Moles have been underrated by art history. They don’t flaunt it like baroque peacocks, glow like medieval dragons, or bask in contradictions like post-modern minotaurs. But by burrowing tunnels, they blaze new paths and create alternate worlds under our feet. And when so much of performance art is about burrowing into another world for a moment, the mole suddenly becomes an apt totem. The artist Philippe Quesne has finally given the mole the starring role it deserves in “Bivouac” for Performa 13.
The piece began with audience members meeting up in Carroll Gardens to board a charter bus. All of us sat next to our friends and were soon reliving the field trip experience, poised in excited anticipation about what we were going to see. The bus blasted eerie music. (A comparison to the credits from a Simpsons Halloween special from years ago might not be high-brow but is accurate.) The bus took us to a series of vantage points on the Red Hook waterfront where we saw the Statue of Liberty, the skyline, and the river’s rolling waves.
What does this have to do with moles? Well, someone suddenly noticed an oversized mole on the dimly-lit Red Hook street. It was motioning for the bus to enter into an abandoned warehouse. We all felt like extras in a horror movie looking out at some overgrown mutant rodent. The bus rammed its way through a narrow opening in the building. When the bus finally made it in, the mole was standing there, surrounded by fog. It was a sublimely eerie visual. Bus windows aren’t normally the lens through which you see performance art.
Audience members were then invited to step outside the bus into this fogged warehouse landscape. Through the bus window one could watch the crowd slowly grow into the misty space.
Once disembarked from the bus, audience members were invited to soak in the extreme haze of the fog and interact with a few key elements in the installation: the wandering mole, a smoking campfire, a car with headlights shining, and a concert by a haunted blonde playing a theremin.
This extinguished bonfire was pouring mist into the room. It was intriguing to zoom in on this smoldering pit like it was its own living sculpture, tracing the different gnarly shapes of the wood, taking in the strange scent of the fog. At times it smelled like maple syrup.
The parked car in the warehouse had its headlights on full blast. It was an incredible image to see the light shinning through the fog and watching the beams of light interact with the mist. This is an effect Quesne has explored in other work.
The mole wandered around the space.
The final attraction was this theremin concert by a starlet whose facial expressions vacillated between haunted and lost in a trance. She performed several songs — some more minimal and electronic and Kraftwerky. Another tune had a more Latin beat. It was engrossing to watch her activate the theremin’s sound with her hands and how she responded to different songs with different techniques to accentuate the music.
At one point, audience members were invited to run through the space to create footage of a crowd running for Quesne’s project. Like children, we giggled and ran at top speed through this smokey misty warehouse.