Essays

Ungeziefer: Kafka at the Whitney Biennial

by Nancy Agabian on March 16, 2010

A stage installation by Martin Kersels at the 2010 Whitney Biennial (photo: Whitney.org)

I’m trying to sleep at the Whitney. I rest on a white pillow, a white bath towel covering me. On my head I wear a plastic grocery store bag, the handles tied under my chin, two rubber bands on either side of my head cinching the plastic into a pair of ears. I’m supposed to be a mouse.

It’s cold at the Whitney in the little room in the lobby by the elevators. Here, Martin Kersels has designed a sculpture in the shape of a stage upon which performances can be created. Entitled “Five Songs,” it’s hard to evaluate as a work of art while I’m sleeping on it. Five semi-fantastical stages are painted black, white and orange. There’s 1) a go-go dancer booth atop some speakers, attached to 2) an oval-shaped black table, which I am sleeping under, connected to 3) another stage with upside down chairs supporting it, leading to 4) one made of glass that holds our props, from which 5) a very small stage protrudes that looks like the bow of a ship. The part I am sleeping on is made out of wood and is surprisingly comfortable.

I am not just supposed to be a mouse, but Gregor Samsa when he is sleeping, before he awakes to realize he is a “dung beetle”, in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Melinda told me that I really have to sleep so that it will look realistic. If I can’t sleep, I have to give up my post to one of the other mice/performers. I nod my head at her; when I have worked with her before I have similarly enjoyed traveling to another absurdist world. I used be a performer and she is a dancer and a choreographer whose last name is Ring. Her piece is called Mouse Auditions.

Martin Kersels, "Study in Orange & White #4" (2009). Colored pencil on paper. Courtesy Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, Paris, and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York (via Whitney.org) (click to enlarge)

At first it’s not so hard for me to fall asleep. It’s true I am excited because this is a performance, and people are watching, but I am also experiencing the first day of my menstrual cycle which at age 42 is exhausting. Like Gregor, I am also stressed out and need a break. I considered not coming today, because I am supposed to cook a lot of food for a baby shower tomorrow, and grade 35 papers, and I couldn’t imagine wearing the costume — a pair of flimsy white longjohns — in my condition. But I had promised Melinda and I am not the type to shirk responsibility.

The lights are bright at the Whitney, so I cover my eyes with my arm. To sleep at the Whitney Biennial, I am drifting, drifting; when you think about it, it’s just a room, not so special if you can’t even fall asleep in it. And yet, the reason I ultimately forced myself from Queens today was that I don’t know when I’ll have this opportunity again; I am not going to let a baby shower or my menses or my job take over my life to such an extent that I cannot sleep at the Whitney while appearing to be a mouse. Breathe in, breathe out. Lately I have been meditating to hold onto myself in the classroom, where I have to perform every day. But it’s job performance, not play.

I actually teach “The Metamorphosis.” Students are taken by it; even in this age of computer-generated video games, they don’t normally imagine a man who transforms to a cockroach. Sometimes when analyzing the message of the story, they write about how important it is to take care of onself before helping others, even family. No one ever says, “Sometimes I feel like a giant bug.” I guess they don’t want to admit such a thing in a classroom. When all the students have left, I tend to beat myself up. I think I understand why Kafka created Gregor. Ironically, by turning into a despicable creature was he then allowed to rest, to be taken care of, only to feel guilty about it: he became an even grosser version of himself, till he turned to dust.

I want to think that this is what is happening at the Whitney, but willingly. As far as I can discern, most of the other mice were previously dancers or actors in their twenties, white and female. As the performance progresses, they seem to lose their playful edge. Some of them simply disappear.

What’s happening is that the mice are holding auditions for a performance that will never happen. So they are giving each other motivational tips on how to speak like Gregor when he is trying to communicate, his language garbled and incomprehensible because he no longer has human vocal chords or a tongue. I can’t sleep with all their racket. So I get up and tell another mouse she can take my place.

All of a sudden I’m on top of the stage auditioning, and there are a bunch of Whitney Biennial attendees milling about. I stare down at the script and do my best imitation of a cockroach. A few of the attendees walk out, which I hope attests to how disturbingly I have transformed into a mouse/bug. When I am done, the woman who is playing the director auditioning mice tells me, “That was great.” It’s a strange moment. I feel accomplished, and yet I just heard Melinda telling her to act positive, the way directors do during auditions.

Afterwards, the mice are chatting. One mouse expresses that it was a satisfying experience because even if you auditioned badly, it made for a good performance. But I feel thankful for the opportunity to become Gregor. I can’t believe this story has actually entered the canon. Gregor is so one-dimensionally a victim, his selfless portrayal over the top, that it shouldn’t be relatable. But then, people had such different relationships to family duty in previous generations. Still, Kafka didn’t even want the story published, his best friend going against his wishes to burn all his writings after his death. Perhaps we value the work so much because it it came from an artist who did not subject himself to the demands of an audience or the market. Or maybe the story expresses something so fundamentally human that we cannot accept it coming from a contemporary. According to Wikipedia, Kafka thought it was funny.

After I take off my plastic bag ears and put on my day clothes, I head over to the coat check. I hear a familiar voice and turn my head to see David Brancaccio dropping off his coat. When I had a TV I often watched his show on PBS on Friday nights. I am awestruck; he is actually talking about coats in the same tone of voice he uses on air. Emboldened from revisiting my performance persona today (a lady in the lobby who sounded vaguely German told me afterwards, “You play well!”), I so very much want to go up to him and say “Hi David Brancaccio!” As I approach, I take a look at his companion, a woman about my size in slacks and a black jacket. They’re deciding which floor to start on, and I don’t want to interrupt.

I’ve been wrong about reality. It’s not that I won’t have a chance to perform at the Whitney again. It’s that I now can’t afford admission to see the Biennial, and tonight was my opportunity to enter for free without waiting. I decided I was too tired to stay. Outside, it’s Friday night, and the endless line to get in the one time a week without an entrance fee winds down Madison and across 75th Street, into the cold March darkening.

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