Inspired by my crazy adventures as a performer on the road,
this is the story
of two performance artists who cook up the ultimate performance: to kidnap their
billionaire boss...and turn him into the wildest
performance artist the world's ever seen.
I was 16 when I discovered performance artist (or really, über artist) Chris Burden. I’d opened a library book to a black-and-white photo of a young, shirtless man crawling across a nighttime parking lot that was covered in glittering, broken glass. Arms behind his back. Rolling side to side. Getting cut up. My god, I thought.
I turned the page. Another photo: the same man nailed to the back of a Volkswagen. Then another: the man in an art gallery after being shot in the arm by a .22 caliber rifle. Artist Chris Burden, the book said. Something clicked in my brain; at that moment, my idea of what art was—what it could be—was never the same.
I had read some of Conceptual Art’s history, but obviously not much about Performance Art, so the discovery of Chris Burden was a revelation. His work was the first time I’d encountered the idea of a body doing something uncodified—that is, not Dance, Drama, Oratory, Circus, but Other—as art. Chris Burden had, I realized, made up his own art form, and not just once, but over and over again. There was no precedent for his pieces; they’d fallen from the sky, alien, unpredictable, dangerous, primal, silent.
For me, his performances were about suffering. In every photo, Burden was alone, without an audience, and his face was neutral. Nothing forced. No emotional mask. Placid. An Everyman, with whatever pain or discomfort he was feeling suppressed, held captive. This resonated with me, with my own childhood cycles of pain—separation, dispair, guilt, pennance. Burden had been called a Body Artist, but in truth he was a Pain Artist: his suffering encouraged the projection of our pain, our sympathy, even our empathy, onto his waiting countenance.
Burden’s death on May 10, 2015 was a terrible blow, the loss of a hero. I never wanted to emulate him—his work was too perfect and unthinkably painful to emulate—but I chose the same alma mater as his, in part to be “near” him and his history—to perform in the same school art galleries where he had quietly bled, suffocated, cried, and discovered, alone.
When the John White Gallery invited me to perform at Ventura Art Walk in July, 2015, I decided to crawl shirtless across broken windshield glass, just as Burden had in his 1973 piece, Through The Night Softly. Despite my love of his work, I had never done a piece that would be intentionally damaging to me physically—but I needed to know firsthand something of what he had felt, of what he had experienced in his pain.
My wife KayDee and I drove to Ventura, laid out a 12-foot-long swath of broken glass in the gallery’s parking lot, and then lined it on both sides with Matchbox cars—an homage to Burden’s many car-related performances and sculptures.
It was a hot day—about 91 degrees. Sun was blazing.
The piece began. I came running out from behind the gallery and sprinted across the parking lot with a 100-pound steel car door over my head. I used the door as an umbrella, then a racetrack, a seesaw, a drum, and then a stage. I climbed onto it wearing three white tanktops, which I pulled off one by one and threw into the sky like birds, chanting “BURD, BURD, BURD.”
As I chanted “BURD” and pulled off the last shirt, a white seagull landed behind me on the asphalt. The audience and I were stunned. Time slowed. It was Burden, I know it was, in feathered psychopomp regalia.
I walked to the start of the glass farthest from the audience, lay down, and begin to crawl. The asphalt was searing—I later learned it had been between 130 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit—and the grinding of the glass shards was unbearable. I have multiple tattoos, so I know something about persisting through enduring pain, but this was like nothing I had experienced. My chest was being grinded, stabbed, burned—I was on fire with tunnel vision. I had wanted to keep a placid Burden face, but it was impossible, so I submitted to animal cries as I pushed forward, crawling but unable to use my hands on the melting asphalt, the glass cutting my chest like ribbons, brain screaming for me to stop. The white seagull watched me silently from the gallery roof—it was my confessional and our communion. Sweat ran into my eyes and my hands were shaking like crazy. More animal cries escaped—they were uncontrollable, cries for Burden, the cries he had refused to let out back in 1973.
When I reached the last of the glass, I crawled across asphalt, through the car door’s empty window, and emerged out the other side. I stood up, dizzy and weak and shaking from adrenaline. My chest was bright red, mottled, and cut from the asphalt and glass. I looked down and saw glittering shards sticking out of ribs and a line of blood streaming from my elbow.
I picked up a goodbye Matchbox car, kissed it, and chucked it onto the gallery’s roof—but I was too spent. The throw was short—the car rained down from the roof and landed back on the asphalt. I walked to it, kissed it, and threw it again. Again, too short. My arms and legs were rubber. I picked it up once more. Kissed it. Threw it. It flew up and over the roof’s peripet—then nothing. Silence. None of us heard the car land. It never came down—flown into the heavens.
Thank you, Chris Burden. April 11, 1946—May 10, 2015.
Last Saturday I attended UCLA’s West Coast unveiling of Matthew Barney‘s River of Fundament, a 6-hour death-and-reincarnation tale of a writer caught up with Egyptian gods that was inspired by Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel, Ancient Evenings.
Fundament is is an orgiastic adventure in every sense of the term. Egyptian shades of Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Luis Buñuel, Joseph Beuys, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Carolee Schneeman, The Kipper Kids, and The X-Files are smelted down into molten imagination that comes running out of every human orifice to drench viewers in color, carcass, and fuckable cars before a noxious, farting pantheon of dug-up-and-still-decaying Egyptian-god-cadavers eagerly lapping up the leftovers.
The story—whose summary could easily expand to fill a novel all its own—sets a dead Mailer to reincarnate himself three times into different human bodies through the womb of his wife, possibly in a veiled examination of his own success and failings as a writer. Each reincarnation starts with Norman surfacing in an underground sewage river of “fundament.” Soaked in feces, he emerges to slosh up a staircase to his Brooklyn apartment above, where his own funeral wake is in full swing with New York literary types, improvising musicians, and caterers.
Each ascent of the staircase finds the wake winding down further, if not decaying; the party’s culinary centerpiece—a roast pig on a spit, whose tongue is devoured by a sickly-pale Paul Giamatti—is polished off by maggots at the end, while remaining guests fall under hypnagogic spells that have them moaning and chanting, perhaps as a byproduct of the Egyptian magic all around. Meanwhile, the river-and-apartment storyline is paralleled by a second tale, in which Norman is imagined as three automobiles, each of which undergoes its own magnificent transfiguration about town.
Both narratives are interwoven with Egyptian lore, with Norman’s cohorts mapping to Isis, Osiris, Horus, and other gods, and symbolism that is layered impossibly deep: ibises, serpents, vultures, beetles, was scepters, hieroglyphs and cartouches, belled pectorals, daggers, Hathorian cattle and horns, hidden passages both vaginal and excretory, stairwells joining heaven to a shitty hell, and of course, phalli in every shape appear against walls of gold, avalanches of fire, and heads of lettuce.
Mobs of Ph.D. candidates have no doubt already trashed all previous dissertation ideas in favor being the first to publish on Fundament, even though, sadly, not enough has been written about Barney’s latest opus in the press.
Nearly all critics agree that the work is epic in scope, with moments of beauty that match or rival—even if only fleetingly—the most gorgeous and unique imagery ever set to avant-garde celluloid. In the same breath, many also dismiss the film as simply too long, or too inaccessible—even more so, some say, than Barney’s earlier Cremaster Cycle—or that the brown rivers of offal, shit-encrusted gods, and fetid sex with puckering anuses pressed against the lens are too unappetizing to digest.
I haven’t read Mailer’s Ancient Evenings yet, so I can’t attest to Fundament‘s fidelity there, but I can say that critics who evaluate Barney’s new effort only against rubrics that dictate films must be linear, or only make literal sense, or feature less noxious scenes, or tie up endings with tidy totalizing ribbons, have embarked on the journey with a fatal first misstep that nearly guarantees they’ll miss the film’s performative and pedagogic qualities.
(These same critics would probably render similar judgments against Un Chien Andalou—even though Buñuel’s masterpiece admittedly soothes by being five and a half hours shorter in length—and should therefore save their ink when it comes to surrealist works they don’t seem to want to understand ab initio, since digging for structure, meaning, relevance, and art history context is strenuous).
But it doesn’t matter, because, really, how can anyone criticize what amounts to a dream?
And a dream Fundament is—a performance art dream. Sure, it’s interspersed with some of narrative film’s familiar codes, but even those codes break down. The “narrative” of “normal” guests attending a wake collapses into chaotic scenes of their moaning, drooling, and being generally oblivious to the scatological Norman-narrative being draped across them, so even “normal” finds itself touched by Egyptian magic, which brings spontaneous opera, object-making, and occasionally violent delusions to anyone in its vicinity.
Freud marvels in his Der Dichter und Phantasiere at the writer’s magical ability to dissolve his/her identity into a work—to become all of the characters and the spaces in-between—and Barney manages this in spades, especially with regard to the in-between. Distinctions between performance art and film, object and subject, and the utilitarian and symbolic dissolve, just like the apartment walls in Fundament that double as membranes for gods to penetrate. In a page right out of a J.G. Ballard map, Barney pushes through into supposedly empty, useless areas—our primordial shit, our intellectual detritus, our industrial graveyards, our dead—using self-made vehicles that are in-between themselves, since that’s the kind of magic required to cross the river from the hell of rigid symbolism and (re)tired modes of thinking into imaginary places that are new.
Read around, and you may come to agree that many reviewers don’t know what to do with Fundament so far, even though the film provides the answer: namely, that critics need to create their own analytical and expressive vehicles appropriate to what they’re reviewing—especially when it’s experimental—rather than relying on punctilious categories of genre and medium that are easily off(al)ended. Perhaps we should hire performance artists for the job, since their art specializes in reconciling and synthesizing the surreal with the waking; ask one what we should do with Barney’s all-seeing anuses, foil-wrapped cocks, and cars leaking silvery sperm, and I bet answers won’t be long in coming.
Performance artists (like standup comedians) believe that performing within a day of January 1st is mandatory if you want to ensure good luck for the coming year.
I can’t remember who first handed me this superstition, but I obey it religiously, though, I’ll admit, sometimes with a last-minute scramble to find an available stage or mic with the year’s final hours dwindling. It doesn’t have to be a pro venue, mind you; performing three minutes in a watering hole or an alley for a few drunken cohorts earns you the Karma.
My 2015 started with a healthy dose of luck: the photo above was taken during Doppelganger, a performance to celebrate Year of the Sheep at the beautiful new ALoft Gallery in Ventura, California on January 2nd.
(I don’t always perform in front of mirrors, but when I do, I like to scribble WOLF on my back and dress up like a Dutch girl covered in cottonballs).
For me, the Sheep arrives right on time as a reminder of the Bruegel parades of blind leading the blind, with the most glaring example perhaps being the screaming pitch of shitty throwaway culture and memes now born, mindlessly traded, and then discarded at terrifying Internet speeds—and I’m as culpable as anyone for adding to the bright-n-shiny baubles that increasingly distract us from digging in to become something greater.
Forget mere loss of spirituality; I’m talking about the forgetting of something far more primal: what it feels like to be a living alien creature, evolved but still part animal, now imbued with the potential to imagine and dream, inventing rituals as we go, conversing with plants and stars, on a planet spinning through cold, empty space. Maybe I’m not alone. Do you feel it? Your primordial ancestors beckoning to you through your DNA to remember what magic feels like? The call to invent from the gaping maw of nothing instead of just consume?
I drove to Arizona last month. At the risk of sounding like a mid-life-crisis Burner cliché, the time I spent in that rugged expanse of desert emptiness pried me open with an irresistible call to reconnect with my primality and instincts that have been rendered barely detectable beneath the raging din of commercial, political, technological, and dilettante clutter.
Your list of resolutions for 2015 may be long, but if you’re inclined, maybe scribble somewhere near the top:
I’m crazy-excited to announce DICKTEMP, an art experiment to measure the temperature and humidity in my underwear 24/7 for the 30 days of November! Inspired by a dream I had about Matt Damon, check out DICKTEMP.COM for the current weather in my pants, or compare the daily graphs! And be sure to follow me on Twitter for the latest updates—it’s gonna be insane! #dicktemp
*** UPDATE:I just heard back from The Smithsonian—apparently the museum does not want to include my #dicktemp thermometer in its American Art collection. Maybe next time! ;)
*** UPDATE #2:Dicktemp is complete! What a crazy 30 days! Catch all the action in my #dicktemp video logs:
The book tour has been racing ahead full steam, with exciting stops in LA, Fresno, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and this week, Washington D.C.
Though I’ve said it before, I’m still shocked at just how few indie bookstores remain compared to 10 or 20 years ago, with so many replaced by soulless stucco-and-glass monoliths. Thank the gods for indies—or better, go buy some books from them!
With so few non-chain bookstores remaining, and their calendars so packed with authors hungry for stage time, and their budgets continuing to thin (some have elminated book readings altogether because they can no longer afford event & marketing costs), traditional book tours are becoming a rarity. Even Barnes and Noble stores were an impassable challenge, which we tried to book in towns where there wasn’t a single indie bookstore left. Some B&Ns no longer hosted readings at all, it turned out, while the others were just too disorganized to recall a conversation from one phone call to the next, until time finally ran out.
But that doesn’t mean Book Tours are dead. Far from it. The thriving indie bookstores we booked were a dream. Skylight Books & Book Soup in LA—and my San Francisco favorite, Green Apple Books, with its old creaky floors & eclectic selection—pulled out all the stops, with mobs showing up crazy-excited for a performance art novel. (Full disclosure: though I’d like to think it was all due to my book’s appeal, part of the draw might’ve been rumors preceding me that I do wild things with a fish during my readings, but I’ll take crowds however I can get them!!!)
With the novel being about art & performance, we were also able to book some killer art, gallery, and alternative theater spaces, thanks to curators who were game. SoapCo. Gallery & Theater in Fresno’s Tower District, Mermaids Tattoo in SF, the Show & Tell Gallery in Portland, and Seattle’s The Project Room were not only white hot creative collaborators up for anything, but also fitting for a novel about two subversives who unleash peformances in sweaty underground galleries where art spectators go increasingly mad for performances that shred convention. Finding a way, hell or high water, to still get the book out felt like dancing amid the publishing industry’s ruins—and fucking punk rock performance art.
One of my favorite events was the tattoo happening at Mermaids Tattoo in SF. The evening began with a hilarious standup comedy set by SF favorite Loren Kraut, then a performance art piece by yours truly. Then came the finale: with the audience watching, Mermaids’ owner-and-tattoo-artist Anne Williams inked a tattoo that’s described in my novel onto my torso while my wife read the chapter aloud. It was surreal, grimacing under the buzzing needle while hearing my words echoed back to me. In the novel, protagonist Hank tries to tattoo himself while wearing a vest made of meat that’s being attacked by a massive dog; in the interests of public safety and my needle’s sterility, I forewent the meat and mutt.
This past week was crazy-busy in Freakshow Books’ booth at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on the USC campus. Publishers, PR reps, agents, bookstores, and writers seemed seriously excited by Two Performance Artists, and it was a great chance to take the grassroots pulse on what’s happening across the literary scene.
One downer: the main L.A. Times stage was right across from us—and we were shocked when a string of famous people serving as interviewers (Maria Shriver, for example) went on to interview some of the most flat-lined personalities ever to take the mic. We listened to one woman drone on about her new (albeit, well-written) “What should I do with my life after college?” pablum, then a 60-year-old grandpa wearing a toupee mumble from his “What if pets could talk?” pulp—I could hear Dr. Seuss crying in heaven. THIS, ON THE MAIN STAGE. Where were the edgy radicals, rebels, and raconteurs? The rock-and-roll writers? The pissed-off poets? The literary terrorists? Part of literary fame really must be whom you know. The audience couldn’t figure out how these scribes had managed to land plum spots up there for an hour each. Were they friends of Shriver’s? Did their PR reps blow a roadie? If this is what book show producers believe are going to get readers excited about books, then no wonder publishing’s got big problems.
The standing-room-only book tour’s reading & performance launch party at gorgeous Skylight Books in L.A. was a smash! I’ve gotta admit, it felt a little surreal (and terrifying) to hold the book in my hands and talk openly about something I’ve been working on like a hermit behind closed doors since 1999—but there’s no denying that the excitement, anticipation, and support in the room were real, and I couldn’t be more grateful—it’s my childhood dream coming true. Thank you *so much* to everyone who came out!
After catching a few hours of sleep, we drove up to the Sylvia White Gallery in Ventura, where I unveiled a new piece called Your Name Is Magic for the monthly live 5x5x5 show curated by my performance art mentor, the certifiable art genius John M. White.
The gallery was packed, and the crowd absolutely on fire. I can’t be 100% sure, but I *think* I received my first standing ovation (except that the crowd was already standing, so I don’t know if that really counts??—haha).
You can get all of the book tour information here—we’ve got a ton of stops from L.A. to NYC, with more cities coming soon! I can’t wait to read and perform for you!
NEWSFLASH: I’ll be protesting SHIA LABEOUF’s plagiarizing ass tomorrow/Thursday Feb. 13th outside the art gallery where he’s doing his #IAMSORRY “performance.” Stop on by anytime from 11am until 5pm and join in the craziness! Wear your favorite #lunchbagfashion! Cohen Gallery, 7354 Beverly Blvd.
UPDATE (2/13/14): The experience was incredible. WOW. *Thank you* to all of the friends, Hippos, family, and *new* friends for holding me up during today’s protest and #LABEEF performance. The huge crowd — some 300 people who’d been there 8 hrs or more — was empathetic, encouraging, and full of original POVs on Shia, his spectacle, and celebrity. I learned so much, and was blown away by the support—thank you.
Part of my performance (photos here) involved wearing a paper bag with the words #WE WERE NEVER FAMOUS printed on it, and using black duct tape to affix a beef patty to the top of each of my shoes (thanks for the discount, Burger King!). The beef was a reference to interviews LaBeouf has given in which he’s stated that his last name originates from barely-literate French ancestors who couldn’t properly spell the French word for “beef” (boeuf). I’d originally planned to use only one beef patty, but then decided to use two, with the second foot “plagiarizing” the first. And the pieces of black tape served as funerary stripes, like black arm bands, to mourn the slow death of LaBeouf’s originality.
I also ripped out pages from copies of LaBeouf’s zine Cyclical, signed them SCOTCH, and gave them away as souvenirs — my favorite gesture of all, and the crowd seemed to love it.
I was especially moved when, after hearing my story, several people throughout the day offered to let me take their places in line so I could confront LaBeouf directly, even though they’d been waiting for over 5 hours. I was grateful, but couldn’t do it. In order for the #apology to be sincere, I felt LaBeouf needed to come to me. I’d notified the gallery that I would be outside, and that LaBeouf was welcome to come out and apologize to me directly—his army of bodyguards were welcome too!—but he didn’t make an appearance.
Two friends of mine warned me not to let Shia steal my magic, nor my “magic wand.” Haha.
Worry not: LaBeoufs everywhere want nothing to do with magic. From my forthcoming biography, Shia: An Unauthorized Life:
Shia’s French forefathers were, by all accounts, country clodhoppers and barely literate. Cattle breeders by trade, they worked barefoot in the dung over 20 hectares of pasture just south of Montagnol.
The French word for steer was la boeuf, which, unsurprisingly, was also slang for the male organ. When a breeder went into town, he’d try to entice women with crass jokes about his beouf — accidentally misspelled, of course, and therefore mispronounced — to which the women would respond with glee: “n’existe pas, votre beouf!”
Confused, the breeder would report back to the other pasturemen that women had found his beef to be imaginary. Over time, the men became convinced that they’d been cursed with genitalia that only they could see (or smell). Frustrated, they stopped courting women. Known collectively as Les Beoufs, these beef bachelors passed the time by inventing elaborate pasture dances that consisted of leaping long distances in order to hump the air.
If, by pure luck, a breeder did manage to marry, his refusal to wear shoes or bathe made sex unthinkable. If his wife wanted a baby, she would write allemagne — the French word for Germany — on a paper and give it to her husband. Sounding out the letters, the husband would incorrectly render it as “aller magne” — literally, “to go to magne.”
Magne was, of course, a homophone for the English word ‘man’, but more importantly, it contained the prefix mag, from the old Greek magos, which signified a special male member of the priestly class — that is, not just a class ‘member’ (sexually and organizationally speaking), but a special one: namely, a magician or male witch. The husband understood that magic must be necessary in order to conceive a child — how else could it occur?
Reluctant to get too close to occult practices, the husband would take his wife to the train station at Montagnol, where she would show the allemagne paper to the conductor. The conductor would laugh, but faithfully charge the couple for a ticket to Frankfurt — a party town packed with German sailors on leave — and off the wife would go, away to ‘the magician’, the husband believed, only to return weeks later, happy as a clam, and of course, very pregnant.
And so it came to pass that Shia would hail from a long line of bastards who knew nothing of magic — but plenty about fruitless humping.
The 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival nominated our show Wet The Hippo for Best Comedy, and we ended up taking home the award for Best Stunt! Not bad, considering there were 150 shows this year. The Fringe also extended our run through the entire month of July, so come see us any Friday or Saturday @ 9PM! Hilarious insanity like nothing you’ve seen before, I promise, and tickets are only $10.