Dawn Kasper's first solo show out of graduate school, at Circus Gallery in 2007, was titled simply "Life and Death," which gives you some idea of the scope of her inquiry. Working in video, installation and performance primarily, she's made works exploring "Evil," "Love" and "Truth." She's currently working on a group called the "On" series — as in, "On Forgetting," "On Religion" "On Existence" — and another she's dubbed "Clues to the Meaning of Life."
She is an artist preoccupied, in other words, by the Big Questions, either unwilling or unable to home in on a more reasonable set of parameters. Her works, as a result, are generally quite messy: materially, thematically, emotionally. They leave stains and scars — sometimes literally; "residue" is a word she uses often — and rarely come to tidy conclusions. The effect for the viewer, however, can be exhilarating.
In conversation as well as in performance — and the line between the two appears none too distinct — Kasper has an eager, frenetic tone, the air of one struggling to get her head around a problem, continually tipping between revelation and bafflement. Thirty-three years old, with short, dark hair, expressive features and the intensity of a natural performer, she speaks as one who has too many thoughts in her head at once.
"I have so many ideas and so many interests," she says, "always swirling, and a short attention span and, oh my God — overwhelming sometimes."
Speaking in the bedroom that doubles as her studio in the Koreatown apartment she shares with a roommate, she describes her approach in quasi-scientific terms: She begins with a question or a hypothesis and undertakes a series of actions to answer that question, to prove or disprove that hypothesis. (The majority of her work is performance-based, or else — in the case of installations and photographs — generated out of her performances, though she makes drawings as well.)
The series for which she first became known in L.A., begun while in grad school in the New Genres program at UCLA , was rooted in the darkest of questions.
"I wanted to know what I looked like dead," she says.
She'd been obsessed with horror films, serial killers and Weegee's tabloid photographs, making videos and installations that mimicked crime scene investigations. After a while she began to use her own body, staging live dioramas that simulated her demise in disturbingly and sometimes absurdly gory ways.
"There was a motorcycle accident and a car crash," she says. "I fell down some stairs. I died in a pond. There was a boating accident, separate from the pond."
She was looking to learn something about death — and did. Indeed, she emerged from the experience, as she tells it, fairly shaken. "On a personal level, I got paranoid that I was attracting death, because some of my friends actually died in that time and I hadn't had that happen before," she says. "That really, really affected me."
She took a break from death to make the "Love" series, which, despite its happier associations, was not for the faint of heart either. In one performance, she branded the word "love" onto the skin of her inner bicep. (She followed with "truth" on the other bicep several years later.) In another, she carved the shape of a heart into the middle of her chest, an unsettlingly visible expression, one could say, of wearing her heart on her sleeve. The scars of both remain.
In these and other body modification performances, she follows close on the heels of performance artists such as Marina Abramović, Gina Pane and Ron Athey, whose extreme, ritual-likeactions are undertaken as a means of interrogating the limits of the body, exploring philosophical questions of existence and triggering strong reactions in the viewer.
"I do it so other people don't have to," Kasper says when discussing "On Religion," a recent performance in which she flogged herself while playing recordings of Buddhist chants and Alan Watts lectures. She went in hoping to achieve some understanding of penance and absolution, body modification and S&M practices, and underwent an experience of transcendence — of leaving her body and returning "clean."
"It's hard to convey that," she says. "But I think some people felt it, in that they felt for me, they felt it was possible, what I was saying when I talked about it."
With "Life and Death," the 2007 exhibition, Kasper closed the door on the "Death Scene" series (though she intends to produce a book from the photographs). Her recent performances are more abstract, less spectacle-driven, closer in spirit to Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, but fueled by the same tone of urgent inquiry. They tend to involve Kasper moving intently between miscellaneous collections of objects, donning and shedding costumes, shifting between various personas, telling stories, sometimes ranting and performing a variety of ritualistic actions. She refers to the works as "visual poems."
In "On Existence," a performance at Sea and Space Explorations in February, she moved about the gallery for two hours, gradually assembling a drum kit.
"The drum kit was like a metaphor for my existence," she says. "Who am I to say that these things are going to come together? Like, if I do certain things, will I be successful? I wish it could be simple, like music, but once you start playing music, it's not simple, it's confusing."
(Kasper is also part of the collective of artists behind Human Resources, a new Chinatown gallery space devoted to performance-based work. It opened May 1.)
Though much of Kasper's work is channeled through the mantle of the self — her own speculations and her own experiences — the effect, surprisingly, is far from narcissistic. She speaks repeatedly of "giving" to the viewer, "offering of herself." This is nowhere more explicit than in her most recent series, "Private Performances for People in Their Homes," which are just what they sound like: performances staged for individual friends, tailored to their own particular circumstances.
As Kasper moves around the clutter of her provisional bedroom studio — between the images stored on the computer at her desk, the piles of drawings blanketing her bed and the boxes of props piled up around the floor — reeling through accounts of her work, her thoughts, her experiences and intentions, I can't help but feel something very similar is transpiring here, only in her home rather than mine.