The Impolitic Version of What Became the Post: Bad Parenting

21 Oct

I have always had a problem with performance art; a deep abiding problem that seems to come from somewhere inside my chest, like phlegm or about-to-be-coughed-up blood, it irks and bothers me and insists on making me feel uneasy. Yes. I’m aware that this is a judgmental stance that will cause me to come face to face with people wearing one heel spewing milk telling me it’s all about masculine/feminine perception. A long time ago I rewrote some of my basic encoding that was set on ‘I like this therefore it’s good – opposite also applies’ with a more humanistic approach – I trained myself to see all (static) art as something made with love, energy and intention, all worthy of praise, even if the end product wasn’t exactly the bronze plated spikey ball I wanted in my office. Each to their own. I trained myself (and this was purely at the sweet behest of my partner who’d tired of my overbearing meanness in the face of art that displeased me) to err away from language like ‘overblown’ and ‘poorly conceived’ and instead replace these terms with, well not ones of endearment, at least utterances that bespoke of the time and energy that had gone into the work – they instead became ‘unique’ ‘inspired’ and ‘particular.’ Sadly the same level of enlightenment could not be found for performance art. Where I can look at a painting and find its merit peaceably in a gallery I, for instance, found it impossible to watch a bunch of AUT students parade around on broken heels spurting bottles of broken milk on a looped track they must have walked for hours and think ‘well that’s particular, that’s unique and inspired’.

Which is silly cause if anything’s unique it was that white washed parade of strange. But here’s the kicker; static art lets me decide how I feel about it. I can be mean I can be nice, it’s my choice. Then I go home and the piece of art stays hanging on the wall. Performance art uses you in the making of itself and I find that unavoidably irritating; and although this is the ‘beauty’ of the form, the very nature of its subliminal message, that art is greater than self, always comes off to me as a lie. That the artist is actually saying that they are more important than you because they are instruments of the art and you are just the mechanism by which it proceeds. You may hate the art and scoff; that’s part of the art. You might walk out of a room whilst a film is playing; that’s the film making you leave. You might all laugh like we did at our student teacher in high school who showed a bunch of 15 year old’s a film he’d made of cutlery painfully stilted and pointlessly (apparently) dropping onto the floor of a stage. And even though his feelings were undoubtedly hurt by our taunting and ridicule I’m certain he put all those tears into a latter piece of performance art  and not instead back on himself to ask ‘is this just silly?’

Might it be that a bigger issue here is one of editing, of constraint and purpose? Where are the limits in performance art? If they aren’t immediately available to the viewer, if the point doesn’t ever have to be clearly received, then does the artist still know what it is or are they bluffing? It reminds me of a line in the Union Atlantic where a history teacher is vigorously punishing her student for limply defending his point of view by saying ‘it was just an opinion’ to which she memorably responds:

“No!…that’s precisely what it isn’t! That’s precisely what’s become so endemic. That cheap, mindless relativism. You’re all awash in it. Of course it’s a pluralist society. So we’re modest. In the big things: religion, metaphysics. We’re non-absolutists. That’s secularism. That’s maturity. That’s what the zealots can’t abide. But this business of opinions. As if the world had no discernible qualities.”

There is the possibility that my neivity is the issue and not the ‘art’, that I’m like a conservative Catholic hating on gays because I’ve never known any, they’ve never become humanised. The fear of the unknown. In the same vein maybe my lack of theoretical investigation into performance art it is what causes me to hate it so. Ignorance fostering prejudice. Whilst I cannot claim to be thoroughly schooled in the matter I have been subjected to it, shown it and asked to partake in it. In fact, for something that instinctively rubs me the wrong way, I’ve had an awful lot to do with performance art.

My first encounter was when I was 15 years old, as I’ve just mentioned, but the whole thing was more warped and misjudged than that initial description so forgive me here a further digression. I went to a massively multi-ethnic high school in Auckland’s eastern suburbs with something like 56 different ethnicities represented and many of these people hailed from the various Islands of the Pacific. One term we had a rash of student teachers; one of these was a gentleman whose name escapes me, likely because I never bothered to learn it, who sat in on and eventually taught, a solo lesson in our media studies class. This student teacher was ebullient beyond measure, so undaunted by the lackluster response his dandy teaching caused that he was actually foolish enough to suggest that, after we’d finished watching Brave Heart for something like the 12th time, we should section out the last 10 minutes of class, on his last day with us, to watch some footage of his most recent performance art installation. We were a bunch of 15 year olds. His installation consisted of a stage lit with one bright light and an audience seated watching, the light hit a circle on the center of the white stage floor and after a minute of pure illumination there fell from an obscured hole in the ceiling a fork. A minute or so later, another fork, then another, then another, then an avalanche of forks. And then, a spoon.

I do not have to tell you the response this ‘piece’ received. I cannot recall how he justified this to us or begin to recall how he explained that it was art. Later in my life I developed an overblown ability to infuse nothingness with what sounds like theory, it’s a skill a lot of us learn at university in order to make word count. If memory serves though this man did not blow smoke from his arse, he blew it from his heart. He and others I’ve since met, truly believe that a calculated and contrived performance can result in art. I’m not dismissing this, who am I to do so? No one, that’s who. But what I am is a reader and so when I stumbled on Kevin Wilson’s newest book The Family Fang – a novel about two performance artists, Camille and Caleb Fang, who get married (around 35 times and film each one then run it as an exhibition in a gallery) and have children then subsequently use these children to create art, I thought; this I have to read.

Wilson has written something pretty strange, it’s just crooked enough to be interesting and new but the narrative relies on some really basic plot ideas like the thrill of  a chase and the promise of the unknown, he involves fame and L.A and plays around with failing writers (a writers favourite topic). But more than this, Wilson explores the line between artistic endeavour and personal responsibility. The Fangs began, for Wilson, as a way of exploring parenthood. He and his wife had just had their first child and were finding life hard, lacking in sleep Wilson began to think of all the ways that a parent can screw up a child, and like casting a warding off spell he decided to create some parents who were going to do more damage to their children that the Wilson’s would ever inflict on theirs. A transference if you will. The Fangs believe that children kill art. They’re probably right. Children tend to kill most things by way of suppression, exhaustion and a fraying of previously alert minds. But for most of us parenthood refunds as much if not considerably more than it takes, for the Fangs they decide to take payment immediately by melding their children into their art. Wilson basically shapes my entire argument against performance art; namely that it is intentionally isolationist and somewhat selfish. When you come face to face with a painting, you either like it, you don’t or you’re indifferent. In any case that response is yours, given to you benevolently by the painter to do as you wish; they have their interpretation you have yours, both are entitled to keep their own. With performance art the viewer is used to create the art then eaten up by it – your response is never privately your own, it’s grist for the mill of the art and the artist.

Wilson showcases this kind of specific perverse selfinterestedness (sic) via the Fangs two children, particularly their emotionally disastrous childhood during which they’re forsaken on the alter of fanatical artistic integrity. At one point the children, both between 8 and 14 years old, are taken on holiday, a performance is planned for the journey, they are not told what it will be. They board a plane and have to pretend to be traveling alone, their parents having adopted aliases and are seated together, on the flight to their destination Caleb stands, hijacks the onboard microphone and gushily proposes to Camille, who says yes. On the return journey the same act is played out except this time Camille says no and the entire plane is subjected to an awkwardness that seeps into the rayon covered seats, gets in their clothes and follows them home. The Fangs disrupt situations in order to manipulate people into emotionally responding in order to use that to make an abstract point that has no direct bearing or use for the people involved. They believe that art, in all situations, and only art as they define it, is more important than anything else; more truthful and trustworthy, more worthy than even their own children.

This book  tackles the hard to grasp wank of performance art, that intangible nothingness that is somehow more irritating than the offhanded response of ‘my 6 year old could have painted that’ you’re sometimes tempted to utter when staring down a modernist painting. The Family Fang walks straight into the minefield of conceptual theory based artistic practice and strips it bare to reveal the human cost of using other people in the process of defining your own self-important view of the world. In many ways Wilson uses performance art as a crazy abstraction to house his commentary about parenting; parents aren’t ever this bad or this funny, I mean parents aren’t usually performance artists. But at the same time he’s cutting a knife into the fat of selfish parenting he’s also making a pretty accurate analysis of art as contrived spectacle. There’s a line in the book when Camille is trying to explain to her children why she pushed them under the bus, why they made art out of themselves instead of parents, and she says ‘I remember how much I loved the aftermath, the confusion on everyone’s faces but ours. We were the only ones in the whole world who knew what was happening.’ I get that, it’s so human, to want to be god. But it’s another thing to act on that by contriving yourself as a godhead and calling it art.

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