Like one of Hans Bellmer’s dolls or photographer Pierre Molinier’s nightmarish, mannequin self-portraits come to life, Brooklyn-based performance artist Narcissister walks the line between the erotic, the alluring, the absurd and the abject, a confrontational melange of female sexuality and manipulation of the viewer’s gaze.
Screening a selection of her videos and featuring a new performance on Monday night in a packed house at The Spectrum, a queer performance and dance venue in Brooklyn, Narcissister opened Dirty Looks: On Location, a month-long program of queer films in current queer spaces and former historical locations (which will be featured again on Filthy Dreams in the coming days in July).
Performing in venues from MoMA to America’s Got Talent, Narcissister is known for her consistantly-worn mask, a cross between a mannequin and a blow-up doll. Merging dance, performance art and burlesque, Narcissister’s performances and art references women artists from Carolee Schneemann to Karen Finley and Cindy Sherman. However, Narcissister, who has inhabited this character for six years, takes these feminist artists one step further by her play with artificiality, literal objectification and camp.
The screening started with her narcissistic participatory call-to-arms Narcissister Is You, a three-screened installation made in conjunction with her recent solo exhibition at Envoy Enterprises. Exploring the idea of narcissism as a political act, Narcissister asked participants to don a Narcissister mask and act narcissistically, which translated into participants masturbating, grinding into mirrors, having sex and working out. After the hour and a half-long collective narcissism, Dirty Looks featured a selection of Narcissister’s single-channel videos including her hilariously lauded performance on the family favorite America’s Got Talent.
Finally, Narcissister herself appeared in a black cloak with only the Narcissister mask visible for her new performance “Changes.” Performing to Black Sabbath’s “Changes” and David Bowie’s classic “Changes,” Narcissister transformed into countless identities from an old woman to a pregnant woman who has both a black and a white baby to a leotard-clad contortionist to eventually a naked rendition of The Birth of Venus. As if becoming an iconic art historical masterpiece of female beauty weren’t enough, Nacissister then pulled out a silver mask from her crotch (a classic yet always shocking Narcissister move) and put it over her head, diving into Venus’s shell to become its pearl.
Completely submerged into Narcissister’s art for an entire evening with Dirty Looks: On Location, themes linking the videos and the performance resonated with other past Narcissister performances I’ve seen and not just her proclivity to pulling objects from her merkin-adorned vagina.
Perhaps it was the glittery tongue she used to lick herself while she wore a vagina costume or the giant thong-wearing ass stage prop she fell out of dressed as a turd to slowed-down version of Sisqo’s “The Thong Song,” but after witnessing Narcissister’s incredible performance Organ Player at Abrons Art Center earlier this year, I began thinking about Narcissister’s art, in particular her use of camp and the artificial as an artistic weapon, in relation to Charles Ludlam’s campy, glitter and drag-filled Theatre of the Ridiculous.
Though their outrageous costumes, play with sexuality and mix of tradition and the avant-garde resonates with Narcissister’s performances, Charles Ludlam’s view of the ridiculous and camp, even more than the actual plays of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company such as Turds in Hell, Conquests of the Universe or When Queens Collide and Bluebeard mirror Narcissister’s own aesthetic.
In his collection of essay and opinions Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly, Charles Ludlam explores his view of camp, which he places in slight opposition of Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp.” In the essay “Camp,” Ludlam describes camp as originating from a “homosexual usage” which “Because of the inversion, everything that everyone else has taken for granted isn’t true for you. Suddenly things become funny because you’re seeing it a mirror, a reverse image” (225). Seen as primarily a gay male style, camp “became a sly or secret sense of humor that could only exist to a group that had been through something together” (225).
Rather than performing camp through a gay male perspective, Narcissister employs camp from a female perspective, becoming the absolute object of womanhood to then destroy it and render it completely abject. As Ludlam notes, “I think the whole keynote of the Ridiculous and camp is a rigorous revaluing of everything. What people think is valuable ain’t valuable. Admiring what people hold in contempt, holding in contempt things other people are so valuable—it’s a fantastic standard” (226).
Perhaps the best example of Narcissister’s use of camp in her videos and performances is her Every Woman video, which was screened at Dirty Looks: On Location. Like many of her performance from the use of “Changes” to “The Thong Song,” she takes a cliched and undeniably campy pop song, Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” and completely transforms it into a shocking, sleazy spectacle. Appearing first completely nude with a giant afro wig, Narcissister pulls various items of clothing out of her mouth, hair and vagina, putting them on, in a reverse strip tease, as she reveals a new tacky scrap of fabric from another orifice.
As Charles Ludlam explains, “Camp is all about something in the action or the dialogue or the dress—even in the sets—which in itself is not necessarily unbelonging, but which in relationship to everything else is out of line, on its own. Camp is a way of looking at things, never whats looked at” (227).
Like Ludlam’s quote, “Every Woman” is out-of-line, which works to destruct the male or dominant gaze. While talking about the gaze and art is often hackneyed, Narcissister’s use of female camp to turn the viewer’s gaze in on itself is quite spectacular and significant. Thoroughly exaggerating her own womanhood from the obsession with gaudy clothes to pulling them from every seemingly endless hole to the song choice, Narcissister turns into the ultimate woman, “every woman,” as well as the ultimate object through the use of the mask. However rather than attract the gaze, Narcissister’s over-amplification instead repels it, becoming completely abject and turning the dominant viewer into the dominated.
In one of my favorite statements, Charles Ludlam explains, “Camp is motivated by rage” and Narcissister’s undeniably and wonderfully scary contempt for the audience is certainly palpable in her videos and performances (254). Using camp to over-exaggerate her role and sexuality as a woman, she destroys the perception of a woman as the dominated, passive gender as well as the hyper-sexual object of desire, revaluing both of these roles.
Narcissister the Ridiculous
At the end of Charles Ludlam’s “Manifesto: Ridiculous Theatre, Scourge of Human Folly,” detailing his ideas about the Theatre of the Ridiculous, he proclaims, “This is not Sunday School. Illustrate hedonistic calculus. Test out a dangerous idea, a theme that threatens to destroy one’s whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit along the way.”
As if she read and digested this entire call to arms, Narcissister’s videos and performances undoubtedly test out dangerous ideas through farce, over-exaggeration, burlesque and the ridiculous. Through her performances and films, distorting her own body, Narcissister employs a form of camp to, as Ludlam would say, “arrest the mind.”
Thoroughly disturbing yet completely intoxicating, Narcissister’s performances and videos always make me think of John Waters quotes. Sitting in the queer peformance venue The Spectrum, I couldn’t help but think of Waters snarling, “When I was young, art meant dirty and that’s the way it stays in my house.”
Me too, John, me too.