Some of the most memorable experiences that I’ve had with art have come about by accident. Last Thursday was one such experience.
After having trekked to Chelsea to see Magic for Beginners at PPOW Gallery, which was totally mobbed and therefore un-seeable (note to self, must return), I found myself weaving in and out of shows with reckless abandon during the Chelsea Art Walk event until encountering a group show at a gallery that I had never heard of before, Ramis Barquet Gallery.
No matter how many openings I go to or articles/reviews/advertisements I see, New York is magical in that there always appears to be a self-regenerating list of galleries I never knew existed before. In any event, I wandered in to the darkness seeking the work of Kate Gilmore, whose name I recognized from the group show artist list. In a back room her 2005 video “Cake Walk” was playing. But to the left of the video, in another room, there was some type of commotion. For a moment I thought that Gilmore was performing live, and the video was a projection of her performance. So I pushed my way through the crowd to find, well, a topless woman in a bikini giving lap dances. Not Kate Gilmore in fact, but Myla DalBesio, performing “Young Money.”
My initial confusion was quickly converted into a bizarre seduction of the scene. Now, I know how this is going to sound, so bear with me here. It was a small room with a chair and a Lil’ Wayne song playing on repeat. An assistant was wiping down the chair and asking if anyone wanted to sit in it. I was surprised by how few takers there were, yet there was something about the artist. She seemed dangerous, quite frankly, and perhaps drunk, on acid, neither, or maybe both.
She was opening champagne bottles with her mouth, pouring it all over herself, rolling around on the floor in champagne-soaked dollar bills, occasionally throwing or kicking the numerous empty bottles.
During the time I was there at least one of the bottles shattered. Above her was an appropriately cheesy LED sign which was blinking a message about money. There was a palpable sense of instability in the room, a threatening air, that at any minute she could fling one of those bottles at our heads. So naturally I decided I had to sit in the chair.
The power dynamic that is normally present in such situations was absent; there was no exchange of money for services.* I was a freely participating audience member. Yet it was overwhelmingly awkward to be in a gallery in Chelsea, with gallery lighting, with a woman’s breasts in my face and a room crammed with art-goers looking at the spectacle. She took my glasses off and put them into my shirt. And then she poured champagne on my crotch in a perfect piss-stain shape. Awkward!
DalBesio, kneeling on a champagne-soaked pillow, kept staring into my eyes with a look that alternated between trying to connect with me, and a commanding gaze of resilience and domination. At the end of the ritual she made the sign of the cross on my forehead with her thumb. In a daze of breasts and champagne-crotch I stood up and returned to the relative safety of the wall.
I started thinking about the POWHIDA performance I had seen the night before. About how calculated and tame that experience was in comparison (for better or worse). Yet it also made me realize that POWHIDA had a very measured vapidity and an effectively depressed sense of mediocrity to it. In other words, very different and discrete experiences.
“Young Money” also recalled the intensity of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” (2010). There were similarly aligned abilities to forge nonverbal connections between two individuals. Yet obviously DalBesio’s connections were a bit more charged, at least sexually.
On the one hand, it would be easy to write this off as a “lap-dance spectacle,” that I, as a mostly-straight (and recently single) male am expected to enjoy/exploit/cover. And that I took the bait hook, line and sinker. Yet beyond the potent sexuality, I suspected something else was at play. Something a little more interesting than the one-liner. So I decided to track down the artist to understand her thinking about the work.
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Man Bartlett: How did the idea for “Young Money” come about? From looking at your site, it seems like a bit of a departure from your previous performance work.
Myla DalBesio: I have been signed to Ford as a model for years, and after spending so much time on that side of the fashion industry, one kind of starts to view the body as a commodity. Personality and talent certainly play a role in the successes of a model, but when it comes down to brass tacks, it’s only your appearance and what you can do with your body that matters. In theory, it’s not unlike the position of a stripper. In both situations you are selling an image, an idea of yourself, and that’s how you have to work it, regardless of your true, internal identity. That’s where the first ideas for the performance originated.
My previous performance work has all been site specific, so in the creation of each I had to take environmental aspects into consideration. “Young Money” may seem like a departure because it was the first time I’ve worked in a gallery setting, which allowed me a blank canvas, so to speak.
In truth, “Young Money” carried many of the same elements that are inherent in my performances: the requirement of viewers to participate and challenge their personal boundaries of comfort and appropriate social interaction, the creation of a communal experience in which we can confront questions of our own morality and desires, and what drives us to act on them. I’m often aiming to expose people to parts of themselves that they may never have acknowledged before.
MB: What was the message on the LED sign? I seem to remember it saying something like “If you ain’t got no money you ain’t got no home … “
MD: You’re close! It actually says “If you ain’t go no money take your broke ass home.” I was inspired by a similar sign that hangs on the wall of Pumps, a small strip joint in Bushwick. It challenges this idea of the poor sad stripper, being objectified and taken advantage of by the big bad men. Who is really being taken advantage of here? Are you sure it’s not the person forking over all their cash for a fleeting moment spent with a total stranger? Is it not the person who feels he/she has to pay for this kind of fulfillment and pleasure? I love that it puts it all out on the table, like “Listen, I am only interested in you if you pay me. I don’t really like you.”
My sign, by the way, is for sale. As are the shoes and swimsuit I wore, and the money used in the performance.
MB: I was intimidated at first to sit in the chair to receive a “dance.” And I put that in quotes because what I experienced was more of a hybrid between traditional lap-dance and some sort of ritual. At the end you made the sign of the cross on my forehead. Can you talk about that, and how it relates to the “underlying sexual perversions within all humans” that you mention in your bio?
MD: Evangelical Christians often participate in this activity known as “faith healing,” a ritualistic, communal practice that involves “laying hands” on the sick and needy. Through this, the Holy Spirit is supposedly invoked, and they are divinely healed and cleansed of their sins. There’s this amazing documentary that was made in the 1970s called Marjoe, which follows the former evangelical preacher Marjoe Gortner as he exposes the deception of these practices and others performed by the Christian ministry.
In it, he explains how much of the evangelical tent revival moment — comparable these days to the phenomenon of the “Mega-church” — was a farce. Gortner details how preachers use people’s own fear and insecurities as a tool to extract money from them. They enforced this idea that the more money you give to the church, the more devoted you are. The more you sacrifice to God, the closer you are to Him. Then they exploited their followers for their own monetary gain. I was greatly inspired by this, and the parallels between the goals of these preachers and those of strippers. They prey on the same type of insecurities in people, benefiting from their weaknesses. So, during your “dance” I was attempting to carry out a similar ritual, but in a more sincere fashion. With each of the “sitters,” I tried my hardest to forge a genuine connection. I strove to hold each individual there until I felt that I had given them a piece of myself and received one in return.
MB: Are there artists that you’re looking at? Who are your inspirations?
MD: I am constantly inspired by everything I see. I think Ryan Trecartin is a genius, his current show at PS1 is absolutely mind-blowing. Vanessa Beecroft is amazing, Cindy Sherman (who isn’t inspired by her, honestly), Forcefield, Assume Vivid Astro Focus, Richard Kern, David Wojnarowicz, Miranda July and, of course, Marina Abramović.
Marilyn Minter is gifted, participating in this show with her was a true honor. Oof, this list could go on forever. A few years ago I had the pleasure of working with Roe Ethridge, and I’ve loved him ever since. The way he edits together his photo sets is absurdly brilliant. Also, working with Ryan McGinley was a treat, as I’ve always admired his ability to capture youth and beauty in a way that exudes such energy, and my dear friend (and talented photographer) iO Tillett Wright has pushed me to examine gender and sexual identity in a completely new way, , and my boyfriend, Christopher Harth (a land artist and metal worker), drives me to take greater and greater risks in my work. He taught me nearly everything I know about photography, and his support is unfathomable. He shot all my photos from the performance. What truly inspires me though, especially when it comes to performance and video work, is music.
MB: Despite your intentions, some will read “Young Money” as exploitive and/or anti-feminist. Where do you place your work, specifically “Young Money,” in relationship to feminist art and practice?
MD: I own my body, it is mine and I refuse to allow people to dictate what I can and cannot do with it. I have the courage and conviction to use it as a tool in provoking a greater thought process in the minds of individuals, and there is nothing anti-feminist about that sentiment at all. It would be naive to ignore the fact that some attendees didn’t pick up on the deeper meaning. Were there viewers who only cared to stare at my breasts and who left thinking of it as nothing but a good time? Certainly. And yes, that does make me feel taken advantage of. But it was my choice to put myself in that situation, no one forced me into it. I am willing to give of myself for the growth of others, and that is sacrifice, not exploitation.
Any lingering uncomfortable feelings that I experience are all a part of my own personal growth process.That said, I am reluctant to categorize myself as a feminist artist, because my practice encompasses much more than that label can offer.
MB: Lastly, what’s next?
MD: Everything, forever. Look for me during Performa [this year]. In the meantime, I will be continuing work on my photo series, Holy Ghost, and a new site-specific sculpture series.
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Mylia DalBesio’s “Young Money” was a one-day only performance at Ramis Barquet Gallery (532 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on Thursday, July 28 from 6 – 8pm.
* FULL DISCLOSURE: Author admits to having been to three strip clubs during the course of his life: in Philadelphia on his 18th birthday, Las Vegas for a bachelor party (c. 2007) and in Thailand in 2009.