Friday, January 21, 2011

The shock of the...annoying

Many of us Descant volunteers and Co-Editors were at the Rivoli once upon a time to hear our fearless leader Karen Mulhallen read her poetry and show photographs from her trip to Sable Island at The Box Salon, a multi-media, multi-artist forum presented by the inimitable Louise Bak. Karen was preceded by two presenters. I came in just as the performance artist was plying her trade (I won’t name her, my intention is not to ridicule her here but merely to pose a number of questions).

The artist did a number of things including assuming vaguely marital poses with a fake sword, having her photograph taken repeatedly, screening a video of her climbing into bed with assorted friends and comrades and nimbly dancing around the stage. At one point, she wrapped a red scarf around her head covering her eyes, toddled off stage and groped her way to the seated audience.

She held a bottle of some sort of coloured fluid in her hand, spritzed it on the hands of audience members and then (did I imagine this?) proceeded to lick it off their hands. All I could think of was … oh boy, wait till she hits Andrew Coyne’s table who, from my vantage point, at the back of the room was situated at a table slightly to my right (he acquitted himself admirably considering the circumstances). But that was not the pinnacle of the performance.

Finley doing her thing...
Perhaps I have already established myself here as an artistic Luddite, preferring too much the old to the new, the classic to the modern. Maybe I am the inevitable and unenviable product of innumerable generations of cynical Sicilian peasants but I was completely unmoved or intrigued by the view of the artist cutting her own pubic hair and sprinkling it on stage. Apparently with my slightly late arrival I also missed some similar activity involving ice cubes (luckily for me). It all seemed so Karen Finley twenty five years ago with Ms. Finley relieving herself on stage in an impotent rage or covering herself in chocolate…

George Orwell famously said “You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense. No ordinary man could be such a fool.” He was speaking in a political context but it sometimes comes to mind when viewing unconventional forms of art.

I will be the first to admit that I resist what I don’t understand and am quick to dismiss it as such. I wasn’t shocked so much by the performance (okay perhaps mildly alarmed when I thought she was coming my way with that mysterious fluid). But I did feel annoyed. I guess it was the childish, mental equivalent of strutting around a gallery pointing to the modern art and saying in a huff “Huh, I could do that!” That sentiment has always disturbed me because I think it’s borne of ignorance and lack of insight.

I am not proud of my cynicism or my resistance to new ways of presenting “art” if that is what this is. But I also don’t think there can be appreciation or understanding without education of some sort – an education that I must take on myself in order to interpret what I see (and don’t see) in a work of art, annoying or otherwise.

Initially published in an altered format on March 2nd, 2007 at

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