Nine o’clock: the stage lights dim and a spotlight illuminates a stuffed “hero” sandwich the size of a small sofa. The opening melody of Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” — hit theme song from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome — fills BAM’s Fishman Space. A face peeks out from between the parted curtains, and then a vividly strange figure appears, dancing in a flesh-toned spandex bodysuit to a wave of delighted laughter. So begins Soggy Glasses: A Homo’s Odyssey, Dynasty Handbag’s first evening-length performance piece, which premiered this past Friday night.
The performance persona of artist Jibz Cameron, Dynasty Handbag possesses a physical humor that’s instantaneous and irresistible. It wasn’t her gigantic fannypack or hairspray-tortured coif that made the audience laugh; the smart absurdity of Dynasty’s gestures and facial expressions have an effect akin to Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick, mixed with the gorgeous grotesquerie of the late, great Divine — and a nimbleness that is all Cameron’s own. Soggy Glasses, a feminist-queer interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey, is the most recent of in a series of Cameron’s work that re-envisions canonical male epics (Hell in A Handbag took on Dante’s Inferno; Vertitigo skewed Hitchcock’s tough-guy detective story through an absurdist female lens). Soggy Glasses satirizes both Homer’s master narrative and the third-wave feminist suspicion that leads Cameron to critique it. The subtlety of this critique-on-critique is part of what makes her work so funny.
The show consists of Dynasty conversing with animated characters on a video screen — all of which are drawn and voiced by Cameron — as she makes a perilous journey through her own internal organs. Her vessel is the paper container that formerly held the giant hero sandwich. The creatures and places she encounters include a cave guarded by a hipster would-be cyclops (“I’m not a cyclops, I just present that way”), an angel guide in the form of a disembodied Yoko Ono, and a lisping snake who runs an artist’s residency in her colon (the “Artist Colon-y”). The story is dense with pop culture references, many of them decidedly masculine: at one point, Cameron narrates Dynasty’s progress in a fake Werner Herzog accent; at another, “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath knells our anti-hero’s imminent failure at making a great work of art. This thicket of references brings up a question: how much of an artist’s sensibility is informed by the culture that she lives in, and how much of it grows from her own organic strangeness? In Soggy Glasses, Cameron’s singular oddity interweaves freely with popular media, to pleasurably disorienting effect.
Humor is famously one of the most difficult valences to define, perhaps because much of what we find hilarious hinges on real suffering. Dynasty ultimately fails in Soggy Glasses to make the heroic return that Odysseus made, but she triumphs in her own failure with a fist-pumping reprise of “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” Throughout the performance, she meditates on her own depression, loneliness, and hopelessness. These reflections serve self-mythologizing and self-parodying purposes, but they also speak to an authentic experience of pain. Cameron’s ventriloquism put me in mind of Robin Williams, whose recent death is an example of the darkness that often accompanies comic genius. Dynasty’s tacit examination of suffering allowed me, as an audience member, to trust her while facing the lived experience of despair. This gave the comedy a depth that lasted after the laughter had died away.
I think of Dynasty’s theater-of-the-self as a solid 21st-century evolution of the camp sensibility defined by Susan Sontag in her well-known 1964 essay on the subject. Cameron’s seamless performance bears all of the wit, seduction, and extravagance that Sontag cited as necessary for the elusive creation of camp, but she breaks from Sontag’s dictum that camp be “disengaged, depoliticized — or at least apolitical.” Cameron’s handling of contemporary politics — around gender specifically — reveals the true absurdity of political and social oppression, without ignoring how high the stakes really are.
In the piece’s climactic penultimate moment, the capsizing of Dynasty’s sandwich-boat is dramatized by a clip from the blockbuster The Perfect Storm. Cameron pauses in the midst of the catastrophe to note that Linda Greenlaw, the female swordfishing captain, is portrayed in the film primarily through her codependent love relationship with “caretaking George Clooney.” This is one of numerous instances of Cameron showing the elisions of real female heroism that happen in pop culture texts — and if they happen in pop culture, they certainly happen in other realms. The last 50 years of feminist and queer performance art, music, film, and literature have given us many individuals who call out these elisions with intelligent humor, from John Waters to Bikini Kill to Wayne Koestenbaum to Big Freedia. If Soggy Glasses is any indication, Dynasty Handbag is an important force in the visioning of what we, as a culture, consider avant-garde, heroic, and hilarious.
Soggy Glasses: A Homo’s Odyssey took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Pl, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) on October 17 as part of the performance art showcase Brooklyn Bred.