Articles

My Top Concerns While Degrading Myself For Art

by Michelle Lhooq on January 15, 2013

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Photos of a previous incarnation of last weekend’s performance (all photos by Alex Ahn and used with permission)

Last weekend, I took up the vanguard of #YOLO culture and beat the shit out of my friend, while force-feeding her raw intestines, spitting wine in her eyes, and waterboarding her in a pail of goopy milk. For art. For my friend Irina Makarova’s performance art, specifically.

It wasn’t until a few days after I’d glibly agreed to assist her that I started to re-think my decision to publically play a character straight out of Saw VII: The Dominatrix of Doom. But it was too late: a large gallery in Tribeca had already agreed to host it. The intestines, I was told, were on their way.

I wanted to back out. I couldn’t.

So I comforted myself with the idea that I was merely an assistant — and that my lack of creative control meant I was absolved of culpability if the art kids curled their lips and declared it to be stupid.

When people asked me what the work was “about,” I deferred the task to my friend. “It’s her piece, she should explain it herself,” I murmured, while shifting into the role of a critic and offering my own analysis (“Maybe it has something to do with that whole épater le bourgeoisie thing … but between us, I think it’s about her relationships with men.”).

But obviously, inwardly, I was terrified about embarrassing myself. I knew that I possessed a degree of agency — enough to ruin everything if I slipped on a stray fish eyeball. (Or, worse, if I started giggling.)

When the evening finally rolled by, I dug up three of the vilest BDSM videos I could find to carefully study the movements and demeanors of the (always flabby, always male) aggressors. Then I bit into an Adderall, and jumped into my first foray into the weird world of over-the-top torture porn performance art in the school of Marina Abramović.

Two minutes before the lights dimmed, my friend grabbed me and hissed, “OMG Richard Kern is here!!” This confused me immensely and put me into a freewheeling thought spiral: Why is underground filmmaker, writer, and photographer Richard Kern here? Why is he interested in seeing me straddle a girl and pistol-whip her with pig organs? Gross. I reeeeally do not want to be part of Kern’s weird fantasy.

Does he wish we were naked? Does he wish I had bigger tits? How do my tits look right now, anyway? Is he “into” this stuff, like, sexually?

Would he be here if we were both men?

Does him being here make this show more “important,” somehow?

I barely had enough time to process his facial expressions before my friend took her position on the floor. That was my cue to start my onslaught of slapping, kicking, and hair-pulling while she whimpered in a fetal position.

We’d practiced how to spit wine in her face without getting it into her eyes. But, while taking a swig from the bottle she’d left against the wall, I was seized by a terrifying paranoia: What if someone puts this on World Star Hip Hop? And files it as “stupid art girls in massive cat fight” under one of their notorious montages of ridiculous brawls?

I accidentally spat wine into her eyes. And then, without really thinking about it, I did it in her face again. For the hell of it.

The room was dead silent, save for a continuous loop of drone music playing. I imagined people from the audience slouching over beers later that night, interpreting the projectile of my spit.

Michelle-Ong-640

They are going to compare this to Abramović and Chris Burden … probably in the same eye roll. And maybe sprinkle in some commentary on Antonin Artaud and the guilty pleasure of watching someone suffer.

I moved on, as if in a trance, to the climax: a stinking bucket that contained an unholy combination of fish heads, pig intestines, and minced beef.

As I brutishly shoved her head into the bucket, I heard someone groan loudly. But what did it mean? Are they grossed out or were they already desensitized and growing bored? Is everyone noticing how badly I need to retouch my hair job?

Luckily, I had just one more thing left to do: sprinkle gold dust on my friend’s nearly unrecognizable body. As I walked in circles — careful not to slip on the entrails at my feet — I felt the Adderall shards twisting in my empty stomach. I was very tired. I worried, are my nails going to smell like pig intestines tomorrow?

And just like that, the spectacle was over.

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  • http://twitter.com/LyricNervt Maria Telò

    OH, wow. Just ridiculous

  • Merv

    desperate for attention much by any means possible??

  • Tk

    Cool!-NOT. There are some great videos of war zones equally entertaining- except people get really killed and babies brains don’t fit back inside the heads anymore. Seriously, what the hell do I care about a display like this- what the hell does anyone care about this- this is pretend, the exhibitionist does it because of a fetish. Perhaps some thought and talent would warrant more of a reaction than a groan. If people leave thinking deeply about this junk then the idea of advancement through arts and science is mere spectacle for the bored. Learn to play chess it becomes much more fun and challenging on Adderall, and hey you never know you just might be the winner…

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Perhaps you should talk to the artist about the intentions of the piece.

      • Tk

        The intention of the piece, – love too- why not ask the artist to write a commentary about her work and we can see how closely the execution is to the intention- in fact that is a good idea and one that could be an interesting discussion- artists intention, understanding and execution of this more than original work of art. Hrag, adding the response of “Perhaps you should talk to the artist about the intentions of the piece” does release you from responsibility of such a poor article, however it undermines Hyperallergic’s job to encourage thoughtful and intelligent dialogue. You can do better than that!

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          We’re always looking for new perspectives (one of my New Years resolutions), and the author approached us about the topic. I see no problem with that. I like the article as it captures the reality of many who participate in performances for their own complex reasons. I think the article is strong, but you can disagree.
          As the comments prove, not everyone agrees with your assessment that it’s a poor article. Perhaps it hits a nerve in you. Also, the reason for my comment is that you were projecting a question that should be directed to the artist at the author. She is writing from her perspective/experience, which is just as valid as anyone else’s.

  • http://www.artatbay.com/ Danny Olda

    Interesting issue about the “culpability” of assistants, etc. Very interesting article.

    • John Redmann

      It is. it sort of makes me wonder if one is really an assistant at that point. It sure does take two to tango right? Granted it wasn’t her idea, it was her friends, but if she took a less serious tone the piece could have been ruined, if she took a more commanding one, who knows.

      I’ve often wondered about the roles of assistants when it comes to making art, there are many instances where it transitions from ‘follow my lead’ to ‘do what you think is best’, at that point the title of assistant doesn’t seem appropriate anymore.

      • http://www.artatbay.com/ Danny Olda

        Like you said, “it takes two to tango”.

        However, I think regardless of the amount of autonomy an assistant may have, while they’re not creatively responsible for the performance, they definitely have a ethical responsibility. At least for their own actions. Not that Michelle did anything wrong here.

        • http://twitter.com/MichelleLHOOQ Michelle Lhooq

          I think ‘culpability’ is a good way to put it; my line about being absolved of responsibility was merely a conceit that I told myself in the beginning, but obviously knew wasn’t true. (I acknowledge this later on.)

          John: I agree with you that the role of assistants in art isn’t one that is talked about much. Would’ve been so rad if the guy who’d shot Burden had written a first-person like this.

  • chio

    could you please share what the intention of the piece was? because of
    the tone of the text, because of the gloves worn by the ‘assistant’
    during the performance and because nothing indicates the artists is
    really trying to say something other than get attention, it´s very easy
    to disregard the piece as meaningless. but i´m interested in knowing
    your take on it, i value a lot of the ideas presented in hyperallergic.
    thanks.

    • http://twitter.com/MichelleLHOOQ Michelle Lhooq

      hey chio! i chose not to include a takeaway point about this performance for a few reasons: i dont think a work of art needs to have an easily digestible “point” to it in order to be interesting; in fact, ambiguity and contradiction is what makes some of the best stuff so great. second, although the artist’s intention is certainly important, it shouldn’t define the piece.

      and finally, what was interesting to me while participating in this was the silliness of the thoughts that were going through my head while engaging in something so-called “controversial.” my intention was to kind of deflate some of the high-minded seriousness and “but what does it MEAN” approach that many people come to performance art with.

      in hindsight, i shouldve taken off those damn gloves.

      • chio

        hey michelle,

        thanks for your reply!

        i think given the fact that this is a performance piece and therefore happens in real time and is ephemeral by nature, you needed to give a bit more of back story to give it justice (the artist´s intention) i agree with what you say about ambiguity and contradiction but in this case all i see is degradation, not much else. i am quite sure the gold dust is supposed to add an element of ambiguity but it fails to come across as that, maybe because of the photo. i do think it is unfair to judge a performance piece only from photos of it but it´s all i have here, maybe a video would have helped, also to sense the energy of bot performers.

        i could definitely see that was your intention when writing the piece but there´s a thin line that i think you might have crossed between taking some of the seriousness away from the act and making it feel like you didn´t care at all about your participation in it.

        i think there can be beautiful images in rawness, in pain, in endurance performances that i don´t find here but again, it could be the photos and how they were taken.

        great to have this conversation with you!

        chio

        • http://twitter.com/MichelleLHOOQ Michelle Lhooq

          there are videos that are linked to the text, but maybe not clearly enough. here they are! http://vimeo.com/57423113 http://vimeo.com/57424790

          • chio

            yeah, just saw it, thanks… it doesn´t work for me visually, i think details are so important, the plastic really bothers me (on the floor, the gloves, the buckets)-one of the things i value about twentieth century european theater centered in the body was the choice of objects and how it was understood that each object used in a piece was in many ways a character and added (or subtracted) from it. the best part for me was the singing at the end, it´s a clear example that i don´t need to understand it all (i don´t understand the language she sings in) but it helps in the texture/atmosphere of the piece.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I wouldn’t be surprised if the space asked for the plastic. I’ve been involved in performances where the space dictates some terms, sometimes last minute.

          • chio

            me too and i wouldn´t be surprised either but there´s ways to make it all visually coherent-maybe black plastic could have been used instead. i was not talking only about the floor plastic though.but also the gloves and the buckets.

  • uffthefluff

    Good questions all.

  • Ivanka

    I do wonder why, for a piece that revolves around the messiness of intestines and wine and the act of enduring being smeared with it, the scene was set with plastic on the floor, plastic gloves for the assistant and a plastic bucket for the intestines.
    Very fabricated and it seems like the act was just a practice taking place in any corner that would have it. Which is totally ok but does not make a good topic for an article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Balhatain Brian Sherwin

    I think your friend needs to come up with something a bit more fresh. Perhaps rub feces on her face? Wait… that has already been done. Perhaps have the hog sliced open above her so that the guts fall upon her head as she fingers a hole that has been sliced into a leg of lamb. In all seriousness though, this would have been shocking in 1970. Not so shocking now. Nothing is shocking. .

  • http://twitter.com/Graydancer Graydancer

    Full disclosure: I have a degree in dance and have been involved in producing performance art pieces at places like St. Mark’s & PS122 in New York, the Kennedy Center & Dance Workshop in D.C., and many other less-well-known venues.

    I also am currently an alternative sexuality educator/performer/activist, and so I straddle the line between the two communities you talk about in this article.

    I find it interesting that you talk about the male gaze of Kern affects you (“does he wish my breasts were bigger”) and yet fail to acknowledge your own use of judgmental stereotypes (“always flabby”, “vilest”) to do “research”. While I heartily support your idea that art doesn’t have to be “about” anything, I disagree with your interpretation of what BDSM is about. The key element is consent, and the fact is that there is a wealth of female, male, trans, and fluid-gendered bdsm porn, performance, and writings (both fiction and prose).

    Would you have felt the same way if instead of Kern it had been Barbara Nitke or Michel Serchuk who was watching? Did you bother looking for female-on-female bdsm by people like Claire Adams, or read any of the writings of feminist kinksters like Tristam Taormino or Madison Young? Perhaps visit the website of her Femina Potens gallery, or look into the history of things like the Seattle Erotic Art Festival?

    I’m not saying that any of these things would have changed your mind at all. But your cited research on BDSM is roughly the equivalent of someone saying “Sure, I know about performance art, I watched the Pirates of Penzance on TV.”

    So while the performance art side of me acknowledges the value of the piece, the kink educator side has to object to conflating any part of what you did with BDSM except in terms of consent, which is the essential element in any kind of power exchange.

    Oh, and I applaud your use of gloves & plastic. One of my mentors, the dance videographer/artist Douglas Rosenberg, told me about a performance piece he saw long ago as an undergrad in San Francisco, where a man literally had intercourse with a frozen turkey. Unprotected. And got salmonella.

    Safer sex, safer art, whatever the boundaries.

    • http://twitter.com/liamadrain Liam Drain

      “Safe art”… The discipline part of BDSM is definitely coming through here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.ketchum Steven Ketchum

    It looks like non-committal Viennese Actionist work.

    It’s entertaining reading the kind of mundane concerns of making this kind of work (how do my boobs look, will I smell later), but I don’t see the meaningful takeaway from this. Should I be looking for one?

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      I think my motivation for publishing this was more as a work of writing that uses art and explores it in another way. It’s not as much about the art work per se, but about the writing from within the work. The part about the World of Hip Hop really resonated with me since I know of a number of incidents where artists have been attacked online because of works. For me it raised the anxieties of working in this vein, particularly when it isn’t your project but someone elses. I hope you find something that resonates with you, like I did.

      • http://www.facebook.com/steven.ketchum Steven Ketchum

        Thanks for responding Hrag. I see your point and it’s an interesting view to try to capture.

        Trying to capture that side, however, seems to have some risks. If one reads an article looking to get to the heart of the artwork (or intestines, guts, blood…) then this point of view doesn’t help to establish that. It could feel fresh and different, or superficial.

        I admire you trying to keep an open editorial voice. I also still have a difficult time understanding why this piece got covered.

  • Irina Makarova

    I would just like to say that I appreciate everyone’s comments and there is nothing healthier when it comes to art than a discussion of opposing thoughts. Now we have a conversation. When I asked Michelle to assist me I was really concerned about the fact that she has never done this sort of thing before. I was wondering what was going on in her thoughts during the performance. A number of people asked me as well and said she did a spectacular job. And not “job” really, she wasn’t playing a character but conveying a feeling, an opposing force. Her role in the piece was extremely critical and had a lot of pressure on her. I found this article to be a very insightful and well written text. Showed me her perspective.

    Regarding the plastic, well we couldn’t ruin the space’s floor, so it was a practical decision. The same goes for the gloves. I personally know that it is impossible for me to get sick and I am willing to take a risk, but I didn’t wish to subject Michelle to that.

    I would be happy to address any questions. You can reach me at irinavmak@gmail.com

    Cheers!

    Irina

  • http://twitter.com/convoskarsgard misch

    Im weird about meat, what i see wouldnt necessarily disturb cos art whatever people decide, i guess im fairly passive…but the smell of raw meat, nope i wud groan, n i even eat meat. N i don’t know much bdsm porn but you kno, maybe flabby guys like hugs too. I find it strange a sex educator arty person would react to this dedcription, as i think that the lady might kno much about bdsm, so can only go off whats at the local video nasty store. Anyway, when u love someone, n they happen to have a flabby belly, well it changes ur view, so you,

    • http://twitter.com/convoskarsgard misch

      Might like bellied hairy men, anyway, i meant she might be as informed as the sex educator guy, anyway,wif the medical pics on our cigarettes here in austrAlia,its like a horror movie. N about the guy wif the turkey, maybe thats whAt turns me off meat. I dont kno if its an urban myth but i read in the paper once that someone found a condom in a chicken, so these things n more make meat eating a bit confronting. I wud be more entertained by hairy flabby men taking to a car with sledge hammers, maybe it cud be of dead chickens, im not sure, debasement does get a bit selfish n jaded

      • http://twitter.com/convoskarsgard misch

        So do chickens actually. I agree with the assistant, she shud be to blame. Buti wouldnt worry sbout the kern guy at all cos i dont kno who he is n if i did id probably not care cos im not impressed by much. Id probably think he is up himself n pick up a steak n thro it at him…no, no chickn or pork actually, raw, birdflu nstuff, seriously…oh what about just hugging a flabby hary bondage man? My two cents…

        • http://twitter.com/convoskarsgard misch

          Oh hell, i meant she, the assistant, might not kno as much as sex educator man, anyway, go give a hairy flabby bondage man a hug, it is less selfish n with luck, less smelly, n maybe more ambiguous. Btw chess is kinda boring too, cos i always or argue about castling, maybe a game of uno…its less pretentious…and has more colours than chess…

          • http://twitter.com/convoskarsgard misch

            Oh bloody hell, i meant, michelle, the assistant, is not to blame…

  • http://www.facebook.com/brianmoz Brian Fernandes-Halloran

    She is being so honest about her experience! How often do you read something like this?

    There is no benefit in criticizing a performance described this way. The writing is about struggling with her role in the performance and does not propose to describe what the viewing of it was like.

  • http://twitter.com/liamadrain Liam Drain

    I hope this catches on and becomes the new cool way all the rich collectors decorate their mansions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lynne-Jaquith-Lowe/1027116546 Lynne Jaquith Lowe

    I realize that art is subjective…but really?!

  • Alessandro Rolandi

    it is interesting to record the stream of consciousness of the assistent-writer-author, because it changes the perception for once….it s not about the performance, or the artist, but rather the assistent…who is also the writer; as it does not seem like the text is “planned”, I quite like the friction and the incoherence which happens when the three experiences are simply reported together: the one of the artist, that of the assistent and that of the writer (the only one implicit);
    reading the post put me in an uncomfortable zone where several issues are at stake….this is a good place to be when reading abut art

  • Den Hickey

    Do I really have to say this? DO NOT COMPARE BDSM TO MURDER. It is not only inaccurate, it misscharacterizes and trivializes bdsm relationships and play and harms an often misunderstood and persecuted minority.

    • Den Hickey

      And if you missed it.. I am specifically talking about the reference to the Saw movie series.

  • Guest

    As an artist considering breaking into performance art, the number of negative, hyper-critical, and pompous comments here worries me. Why do people always expect the expected? “Here is my art, here’s the point, the end.” Doesn’t anyone wonder what it would be like to BE the artist/assistant? To be there, making the art? That’s why I appreciate this article. It gives us a feel of what it’s like to be part of something intense, risky, and exciting: performance art!

    I agree too with Michelle: sometimes ambiguity IS the point. I think it’s odd that these “art people” are supposed to be open-minded, but if they encounter a work of art whose meaning isn’t immediately apparent, they dismiss it as meaningless. I would venture to say that some artists make ambiguity the point because they are playing on the sad truth that most people need their hands held with everything spelled out for them in order to validate the work. Get over yourselves, people.

  • http://twitter.com/psychomotikon Robert Egert

    What does it say if you are violating a person but protecting the gallery floor?

  • http://www.facebook.com/zhenesse.heinemann Zhenesse Heinemann

    It was Stelarc. That was part of his Suspension series in the 1980’s. A bit of Googling would tell you more. Try suspension, East Village, hooks – all the things you mentioned. His work is about the boundary/threshold of the body and more recently it’s ability to intersect with technology/science etc. He is still working and, in my opinion making stunning discoveries.

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