That Time of the Months . . . | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

That Time of the Months . . . 


at Randolph Street Gallery

October 23 and 24

Performance artist Joan Dickinson, who has organized and curated a three-week series at Randolph Street Gallery featuring women in performance, video, film, poetry, multimedia installation, the martial arts, and self-defense workshops (cosponsored by Women in the Director's Chair) says of her project, "I wanted to provide a different face of feminism. My intent was to program a certain level of diversity." And the pieces shown during the "That Time of the Months . . . " portion of the series did come from artists of various races, ages, classes, sexual orientations, and disciplines: over two evenings there were two performances, three videos, three films, and two poetry readings. The common thread was that each artist considers herself a feminist.

In Robyn Orlin's performance, a collaboration with Claudia Vera called How Beautiful Is the Princess Salome Tonight!, six hooks dangle over a long table and six blue champagne bottles stand at each place setting. At one end of the table the carcass of a pig hangs, swinging slightly. Fans are blowing, and Orlin, wearing six white slips one on top of the other, is under the table stacking plates. The sound track is like a drum or heartbeat, and the sound of the fans later evolves into recorded eerie singing (by Vera and Orlin). When finally the sound track and fans are turned off, the silence creates a feeling of such great oppression that one feels the walls may explode.

In this lonely, painful work in progress, Vera and Orlin have created a little universe made up almost entirely of objects in sixes. It's as though Orlin must go through a ritual involving this number, a magical number in several cultures, that will bring her out of this place on the count of seven. Orlin, a resigned hostess, painstakingly sets the table, pours the "wine"--which at times is red, at other times clear--from each bottle into the platters, and removes her slips until she wears just one. She cuts the meat and places it first on the platters, where it gets soaked in the "wine," then silently hangs the dripping meat on the hooks. Through the choreography alone she threatens suicide, then achieves resignation, almost peace, and finally rest.

This macabre preparation for a dinner party seems to represent a curious rite of passage. At times it's painful to watch, especially when she slices meat from the carcass, but also--like so much of Orlin's work--it's mesmerizing, from her simple, steely choreography to the lush lighting, which sometimes bespeaks a cool environment and other times stifling heat within a vivid, claustrophic Francis Bacon-esque interior.

Jenny Magnus's performance, The Story of a Woman Who Was Made, Not Born (Continued), is about the process of creating a performance, the piece she would create if she could, and the persona she might or might not let the audience see. She began this performance by handing her glasses to the audience member she told us was the most intimidating to her--in this case me, perhaps because I had a pad and pen. Handing her glasses to the reviewer broke the ice and garnered sympathy from the audience.

Magnus tells a rather amazing story that implies that as a teenager she was not sure she was a woman, until a stranger she met in the park one day revealed the truth to her. The story is so odd it's hard to tell whether it's true or not. She plays with this strategy a bit, first saying that she doesn't tell this story to just anyone, then implying the story isn't true. Her monologue wanders into several areas, but throughout the lithe and graceful Magnus holds the audience's attention completely, experimenting with various performance strategies, from revealing her true self and her false self to showing us how she might try to get ideas for a performance, to pulling out her heart and putting it back inside her chest.

The four-minute video A Spy (Hester Reeves Does the Doors), by Suzie Silver, is incredible. Hester Reeves originally performed this bit during a drag night at Club Lower Links, then collaborated with Silver to produce this performance video. Reeves is dressed as Jesus, with a beard, long-haired wig parted down the middle, and loincloth. The resemblance to Jesus stops there, however, because except for the loincloth she is voluptuously nude and clearly female, with angels painted on each breast. She lip-synchs the Doors' "Spy in the House of Love," while through the magic of video B-movie girls cavort in the background and clouds and landmasses fly by; chorus girls and lurid colors prevail. Silver and Reeves accomplish a number of things in this video: flip-flopping male notions of feminine sexuality; exposing the inherent patriarchy and latent sexuality of the Catholic church; showing how the male mystique dominates in MTV and rock-and-roll culture generally; and revealing insidious aspects of our society's "cult of personality." Reeves seems to become at once a conglomerate of archetypal, charismatic male heroes and antiheroes, from Jesus to Charles Manson. A videotape like this makes Sinead O'Connor's preachy Saturday Night Live performance, which she concluded by ripping up a photograph of the pope, seem weak at best. Perhaps Silver should send a copy of this tape to O'Connor and show her how it's done.

Portia Cobb's short video Who Are You? is fairly intense, examining her childhood memories of a tragic figure on the periphery of her life in Oakland, California: an African American woman who wore whiteface and wandered the streets. The local mythology about the woman, Cobb says, was that "She had caught her man in bed with a white woman and flipped out." Cobb has written the voice-over narration, while the video shows an African American actress in whiteface clutching a white baby doll. Intercut with scenes of the woman wandering the streets are shots of a group of four women who seem to be Cobb and her friends. Over these images is laid a childish singsong chant: "If you're white, you're all right, if you're yellow, you're mellow, if you're brown, stick around, but if you're black, get back, if you're black, get back, if you're black, get back." This film is unflinching in its look at the extremes of self-loathing and denial brought about by racism.

The video Storme: The Lady of the Jewel Box, by Michelle Parkerson, is a portrait of a male impersonator in one of the first interracial drag shows of the 40s, at the Jewel Box in New Orleans. The problem is that we don't really get to know Storme as much as we would like. We know she knew many of the best drag queens, we know that Diane Arbus photographed her. We can see that she has great dignity, mystery, sadness, and strength, which beg for investigation. But she's guarded even when she reveals herself: at one point she begins to cry, remembering a friend who has died, then calmly but firmly orders the camera turned off until she can regain her composure.

The three films, shown on the second evening, included Hazel's Photos, by Doreen Bartoni, in which we hear a sound track of women's voices commenting on the images: turn-of-the-century photographs of women, some in drag. The remarks are rather shallow and thoughtless, meant I assume to reflect society's attitudes about lesbians. Greta Snider's roughly edited Blood Story articulates attitudes about menstruation while two hands are seen straining and crushing raspberries; meanwhile an onscreen text relays information about a murder. This film conveys a feeling of foreboding and incites revulsion. The premise is interesting, but it almost seems as if the filmmaker ran out of money and couldn't afford to make a cleaner edit. And it was difficult to watch--perhaps intentionally so--because of the juxtaposition of unrelated text and narration.

Cauleen Smith's Daily Rains is a beautifully lit, poignant documentary-style film about the various encounters several young women have had with racism. The stories are wrenching. One woman tells of being bused to a school, for instance, where she sat at the back of the classroom and said nothing for the entire semester. When her report card came she found that she'd received straight As in conduct and Cs in academics. Her grandmother told her how proud she was, yet the girl felt a sickness in her stomach she couldn't name.

The young poet Jeannette Green is powerful, speaking with a sweet lilt to her clear, controlled, resonant voice. She is at once precocious and innocent enough to thank her friends for coming and to tell the audience how much her friends inspire her. The poems she read were sophisticated and carefully crafted and ranged from love, politics, abortion, and the Holocaust to a poem in response to a teaching assistant's thinly veiled racist query: "Why are you here?"

Susanna Ruth Berger's poems are quite beautiful, but her apologies and self-deprecating patter create an irritating counterpoint. It's lucky for her her poetry is terrific, and when she attends to the business of reading, her delivery is soft and true. In "Bar Poem" her imagery rings especially true, and the descriptions are so skillfully wrought that the audience sighed and whooped in response.

The artists in "That Time of the Months . . . " reveal how different the face of feminism has become in the last 30 years. For many younger women today the existence of feminism can be taken for granted, so while some artists may be addressing feminist issues in fairly obvious ways, other artists imply that there are feminist issues beyond the conventional ones, in Magnus's case the process of creation itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Taub.

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