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Mimes are usually mute and wave gloved hands in the air. Actors pretend to be someone--anyone--else. Yet you never know what to expect from performance artists. One day they're masturbating in a gallery. Another, they're having a friend shoot them in the arm with a gun, or ranting about their sorry lot in life. They have a reputation for smearing themselves in feces and rolling naked on floors strewn with broken glass. They rub rotting fish on their loins or hang themselves by fish hooks above gawking city crowds.
Whatever the Jerry Springer-type stunt being staged, say fans of this ill-defined yet growing area of cultural exhibitionism, the common thread is that the performers are usually playing themselves, or some afflicted aspect thereof.
"I think that's one of the real differences between performance art and other more traditional kinds of theater," says Angela Ellsworth, a painter and performance artist who teaches at ASU West and the downtown charter school Metro Arts. And with help from a few other artists and area art galleries and institutions, she has hatched something called LAP (Live Art Platform) to advance performance art in the area. "In traditional theater, actors are usually playing out a role that someone else has written," she says. "They might even be doing a character that maybe someone else has done before. Performance art is pretty much self-referential."
In this age of mediated electronic realities, about the only sure thing you can say about performance art is that it is real, live, in the moment--a lot like life.
You can see for yourself March 26, when LAP sponsors Bull at the Icehouse, in downtown Phoenix. The event is the third of five that LAP has put on in its inaugural season. It features LAP's other co-founders Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, who are visiting artists at ASU, and an Irish duo from the London-based group with the lower-case name, desperate optimists.
The event isn't likely to be for cultural hobbyists. According to a recent press release, LAP is out to win "tough, sophisticated audiences." Audiences with stamina. Even without the delays that usually afflict the medium, Bull is slated to last for half a day, from noon to midnight. Beyond that, the artists involved haven't been able to say what might distinguish their 12 hours at the Icehouse from an equal term in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"We really haven't achieved our performance moments yet," was the only insight Hill could offer about their plans."
Ellsworth wishes she could fill in some of the blanks surrounding the event, but she's as much in the dark as the next inquirer. "Maybe they're trying to add some mystery by not revealing anything about it. I really don't know what they're thinking. All I can tell you is that something will happen and it'll probably include some technical stuff. They're into computers. And there's a mechanical bull they've been working on."
Helen Hestenes, director of the Icehouse, lets out a long ruminative, "Hmmmmmmm," when asked to describe the upcoming event. After a pause, she says, "I don't ask too many questions, because I like to be surprised. I just know it's going to be fantastic. But, it is 12 hours long and I must admit, I haven't seen a 12-hour piece before, so for me it will be the first 12-hour performance piece I've ever seen."
The event reflects the increasing visibility of performance art in the area. Once the exclusive domain of renegade outfits like MARS Artspace, the Icehouse and Allwun House, performance art in the past several years has become an expected offering at art openings in Scottsdale and ASU's art museum and elsewhere. ASU West offers a course in the history of the medium. And Drama City and the Institute for Studies in the Arts at ASU's Tempe campus, have been regular sponsors of performance art and artists.
This institutional embrace comes with plenty of irony, given the medium's beginnings as a protest against prevailing cultural powers and institutions.
In the arts alone, the in-your-face irreverence of performance art has been part of just about every modern avant-garde art movement. In the larger world, public performances of one kind and another have been instrumental in advancing political and social causes and protests.
Arthur Sabatini, who teaches the history of performance art at ASU West, points out that the field got a boost from the political and cultural unrest of the 1960s, which attacked many of the assumptions about western culture.
Among them was the distinction among various art forms.
"You've got to remember that western Euro-American culture separated the art forms like no other culture ever really did," says Sabatini. He says performance art subsequently emerged as a hybrid of various media, combining painting, sculpture, theater and television in a mix that often confounds traditional observers. "That's why it's so difficult for performance artists to explain or define exactly what they do."
The constant, he adds, is that "the forms of expression you find in performance art usually fall outside the categories for every other kind of art. The artists do what they do because there's no other way of doing it."
That's certainly been true of Ellsworth's work.
In the early 1990s, she made large paintings around the idea of the female body.
"I was using myself as a subject in photo shoots and then exaggerating or re-presenting myself as an extreme, larger version. The images were of women that were really big and sort of busting out of their clothing, as if they could have been women from Toulouse Lautrec or a backstage Degas dancer who was overweight trying to squeeze into her tutu."
She recalls using the paint in a very thick way as if it were flesh, and thinking that it wasn't really getting at the personal issues revolving around weight, eating and self-image, that preoccupied her. "If I'm talking about a fat waist and a rubber-tire stomach, then why not show it and pinch it and expose it. Why not really make it an explicit part of my art."
In one three-hour piece with a collaborator in a burned-out building in New Jersey, Ellsworth sucked the cream fillings out of Hostess snowballs.
"It was sort of a ritual about foods that I wasn't allowed to eat as a kid. I sucked the cream filling out and then stuffed the cake part of this Hostess snowball down the leg of my fishnet stocking and tap-danced on a mirror."
Gravity and Hostess snowballs being what they are, her leg got larger and more cumbersome to maneuver the more she ate and danced.
She figures she downed about 100 snowballs. And not the freshest ones, either. To cut costs, she purchased day- and week-old varieties. "I wanted to get the cheapest ones possible. But it didn't really matter. In these kinds of performances, the action becomes a kind of meditative activity that really does send your mind somewhere else. After a while, it wasn't about the taste any more. My mouth started to feel completely different. It kind of went numb."
While Ellsworth was chowing down, her collaborator was in a room across the stage, separated by a wall, performing her own ritual.
Says Ellsworth, "We couldn't see each other, but the audience could see both of us. She had her hair done up in a Geisha 'do and had an electric pencil sharpener strapped inside of it. She was sharpening chopsticks on top of her head and then stabbing them hari-kari style in her dress."
"While all of that was going on, she was also rolling up and sucking on the red paper sleeves of the chopsticks, and then spitting them out, to kind of make them look like firecrackers going off. After three hours, her mouth was totally red and her dress was full of quills."
The point--for those who need one--is to subject every moment to intense self-examination. "You could be brushing your teeth or combing your hair or maybe washing your hands. But the thing is to be in that moment," says Ellsworth.
Looking beyond Bull, LAP will sponsor a workshop April 16 through 18 featuring the renowned performance artist Rachel Rosenthal and her company. And next fall, Ellsworth plans to present a yet-to-be-determined performance at a yet-to-be-named location. In the meantime, Bull is the show that must go on . . . and on . . . and on. . . .
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: email@example.com
Bull will be performed from noon to midnight on March 26 at the Icehouse, 429 West Jackson. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Call for reservations, 965-9438. For more information about Live Art Platform (LAP), visit online at: LiveArtAZ@aol.com