Performance art is not generally known for its sense of humor. For the past thirty years or so it has been tied down quite often to outrage and outrageousness, particularly concerning sex. Consider the titles of works written by the NEA Four, for instance: Shock Treatment, I’m an Ass Man, Naked Breath, Well of Horniness, Nothing Beats Pussy, et cetera. One can drift even further back in time to discover images of Joseph Beuys masturbating on stage during a Fluxus piece or Allan Kaprow’s minions shoving various unappetizing delicacies into the faces of Happening audiences. Such works form a cliché in the minds of people who view performance art as mildly provocative, largely incoherent and deadly earnest. In the United States, certainly, earnestness and self-indulgence are the default settings of the contemporary performance artist.
However there is certainly another thread of performance art that draws upon absurd humor and deadpan delivery. Certainly the works of Yves Klein presage this thread of performance art that includes Claes Oldenburg, Laurie Anderson and Ann Magnuson. Not surprisingly, perhaps, most of the practitioners of this variety of performance art tend to come from the visual arts or from music, while those with a more theatrical background tend to belong to the first group.
Julie Andrée T. is, by training, a visual artist. She most certainly belongs to the latter group of performance artists who believe in wit and humor and value it over the political earnestness. Above all, her work values the “art” element of performance art. With her recent work, Rouge she has deliberately chosen a subject–the color red–quite narrow yet with extraordinary connotations that allow her to explore anything she chooses. The framework is simple: seven words and a hundred twenty actions or so. Each variation adds an object or changes a verbal intonation of the repeated idée fixe, “What color is this? It is red.”
How can one extract so much out of so little? Because red is no ordinary color. That sounds glib, but the connotations of red go far beyond the obvious. For instance, comparative linguistics reveals that if a language only has two words to describe to describe what we think of as color, those two words are “light” and “dark.” If that language has a third word for color, that word is always “red.” The idea of redness is so deeply embedded in human culture that full-scale studies exist of its effect on metabolism, economics, sociology and scores of other subjects. It is primary and it is primal. It allows a dedicated artist to go any direction she chooses and to explore virtually anything human. One might call it a type of minimalism, similar to the music of Steve Reich or Terry Riley, where the smallest cell or tone row becomes an expansive essay in the possibilities of sound.
This is exactly what Ms. T. does throughout the performance. The words and the color are convenient points for exploring a range of imagery and situations. Starting by eating a red pepper in something that looks suspiciously like an Eve in the Garden of Eden image, she begins her dialogue with the audience by talking with her mouth full. From there she runs an amazing range of visual and auditory images–helped along by the brilliant lighting design of Jean Jauvin and the spooky, borderline subliminal sound design of Laurent Maslé–and does so with a great wit, in particular the way she changes emotions from profound to banal. Julie Andrée T. also has a marvelous expressive face so that when the constant repetition of words falls off to silence, she still has an excellent command of the audience’s attention–perhaps even more than when she is speaking.
Rouge is essentially a moving gallery of images and sounds, and Ms. T’s beginning dialogue with the audience invites the viewers in as rather more active than a typical theater audience who are expected to sit passive. This is, I think, the piece’s great strength. Where her earlier work with Jacob Wren and even Not Waterproof rely largely upon the human body and the tradition of performance “body art” Rouge quite consciously avoids this tradition and that tradition’s largely humorless approach, except at moments where the piece parodies it. The refreshing humor within the piece is a far cry from the relentless intensity of Angélica Liddell or a pioneer like Carolee Schneeman.
At the end of the evening, Rouge does indeed veer off into body art: it also falls into silence as the color blue invades the scene for the first time. Visually, it seems out of place at first but upon reflection, the ending of the piece is actually the beginning of her earlier piece, Not Waterproof, and is intended to express the cyclical nature of the two pieces. I do not think, however, that either piece depends upon the other for its effect. Even without knowing or having seen Not Waterproof, any audience member can sense the ending of Rouge is inevitable.
In a season dominated by quite a bit of solo performance, On the Boards programmed Julie Andrée T’s show quite cleverly near the end. After Angélica Liddell and Rabih Mroué, a good dose of wit certainly couldn’t hurt. Rouge is a witty, funny piece, pregnant with visual ideas. It is a fine show for On the Boards to bring to the US for her debut performance. With a bit of luck, I look forward to seeing Julie Andrée T. many more times in the future.