Things did and didn't happen at Saturday's performance of Karen Finley's "We Keep Our Victims Ready" at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater.
A group calling itself the Traditional Values Coalition, which had threatened to protest the show, did not show up for the 8 p.m. opening (though they had earlier reserved the right to show up for Sunday's closing performance.)
Director Peter Sellars did show up at 7, to give an informal, loosely structured introduction to Finley's work and what makes it tick.
Like a time-bomb.
Sellars was hoping the protesters would be there, he said, because "that's Amurka," where Finley can do her thing and they can do theirs. But only a lone representative from the Revolutionary Communist Party stood outside, interested only, it turned out, in hawking the group's newspaper. And, of course, Finley showed up. As did an enthusiastic audience that packed the theater.
Everyone, it seems, was eager to see what it was in Finley's show that got so much political dander up in Washington last year, heating up congressional debate on the content of publicly-funded art and prompting National Endowment for the Arts chief John Frohnmayer to veto a grant recommended for Finley. Also vetoed were grants to performance artists Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck. The four--the so-called "NEA Four"--are suing the endowment.
In the light of so much glare, "We Keep Our Victims Ready" seems nearly tame. Not tame as in lame, but on the barometric scale of potential offensiveness.
Divided into three parts and some introductory banter ("In case there are critics here, this is my prologue. . . ."), the show exhibits a kind of purposeful schizophrenia. It careens from deliberately meek and nebbishy one moment, to forceful and shocking the next, as a way of jump-starting reality.
Finley's reality, that is, in which she exposes her body and through it all the nastiness that we as a society in deep denial would rather sweep under the proverbial rug. You may or not espouse her theories but the artist's only responsibility is to wake us up.
Take it or leave it.
"Usually, I feel cynical and cocky and very arrogant," she mused, purring like a Cheshire Cat through a prologue punctuated by entirely too many "you knows." "I'm not jaded. I haven't done BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music). I just wanted everybody to see what got (John) Sununu so mad."
Well, that part of it is plain enough. And cynical and cocky are just around the bend, even in something as overt and blunt as the opening piece, "Life of Lies," in which we visit a museum where there is no art and the restrooms are locked, lest the toilets or the act of urination be mistaken for art. "The government pays for that, you know . . . . "
Aside from the ready reference to an earlier NEA controversy (the congressional fuss over photographer Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ"), the chitchat, which descends into a discussion of her own menstrual and bathroom habits, doesn't get an A for subtle, but does comes around for a graceful kill, and lays the groundwork for Round 2 of 3--the infamous chocolate-smeared woman centerpiece, for which all else is mere hors d'oeuvre .
The title of that segment is "Why Can't This Veal Calf Walk?," but it goes far beyond looking at the vicious treatment of calves raised for dinner (almost an afterthought) to scrutinize the casual, infinitely more pernicious cruelty shown women expected to cook it.
Here, Finley marries blistering to comic, carefully balancing the two in a sequence of free association wherein she pours Jell-O down her brassiere and later turns her body into something of a decorated chocolate sundae.
This starts benignly enough with more intimacies with the audience, a passing out of recycled Karen Finley T-shirts, a tossing out of candy and then the taking on of much darker, inward issues.
Sellars had said earlier that Finley is an artist "who constantly tries to test everything against her own physicality." Nowhere more than here, where she uses her body concretely, as a tool to make a point, and symbolically, heaping abjectness upon it to emblematize the psychological mutilation such treatment produces. ("I own my body, but it's never been mine.")
As she smears on the chocolate, clad in red bandanna, galoshes and panties, she holds a cauterizing iron to the mind, pouring out statements on love and the rationalization of harassment and abuse--artistic, sexual, emotional, political or other--like acid on silk.
What makes the piece so potent (like the final monologue in her otherwise sitcommy "The Theory of Total Blame" seen at L.A. Contemporary Exhibitions two years ago) are the murky glimpses we keep catching between the lines of her personal odyssey. As solid and unfragile as Finley looks, looks are deceiving.
"I was not expected to be talented." Those words and feelings don't spring from a vacuum. They are the gathering storm that wells up from deep beneath the word-play and pronouncements. It has an aching ring of truth.
From this point until the end (Act III is called "Departure"), the nerves are exposed as well as the body, which is eventually covered up again, and the thoughts grow darkest. "I wish I could relieve you of your life. . . . I wish I could relieve you of your death. . . ."
This solo turn could only have ended in this chilling whimper. A bang would have been redundant.
'We Keep Our Victims Ready'
A one-woman performance piece written, directed and performed by Karen Finley at UCLA's Wadsworth Theater. Sets and lights Karen Finley. Creative consultant Michael Overn.