Narcissister

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Is it wrong that all I could think of was, how is she 41 and in such a good shape? and also, were those clothes really inside her vagina? But onto more analytical comments…

Narcissister is a 41 year old performance artist that wears a Barbie doll face. In her piece, “Every Woman,” Narcissister performs a reverse striptease. She begins the piece naked and proceeds to get dressed from clothes she takes out of her orifices – mouth, vagina, anus, and afro wig – to end the piece fully dressed in see-through spandex. This is an uncomfortable piece to watch. It presents us with a woman that owns her body and takes pleasure in owning it. And this is clear on her body appearance as well. Unlike Marina Abramovic, whose naked body exposes her and shows us a human body, Narcissister’s body is a statement of ownership more than an exposure. Her  body is a mannequin in itself, it is her performance. By showing a worked out, thin, tanned, almost impossibly fit body, Narcissister is already telling us she owns her body and does with it what she wants. This is a perfect framing for her reverse striptease.  

Narcissister’s “Workout” piece is intense. Here, she puts herself in a work out machine that resembles a static bicycle at a gym, but that is actually a pleasure machine. Involving a black dildo, mannequin hands that reach her breasts, and a wheel with attached straps that slap her in the back, Narcissister’s piece shows us a body capable of self-pleasure and masochism. She is owning her body and her sexuality. She is also commenting on race, with the black dildo and the black afro wig in “Every woman. ” 

In Narcissister’s “ass/vag” piece, the performance artist wears a vagina/anus costume and performs a female orgasm. It’s a visually striking piece and my favourite so far. Raw, real, and disturbing, the piece puts on stage female sexuality in its essence. The piece evokes images of cabaret, strip tease, and pornography (notably the back of her costume.)

In “Man-Woman,” Narcissister begins dressed like a man, wearing mannequin like pectorals and a dildo. The piece follows the artist as she wakes up as a man, masturbates to a picture of Narcissister as a woman stuck on the wall, and then becomes the woman of the picture, wearing neon pink pornographic underwear, black skin sleeves and mask, and a bleach blond curly hair wig. She then proceeds to hump the mannequin, clothes, and mask of the initial man persona. This gets even more reversed when, after showing that the dildo representing the man’s penis is not erect any more, Narcissister opens a magazine and masturbates to photos of herself. In the end, she takes the man’s hat and skateboard, and leaves the room. This piece explores gender roles, race, sexuality, and female empowerment. It is disturbingly explicit, pornographic and sexual, but fascinating.

In “Hot lunch,” Narcissiter begins inside a sausage costume as part of a huge hot dog. Once out, she is revealed as a waitress and serves hotdogs which she covers with ketchup and mustard that she squirts from fake breasts. She then strips naked and extracts a red strip in shape of a sausage strip (but also evocative of menstruation and masturbation at the same time) out of her vagina. Finally, she dances and ends the piece inside the bun she began in, naked. This piece is riddling. Her body serves and dominates, but is also consumed. She consumes the body she serves? Interesting. 

Narcissister’s work gives credit to her name. She is all about the body; pleasuring her body, selling her body, changing bodies, exploting it, exercising, consuming, masturbating, etc. But the main issue with her body is that is anonymous. We are all narcissiter (“Narcissister is you!”) and we all utilize our bodies for pleasure and commerce. We don’t see her face but we put our face on her mask; we see ourselves riding the bicycle, confronting the dildo, having orgasms, being mixed race. She is bold, but her work reveals the grungy, hidden reality of a world where everything is up for grabs and has a price, including our bodies. 

More of her work: http://www.narcissister.com/photos.php

Article in NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/17/fashion/the-mannequin-also-speaks-up-close-with-narcissister.html?_r=0

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Cloud 9

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Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud 9” is the strangest play. Set in Victorian England and colonized Africa in the first act and in 1979 England in Act II, the play experiments with cross-gender and cross-racial casting, black humor, time, and sexuality. Written in 1979, Churchill’s play is riddled with political critique. It comments on British history, repression of sexuality, weapon use or gun control, violence, and racial issues. Every word is loaded, and every character is controversial.

This is a difficult play to read. I had to keep reminding myself that Edward was played by a woman, then by a man; or that Cathy is played by a man, etc. The play begs to be performed, not just read. It is difficult to imagine the staging, the costumes, the speed of conversation, everything. Despite it’s specific casting recommendations, I feel like this play is open to many many interpretations that could reinforce its political agenda. Are period costumes used? Is it all sarcasm? What does the music sound like? What happened to Joshua? It seems that there are so many loose ends, and perhaps the fact that actors come back as different characters fixes this, but the story seemed unnecessarily complicated and irresolute.

On a first read, I really didn’t enjoy the play. I felt it was too acute at times in its humour, and too straightforward. I feel like the play’s strength is on the images that are created on stage – with the cross dressing, and the props – and not in its language. It feels a little ridiculous at time, and very dry. In my mind, I can hear my history professor going, “it’s british humour! The best kind of humour!” but I’m not sure. Can’t wait to read it out loud, see if I hear it differently. 

A note on Space

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Ngugi tells us there is no empty space, that every space is riddled with politics, expectations, preconceptions, and a history. Our building, the mosque, our country, our world. The state possesses all and the performer merely possesses his performance. But within his performance, he finds power. In his essay, “Enactment of Power: The Politics of Performance Space,” Ngugi wa Thiong’o analyses the power of performance within a state controlled space, and this prompt us to discuss the power that our art, as performers and theatre makers, has in the UAE, in Abu Dhabi, and at NYU.

Last month we performed “The Odyssey” at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Thinking about performance space, the politics of a place like Manarat are unavoidable. Located twenty minutes away from downtown Abu Dhabi, the high art gallery can only be accessed by car. This already limits the audience to a specific social status and economic strata. Once there, it is clear that this kind of place is catered to the expatriate population and the Emirati elite, and that families, high society couples, and tourists are its main population. All in all, Manarat is a specific kind of place, the kind of place that we, as New York University in Abu Dhabi students, are used to; and the kind of place where we “belong” as private-education-scholarship-global class-citizens. And so, it is only obvious that our yearly student production should take place there. Or is it? This touches upon Ngugi’s politics of space, our university’s politics, and my own ideas of what theatre should do. If the power to instill change through performance is directly determined by the place of the performance, what is the change we are creating by performing a heteronormal love story about a royal family’s journey home through invasion and conquest in high class gallery in Abu Dhabi? I’m puzzled. To our credit, or, Ruben’s credit actually, the production made a especial invitation to our cafeteria friends who would have otherwise not witnessed the work.

But still. What is the purpose of art? What should theatre do in a community? Yes, we should be remembered; but not for an aesthetic choice, or for an okay performance, but for enacting change, and inspiring, and utilizing our tools to affect a society. I wonder how much “The Odyssey” did to invite reflection, or how much it identified a feeling that our society begged to be voiced.

This brings me to a slightly egoistic reflection on “Headspace: a play,” our latest attempt at making theatre. When we were discussing the purpose of the project, and the venue, questions about the purpose of art came up. I want to make art that is necessary. Not because I deem it important, but because once made, we sit back and recognize it as a communion, a shared moment we needed to experience together. The most rewarding moments of this project were those where we asked the hard questions, were we listened to the heartbreaking answers, and where we opened the floor for conversation. I don’t think we succeeded in properly inviting discussion, or change, but I feel that we introduced a new vocabulary, a way of looking at art and it’s function. Working with people who hadn’t done theatre before in itself enacts change. It’s like the crawling, I guess. By inviting people to physically change their routine, and do yoga and memorize lines, they change their bodies, and change their way of looking at this school, and this society. The two actors that memorized lines the fastest were a chemistry major and an nyu tisch student. This is the kind of theatre I want to make; where a politics major is asking me about performing religion and the politics of costume; where we don’t know anything but create so much. This was a flawed project in many, many ways, starting by the parameters I gave it some six months ago; but it was correct in its core, and I saw it change people. One of the things I am proud of is of the space we chose for it. Between MPR and Common Ground, we discussed how MPR would be more aesthetically pleasing and allow for more audience. But Common Ground was our space; our community’s common ground, where debates around student policies, and Open Mic nights happened. It made sense that this was our space for performing our realities, our community.

My two theatre experiences this semester have made me reconsider (or reinforce) my beliefs on theatre and why I do what I do (or want to do what I want to do.) There must be a way in which theatre can be a community service and a powerful aesthetic experience at the same time. And I may not know all of the tools for this, but at least for now I know that a big step is choosing the correct space.

Flower Drum Song

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I’m strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
Who’ll enjoy being a guy having a girl… like… me.”

“Flower Drum Song” is a 1961 film musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It shows the lives of Chinese illegal immigrants in Chinatown San Francisco in post WWII America. The film and subject matter are very controversial because they present themes and stories of immigrant lower class “aliens” into the US, a taboo topic especially in mainstream American culture. Furthermore, the implications of this are many, especially when it is a musical composed by two white Jewish American men. Questions of race performance, and the politics of who gets to tell who’s story arise. Similarly with The Sound of Music, it is both sad and lucky that for a minority population to be represented in the mainstream stage, Rodgers and Hammerstein have to step in and write a musical.

Among many strange things –the costume, the stereotypical performance, and the scenery (!) – one of the moments that was most interesting to me was the “I enjoy being a girl” scene. Here we see Linda Low, an Americanized Asian young woman, gets ready to go out on a date. Linda is also a stripper, and the scene right before this one shows her performing a orientalist Chinese cabaret act in the restaurant/ bar she works at. Her body, already embodying all sorts of politics and minorities, is refracted into three mirrors as she dances and admires herself. In this masturbatory scene, Linda sings about performativity, gender expectations, and manipulation. She acknowledges that she is a good performer, and that she can get what she wants with her performance. This moment is very self-reflective of the film, I belief. As we witness Linda low witness herself, we stop seeing her as an object and understand her as subject, as owning her own body and her own representations of it.

“Flower Drum Song” is a strange musical. And the fact that it needs to be performed by a certain race, using the words written by a different race, telling stories of performance, gender, and nationality, is a lot of politics for me. All in all I didn’t find the story compelling, although “I Enjoy Being a Girl” is still stuck in my mind. Who gets to perform race, religion, nationality, gender? Are Chinese- Americans only allowed to perform parts where their race is pertinent to the plot? How about Japanese- Americans? Should this musical be performed by Chinese immigrants or any Asian immigrant? Isn’t that perpetuating race stereotypes? And if their bodies are not to be related to their character, – in the way that Julie Andrews playing a role that might perhaps some day be sexually arousing to a woman doesn’t make her a lesbian – then why do they have to be Asian at all? This is all very confusing.

Stacy Wolf’s “A Problem Like Maria”

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The terms “woman,” “feminist,” and “lesbian,” are used somewhat interchangeably to underline this book’s primary concern with spectator’s uses of the musical, however they might identify themselves.”

There is not much I can take away from a book that frames itself like this. Up until this moment in the introduction, Wolf’s analysis of the American musical seemed compelling. Her two act structure and dual interpretation of musicals — “enormously popular sources of mainstream entertainment, sometimes containing liberal messages of tolerance, providing conservative representations of women and heterosexual couples; and […] as sources of pleasure and power for feminist and lesbian spectators.” – are convincing and intriguing. However, I lift my suspension of disbelief when she is quick to assume that all feminist analysis is a lesbian and women are both feminist and lesbian. In any case, Stacy Wolf’s “A Problem Like Maria: Gender and Sexuality in the American Musical” is an interesting book at best, providing interesting though sometimes far fetched readings of the American musical, specifically The Sound of Music, and four prominent actresses of the musical genre: Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand.

 

On her chapter on Julie Andrews, Wolf argues that Julie Andrews shares many of her character’s behavior: “On Broadway, television, and film and in “everyday life,” Andrews queers even the most blatant representations of heterosexuality, including her own marriage. In other words, she is undeniably feminine and thus, like many (lesbian) femmes, is mistaken for straight.” Already I want to stop reading. This analysis of an actress’ life, collapsed with her performances, and seen under the lens of feminist studies, using lesbian in parenthesis like it is a given, and interchanging woman, feminist and lesbian is too far fetched for me. Especially in the light of our recent reading of Judith Butler’s “Performative Arts and Gender Constitution,” Wolf’s homoerotic reading of Julie Andrews’ life, career, and her performance in The Sound of Music strike as sexist and narrow-minded. I appreciate the gender-conscious reading of The Sound of Music, and understand the value of introducing such themes in mainstream works like the American Musical, but this book is too invested in a theory and everything else seems bent to fit it.

 

Gender performance and performance art are concepts I am grappling with. Julie Andrews is not a performance artist, she is an actress most known for her roles in American musicals. Regardless of her sexual orientation, and whether or not her marriage was a façade, she is not performing herself in The Sound of Music. The main argument we have been discussing is the fact that performance art is about the artist, their body, and their exploration and sacrifice of that body of the audience. Implementing such readings onto earlier works that were not performance art seems futile. Although I am interested in “gender and sexuality in the American Musical,” this book seems to be describing lesbian reading of American female performers who happen to perform in musicals. And that leaves a lot to be desired. 

The Sound of Music

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The Sound of Music is a 1965 American musical film directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The film is based on the Broadway musical by the same name. The story follows Maria, a novice in Austria known for her misbehaviors. She is sent to work as a governess for the seven children of a widowed Austrian naval captain. Once in the house, Maria finds herself at odds with the captain’s strict authoritarian rule and with his children’s insistence on playing jokes on her. In time, however, she manages to win the children’s trust and respect, and eventually the captain’s heart.

 

The Sound of Music is a little obnoxious. There is a lot of singing, dancing, and smiling. At face value, it seems odd and unfamiliar. Julie Andrews is charming, but then she is too charming, and characters seem too stereotypical for any deep plot to develop. In fact, the plot itself seems simple and non impressive. So what makes it so special? And why is it that I know the lyrics to most of the words without having ever seen the movie or the musical? And why is Julie Andrews the only female character with short hair? And why is it in Austria?

 

Musicals are strange creatures. Simple plots and characters can carry a political agenda that is spread through the media and across social classes. The Sound of Music is the kind of cultural item that can be accessed and that is praised because it comes from a respectable source – white American Jewish business-men – and so it is the perfect channel through which political agendas can be carried and small subliminal messages can be spread to the public. It’s sad though, that for something like a rebellious short-haired woman to be a main character in a timeless classic American musical, two men have to write, compose, and sponsor the film.

Waiting for Godot

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Samuel Beckett’s 1949 play “Waiting for Godot” is an absurdist play in which Estragon and Vladimir, Gogo and Didi, wait for Godot. As they wait, they pass the time talking about life, the past, the future, taking off their boots, their hats, and putting them on again. The two acts mirror each other and follow a similar sequence: Gogo and Didi are reunited, they have a conversation about their separation and reunion, they meet Pozzo and Lucky (a Hegelian master/slave couple,) they wait for Godot, the night falls, and they sleep. It is a play about relationships, the human experience, and the absurdity of a life spent waiting.

 

When I read Godot, I feel immense tenderness. Didi and Gogo’s love and their exploration of relationships, encapsulate the human experience for me. They are lovers, friends, brothers, and sometimes enemies. They fight and make up, take care of each other, and depend on their relationship to stay alive. There is something about putting two human beings on stage waiting, that allows for all of humanity to be fleshed out. There is no urgency, only the opportunity for life to be examined, exposed, and made fun of. Like in Tehching Hsieh’s one-year time clock piece, I am transported into the body in the performance, I become Didi and Gogo, I pass time. They are empty vessels filled with humanity, and Godot is everything we hope will validate our lives. I am afraid I feel too tender towards this play to analyze it properly. But looking at it’s context, it makes sense that these should be two human beings experimenting how to live – and wait – together. There is only so much I know about trench life in WWII, but I think there must be something about living with someone whom you barely know but upon whom your life depends on, that forces you to create relationships, to care for each other, to be together. The comradely experience of WWII trench life, distilled and explored in Becket’s play, is a beautiful way of thinking about humanity as a whole. War has a way of tearing off the tissue of formality that our society is built upon. In a trench, you are a soldier, a body, and nothing else. There is no time for plot, for climax, for the mudane; it is a unique and unfortunate circumstance in which you wait for an order, for an answer, for a letter, but do nothing else. And the man next to you becomes your brother, your father, your lover, your friend; and so the human experience is condensed.

 

I go back and forward. I want to see the play staged as it is described, the boots, the coats, the hats; I want to see a proper Godot. But I also want to see it where I don’t expect it, where a society begs to take a moment and reflect upon itself, where we need to take a break and wait for Godot. But how would that look like? Recognizing the moment in time when Godot needs to be performed again, when society has forgotten the absurdity of its own life, is a challenge in and of itself. And then when you do, how do you stage it? I guess it is more about when to stage Godot than how; it is about the place, the people, and the moment in time when this play needs to surface once more.