280 years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote a cracker of a poem about a bloke who sneaks into his GF’s boudoir to have a bit of a snoop around. He finds stained undergarments, smelly stockings, evidence of snot and facial hair, and all kinds of grotesque potions and appliances. (Which, weirdly, reminds me of the first time -- as a teen -- I saw a girl use an eyelash curler... I swear, I wouldn’t have been more shocked if she had pulled out a speculum. What a contraption! Think: Lisa looking at the affordable [i.e. non dental-plan] braces in The Simpsons.)
Strephon, the young man in Swift’s poem, discontinues his search when he finds a ‘chest’ in Celia’s room. He just has to lift the lid. The Pandora’s Box.
It’s her chamber pot.
Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!
That great source of literary criticism and wisdom Wikipedia tells us that the poem is “sometimes seen as an attack on women” and that Swift “bitterly satirizes and derides in disgusting detail the human body and its functions, which he viewed as repulsive.”
Swift might be taking the mickey out of the Iron Curtain secrecy surrounding women’s business but, surely, Strephon is the goon. Or, rather, his willingness -- maybe need -- to believe Celia is worthy of the plinth he’s put her on.
This brings me (in a very roundabout kinda way) back to Atlanta Eke and Monster Body. (Or Monster Boyd as my Freudian fingers INSIST on calling it.)
But, first, let me rewind a little.
Eke did a piece for the last Next Wave Festival, part of the Natalie Cursio-curated event Private Dances at the Meat Market in 2010. Now... cos I hate spoilers and avoid them like the plague in my reviews -- even to the point of not writing about certain shows at all where little can be said without ruining the surprise -- I haven’t said anything about Eke’s piece You & Me... just in case it had a second life or toured or something. In the years since, Eke herself has said a fair bit about the show, more than I would have, so I feel that I can say a little about that show.
Staged in a tent large enough to stand and slow dance in, each audience member in You & Me was greeted on entry by a diminutive gorilla of indeterminate sex. The gorilla -- we’re talking baggy body suit with a really hideous face -- invited each punter to slow dance while a romantic torch song played.
Now, despite the size of the gorilla, I had a suspicion I might be dancing with a boy. (This was confirmed in an excellent interview with LALA in which AE is quoted as saying: “I did try to become [a] man or women depending on whatever I imagined the audience member desired and would fall in love with.”) [Thinks: oh great... even gorillas think I’m gay!!] (More serious aside: I wonder if this extract is only a part quotation and if, as at a Penny Arcade show, the dancer would try to take you out of your normative comfort zone... so girls would dirty dance straight girls and boys did the same for dykes, for example.)
It’s worth noting the quality of the slow dance. In mine, it wasn’t a dance of seduction. Nor was it a dance of limerence. It was a faintly tragic dance of attachment. Doomed somehow.
Now, the thing I took away from the experience is just how annoyingly effective pop music and a little bit of intimacy can be. I was in love, for a moment, with this really ugly animal. Stupid heart! And then cast out.
If you saw/participated in the show, you will already be wondering WTF. What about the second part of the show? Well, dear reader, I was the last person through for the night. And that was all she wrote. No wonder I had a skewed perception of the piece. I was puzzled by it.
In conversation with others, afterwards, I discovered that every other punter (before me) got to watch the next audience member dance with the gorilla from a ‘blind’, a hidden little alcove in the tent. So, not only did everyone else who saw You & Me that day have the shock of realising that they had been watched, they had to deal with that shock while perving on the next person.
Of course I cannot imagine what that cocktail of emotions would taste like. Nor, of course, could I go again another time and experience it. (You see what I mean about spoilers?!)
Anyway, the short version is, if I may reiterate what I said in the picture postcard review of Monster Body, is that Atlanta Eke is quite the conceptual artist. Fiercely feminist, fiercely committed to her art and hell bent on finding our buttons and stabbing at them.
I’ll only mention a couple of moments in Monster Body I think. The opening is no spoiler to anyone in the Next Wave orbit. When we walk into the downstairs space at Dancehouse, we’re confronted by Eke, naked except for a small ape mask, hula hooping on a small glass and metal platform, exactly unlike the hula girl on my last post. No delirious joy, no hint of sexiness and, importantly, no scope whatsoever for objectification.
With bright fluorescent lights shining on both Eke and the audience, we’re the ones who are exposed. Vulnerable. Nowhere to hide. Nowhere, even, to look. If the piece had ended there, a hugely important point had been made.
If I remember my feminist theory, the problem with pornography isn’t the prefix, it’s the suffix. It’s not the explicitness, it’s the ‘writing’ of it. The mediation of it. The commodification of it. [And let me stop you right now, I know that this argument is a hokey one on a number of levels, not least because of the Greek root of the word is something like the writing of harlots... and within the word for harlot is a selling/trading element... we could be here for days!]
Personally, I find it impossible to objectify a body in space. A live video-feed of it? No problem. (Which I discovered watching Penny Arcade’s Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!)
In the program notes for Monster Body, the following line appears:
Through her work, Atlanta experiments with her young-ish, relatively symmetrical and healthy self to subvert the image of the female body used to sell you a Coca Cola or an American Apparel knit, seeking to rescue the representation of the female body from the grip of capitalism.
Fair enough. Capitalism is fair game. As is the Male Gaze. (Can we just call it The Gaze please?) Which made the next moment, between scenes, so generous and so touching. It said: All Men Are Bastards, but you might be okay. A young man in a hazmat style dust suit towels her sweaty body down. They’re still visible, but behind the main playing space. Functionally off-stage. There’s a bit of chat, inaudible to us, and a kiss on the mouth for good luck. She goes in for a second or a third. We’re voyeurs, now. But privileged. We’re given permission to see. (Interestingly, ‘look’ would have been the wrong word in this context. ‘See’ is more exact.)
I’d like to write more about what follows and the reasons why I was troubled by it. But not here, not now. Except to say my concern is this: where do you go next... without appearing on rotten.com or efukt? More can be said, too, to contextualise Eke in a spectrum of artists from Karen Finley to Annie Sprinkle. (Eke is down the Finley end right now. Happily.)
Artists like Atlanta Eke (and we have a couple of real commandos, mostly young and female) are tiny little Davids facing down a monstrous Goliath of trafficked femininity. It’s a Quixotic task. But you can’t fault the attempt.
Labels: Atlanta Eke, Dancehouse, Jonathan Swift, Next Wave, Penny Arcade