One of the first pieces of performance documentation I had ever seen grabbed my heart. It was a piece by Tony Labat that I saw as a student at SFAI. Ever since, Labat’s work as an artist and teacher has incited other artists to develop work marked by extreme quality, full throttle behavior, and a commitment to pushing beyond the boundaries of politesse to a place where we might find a level of truth.
Last night’s singular evening of performance and video created in tribute to Labat at New Langton Arts was an amazing, incendiary, altitude sickness inducing selection of work organized by Mads Lynnerup. All of the pieces trafficked in the tactics beloved by performance art students, with which Labat or any new genres professor, must be excruciatingly familiar .
Jennifer Locke kick started the show with a hilarious homage to Labat’s 1980 performance, “Black Bean n’ Rice”. Performed with a grainy black & white mask of Labat’s face taped to her own, while wearing white male lounge shoes, she replicated his disco ball hanging from the testicles trick in that way only a woman can. Felipe Dulzaides physically maneuvered a DVD projector, animating the image and amplifying the sound of a piece that reflected a kind of savagery in the environment that reminded me of the drive to drill the pipeline and the desperate desire to save the caribou. Nao Bustamante parlayed the standard glass cutting the body routine into a great comedic bit where the phone rings in the middle, and she has to repeat several times off camera to the caller, with blood in her mouth, that she is making a piece “for Tony.” Cliff Hengst uncannily channeled Elvis in a black spangled jumpsuit, beautifully singing “I Did it My Way” while consulting huge cue cards with the lyrics, saying that it had been 30 years since he died, and didn’t remember all the words.
Not on the program was Ella Tideman, who performed a piece at the end of the evening that had everyone scared and wondering about the insurance ramifications, a feeling commonly felt by performance art teachers. I was ready to write the piece off as impossibly mired in cliches, but found myself thinking about it more than other pieces later. In the darkened room, Tideman extracted all of the elements for the piece from a backpack. She held a flashlight in her mouth throughout the piece to light the action. Strapping large granite bricks to her shoes with electrical tape, she stood on top of them by a wall outlet and took out 2 long orange extension cords. To my mind, conflating Abu Ghraib victim and terrorist, Tideman cut the 2 cords in half, stripped the ends, and performed an operation twisting live wires (I saw an arc) whereby one cord ended up with 2 female ends, and the other with 2 male ends, the latter plugged into the same wall outlet, creating a sort of power loop without a release. After I had time to get over the anxiety the piece produced, I realized how hilarious it was that she gave the double female cord to Labat, in part touching again on the complicity we have as viewers. She found it handy to keep the classic tool of direct action near at hand: the brick. And she certainly found it handy to retain practical knowledge about the electrical and to do it herself. It is important for a woman to be independent. And it got me thinking about how hard it is to control our representatives once they have been elected.
If you missed the show you will want to get the catalog: “Trust Me. Tony Labat” from Watermark Press, available in the gallery. For this kind of work, it is almost as good as seeing the show, as it provides more context. From what I hear, the printing is beautiful, but I wouldn’t know as I got the bootleg copy from Bob Linder. The clamp clipped photocopied version was Linder’s contribution to the tribute, and as a believer in the free flow of information, I bought it from him instantly, even before I realized it was an artwork. If you don’t have the cash to get the authorized version, run Linder down. He can help you out.