Michaela Pilar Brown's
Thursday, December 19, 2013, 7;00 p.m.
701 Center for Contemporary Art -701 Whaley Street, 2nd Floor
Performance: “the most immediate art form… for it means getting down to the bare bones of aesthetic communication—art/ self-confronting audience/ society.”—Lucy Lippard
Performance art is a generic term that encompasses such styles as conceptual art, body art, and feminism, as well as very specific art movements like Fluxus and Viennese Actionism. The style gained popularity in the 1960s when visual artists began abandoning the object for a more direct mode of expression. Subverting linear theatrical narratives for spontaneous and honest interaction with audiences in response to social and political concerns connect the artworks placed within this classification.
Parallels can be drawn between Michaela Pilar Brown’s performance, Bittersalt Bittersweet, and a myriad of influential performance pieces including Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) and Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present (2010). Her piece also follows in the tradition of African-American artist Adrian Piper’s conceptual work that first brought race and gender into the conversation, as well as the Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson’s deconstruction of stereotypes. The strength of this performance is that it combines elements of all of the aforementioned sources. Here, Brown forces participants to engage on an intimate level with her, while having to make difficult decisions about her, which have the potential to elicit unexpected responses in both the sitter and audience. Challenging inappropriate modes of representation of marginalized people, Brown stages the performance within a tent, clearly referencing P.T. Barnum’s commodification and exploitation of Joice Heth. The setting also works in concert with sideshow exhibits featuring “exotic” peoples from other countries. The Dahomey Village, one of the Midway attractions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition nicknamed “The White City,” comes to mind and reinforces the Baudelairian voyeurism made prominent by Barnum. Looking from past to present, Brown’s work is analogous with Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña whose performance, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992), blurred the lines between fiction and reality. The stereotypes personified were sometimes believed to be historically accurate, sometimes feared for the anxiety-inducing unknown of what the performers might do, and sometimes irritating because of the overt commentary on racism and oppression. Bittersalt Bittersweet continues the debate about race in America, but it is more focused on the treatment of women. On an even deeper level, this performance is a personal exploration into the psyche of the artist as she rejects societal definitions ascribed to African-American women for the preferred titles of daughter, sibling, partner, lover, caregiver, and role model.
By Lana A. Burgess, Ph.D.
Faculty Curator, McKissick Museum
University of South Carolina