Say the words "performance art" and you're bound to receive an array of amusing and predictable reactions. Even a Web site devoted to performance art -- www.performanceart.net -- shrinks from defining it. Perhaps this is the point. It is not so much that performance art defies definition as that the definition is made new or expanded with each performance. Valley performance artist Mary Kay Zeeb is more comfortable stating why she performs than attaching a definition to what she performs.
"Performance art is constantly testing the boundaries of how we define things," says Zeeb, a Chicago native who studied oral interpretation of literature at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Zeeb's program of study, where she and her classmates adapted short stories, novels and poems for the stage, provided a segue into performance art. She had the opportunity to direct, write and act in what she calls "a blend of experimental performance and the study of literature."
Naturally, Zeeb is her own character. For three consecutive weekends in May (the show opened May 11), she performs a second installation -- for lack of a better word -- of the series she calls Breaking and Entering, which debuted last October at the Phoenix Art Museum. "It's a study on myself," she says. "I'm breaking into my own apartment at night. I have a uniform for the project, a backpack, a flashlight. Then I'm sharing my findings with the audience." Last fall Zeeb shared her discovery that she's a liar. She even asked the audience to support her by joining in calling her a liar. "I was kind of surprised at how eager they were to yell and scream at me," Zeeb remembers. "One woman was yelling, 'Dirty, rotten liar!' I viewed her as extra supportive."
The "lie" involved the surgical origins of the 12-inch scar that runs the length of Zeeb's back. She told the audience the quite believable and incredibly detailed story that she had been telling people about the scar all of her life. Then she said, "But that's all a lie." She ultimately launched into the truth, a completely absurd story. Zeeb hopes that absurdity creates a comfortable distance and serves as a bridge for the audience to connect to the performance. "I want people to explore the metaphorical possibilities," she says. "I take it there because my goal as a performance artist is to create a connection, to leave a fill-in-the-blank so someone can say, 'What's my psychosurgery?'"
Zeeb, an artist who also teaches humanities to 11th- and 12th-graders at Metropolitan Arts Institute in downtown Phoenix, calls her current performance, Split, a half-woman show. It explores Zeeb's being both the burglar and the burglarized and comes from her belief that in our culture we're asked to be one or the other. Zeeb is interested in the courage that allows her -- and us -- to be both or neither.