PHOENIX IS GETTING MORE SOPHISTICATED

Phoenix gave performance artist Frank Moore and his Chero Company a pleasant surprise on October 5 by showing up in record numbers for his controversial "Passions Play" at Gallery X.

Eighty people doesn't sound like a lot, but Moore is a self-described "spastic," palsied from the neck down and unable to speak, and his pieces involve intimate touching and nudity among both the performers and the audience. Though he was an NEA grantee back in 1985, Moore is now on Senator Jesse Helms' blacklist.

"Whenever we told people in Berkeley, or Chicago, or Cleveland, that we were going to Phoenix, they said, `Watch out, they're all rednecks with guns driving pickup trucks,'" Linda Mac, Moore's wife and interpreter, told Peter Petrisko Jr. of Gallery X.

But what they found instead were people of all ages and backgrounds willing to shed their clothes, rub against each other in a big knot on the floor and pretend they were seaweed, or kittens, or fish.

"To me," Petrisko said, "this turnout confirmed that there's a great hunger out there for alternative art, and for fun. People react to avant-garde art with such heavy seriousness, and I think Frank's work is an antidote for that."

There was certainly humor in abundance during the piece, which began at 7:30 p.m. and did not conclude until 3:30 the following morning. At one point Moore, seated naked in a wheelchair, quasi-lip-synched the Sonny Bono part of "I Got You Babe," while his naked, gaily painted wife performed as Cher. This bearded, jerking man, a big grin on his face, grunted, howled and yelped in time to the tune, his chicken-wing arms flailing to beat the band.

There were some nervous titters, but most people roared laughing. Was he making fun of his own disabilities? Was he trying to make people uncomfortable? Were we supposed to laugh?

These questions seemed irrelevant in the face of this goofiness, what Moore has called "tacky silliness." He has said elsewhere that he uses "nonsense, blatant insults, humor, and lusty playing . . . to break into the altered reality of controlled folly." That night, he seemed the least handicapped person in the room.

The piece began with the crowd sweltering without air conditioning, gathered around the entrance to a long dark hallway. Every few minutes a rotund, bald, naked man, covered completely with red and green and orange paint, would emerge from the far door, blindfold two people, whisper to them, and lead them "into the presence of the Chero Spirit" in the big back room.

After the bald man's first appearance, someone said, "This is really weird. I've never been to anything like this."

Each blindfolded pair was taken to a "nesting place" and asked to remove their shoes. Then they stood single file and waited. While they waited, they could hear two men quietly slapping each other's thighs and mumbling nonsense, like tribal musicians using their bodies as instruments.

Finally a woman approached, took each person by the hands, and led him or her forward. She offered a drink of "somala" (water), saying it would help in the loss of inhibitions. She told the "seeker" that he or she would be led into the presence of the Chero Spirit. "You may remove any articles of clothing except the blindfold, and make any sounds except words." Then she led the seeker behind a screen and placed the seeker, kneeling, with a group of other blindfolded people, around a thick mattress.

Frank Moore and another member of the Chero Company, named Luna, were lying naked on the mattress. Hands explored them all over. Some people disrobed. Hands and legs and heads got all mixed up.

After five hours, everyone had had the chance to touch Frank Moore. That is when he came out and sang, breaking the tension and seriousness that had built up.

Moore then had his alphabet board and head pointer brought forward and attached to him. This is how he communicates. The board fits on his wheelchair the way a toddler's tray fits on a highchair. Then Moore uses his neck, the only muscles he can control, to move the pointer to words and letters printed on the board. His wife interprets and often anticipates his "speeches."

As he expressed his gratitude at the size of the turnout, and told the audience what was coming up next, one marveled at the ability of a man so physically incapacitated to organize, direct and orchestrate so much of his environment. For 20 years, he has done performance, written books, made tapes and films, taught classes, earned two master's degrees and organized two performance groups--in short, he has generated an impressive professional resume.

After a short intermission, the "Journey to the Planet Lila" began. Some 25 people volunteered to be "heroes," to disrobe and join closely in a circle, surrounded by the clothed "watchers." For about an hour, the watchers watched naked people acting out seaweed, fish, kittens, bears and other flora and fauna. Then the heroes were paired off randomly and told, through instructions taken from a fishbowl, to explore each other's bodies. One of the instructions said, "Explore your partner's entire body, using every part of your body."

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