Still from Mizery, by Oquendo Villar, Deidra Perley, and Joaquín S. Terrones
Solo with variations 2 (For Vladimir Ilich L.). Performed and documented by Nelson Rivera. Video. 17 minutes and 33 seconds. 1993-2003.
Mizery. Directed by Carmen Oquendo-Villar, Deirdra Perley, and Joaquín S. Terrones. Video. 17 minutes and 12 seconds. 2006.
In an essay on the paradoxes of political art, Jacques Rancière stumbles upon one of the most disconcerting features of art: failure. Though Rancière never spells out the “f” word, he rounds up his argument about the present challenges of art engagé by stating: “one of the most interesting contributions to the framing of a new landscape of the sensible has been made by art forms that accept their insufficiency […] or by artistic practices that infiltrate the world of market and social relations and then remain content to be mere images on cibachrome, screens and monitors” (149). Small, intimate gestures with no global aspirations seem to him the more telling art forms that may eventually have a political impact insofar as they constitute “an interrogation into the power of representation” (149). This will to stay within the private space to wield an intimate gesture spells out the critical artwork’s failure to gain political impact beyond its immediate time and space.
Rancière’s proposal reminds me of a performance by Puerto Rican playwright and performance artist Nelson Rivera, titled Solo with Variations II (1993-2003), the video documentation of which is available at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art. The video documents a performance by Rivera at the Red Square in Moscow on Friday October 15, 1993, next to the Lenin Mausoleum. On screen we see textual information on the date and location of the performance, a statement by Vladimir Mayakowsky that reads “We have no pretentions,” and a legend that explains the order of the performance: “Solo with variations 2: 1—cap, 2—head, 3—hand, 4—foot.”
The video contains two sequences: a long shot taken from across the Square, which makes it almost impossible to make out Rivera’s body or gestures, although we can see the throngs of people that walk by during his performance. The second sequence repeats the first, but through close-up shots and in slow motion. Thereby we can grasp all the gestures of the artist. The visual narrative is simple: the artist walks towards the step of the Mausoleum [Figure 1], takes off his cap, leaves his head uncovered [Figure 2], turns his head to his right, raises his hand in mourning, and walks back towards the camera. Throughout the performance, none of the passersby look at him. Only the camera has paid attention.
The ritual nature of the artist’s gestures in this performance may be linked to Lenin’s own salute at the Red Square during the Revolution in October 1917, or it may be a mourning gesture signaling respect for Lenin, to whom the performance is dedicated. This perhaps includes an imitation of the Soviet leader’s body gestures or movements, such as the way he took off his cap and held it, which can be seen in many historical photographs of Lenin. The manner in which the performer keeps his body upright, his step firm, and his arms swaying may be quotations by the artist in a performance that is doubtless celebratory and eulogistic, but also mimetic: as if the artist had also wanted to play the role of a living statue of Lenin in his 1917 triumphant salute—and not the dead and politically forsaken Lenin enclosed in the Mausoleum1—in order to reenact it before a contemporary though indifferent crowd. The nature at once public and private of his act becomes even more dramatic in the slow-motion version of the video.
The contrast between the monumentality of the mausoleum and of the square itself, and the small, private, and personal gestures of the artist convey the substantial difference between the historical representation of political events and the essential humbleness in the personal remembrance of stories that are part of an ever-waning collective memory. The small and private gesture enacted in this performance embodies what Rancière calls “critical art,” an art that does not seek to replace the grandiose monumentality of the monument, but instead calls our attention to the slim space afforded to the materiality of a reflection that may bring about, one person at a time, a new way of political seeing. As Mayakowsky intimated, effective critical art is unpretentious.
The short documentary film Mizery, by Oquendo Villar et al., though very different in terms of ambient video technique and overall purpose, also documents a performance, this time, the slow construction of the image of the drag queen performer and the staging of her performance. Mizery is a performer in Boston’s Jacques Cabaret. As unpretentious as Rivera, Mizery is fully aware of the fragility and ephemeral nature of her gestures. Fame—central to Rivera’s piece—is at best fleeting, based on sheer tenacity and on the performer’s willingness to keep up an array of gestures that constitute her stage persona. The radical split between the performer’s private life and his life at the bar marks the separation of life and job, and the artificial, maybe mechanical nature of the latter. Mizery can be interviewed while she pulls up her hose; she can thumb through a photo album while doing her intricate makeup [Figure 3]. But she is also very clear about the pleasures of having two spaces —the home and the bar— and is comfortable with both. When asked about her private life she snaps: “why must I choose between being a man or a woman? It’s like choosing a career!” That is why, when a friend seeks her advice on the phone about some personal matter, she retorts: “You need to be a man, girl, take care of your shit!”
The filmmakers insist on contrasting the two lives of Mizery. They catch her at a dimly lit Chinese takeout ordering her food, wearing masculine clothes and a silky feminine hairpiece; or walking about the city and displaying her huge body frame. Then, at the bar, we are shown her dramatic transformation into her stage body. We are also given the benefit of listening to some testimonies of admiring drag queens who watch Mizery in awe, unaware that Mizery feels no awe for herself. There is no awe to be had, seems to be the performer’s position. She seems to say: “I am aware of the fact that I am a construct, that my gestures are in many ways a ritual, and that those that I imitate —female pop singers of relative fame— are, in turn, imitators of previous and more famous stars, all of whom imitate ‘woman’.” This relay race of gestures and rituals points to the fact that the crux of Mizery’s stage performance is, precisely, the shaky equation of famous-infamous on which the act of the drag queen is suspended.
By creating friction between street and bar, between silence and blaring music, between masculine and feminine, between a real body and the body of a doll; by constantly cutting from one scene to another and conspiring against any and all narrative; by recapturing Mizery’s lapidary phrases in songs that deplete them of meaning; by having Mizery play the wise Mother Goose while flaunting the face of a clown, this short film questions the drag rituals that seem to seek a collective sense of belonging as its final destination. It bears noting, however, that in Mizery’s mind, the bar is an enclosed space, apart from the world, something intimate opposed to the street, where the like gather with the like in an act of community-building that implies playing an Other, that, for Mizery, equates gender with a career choice. What is represented in this intimate space is, precisely, a ritual imitation of a ritual devoid of publicity [Figure 4], something shielded from the public eye by the violence of makeup and pop music, both quite gendered gestures.
These private acts of collective paradox become, in the short film, a serious questioning of the ritual of representing the Other as an Other of an Other (a “woman”). In this sense, the filmmakers have found in Mizery (the person) a leitmotif of the resistance to representation, of the scuttling of the faux monumentality of figures like Donna Summer. The short film, a modest art gesture about a modest, private gesture, takes on the very modesty of Mizery’s outlook on life, her essential failure at bridging two imitations.
The miniature monuments discussed here—Rivera becoming a living monument of Lenin; Oquendo Villar’s Mizery becoming a raging doll in the house of Jacques Cabaret—present the inevitability of failure as a necessary step towards understanding the intransitivity that lurks in every political act that wishes to be political.
Lilliana Ramos Collado, Ph.D., is Chief Curator of the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art, and tenured professor of art and architecture theory and history at the School of Architecture, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. She teaches graduate courses on literary history, theory and criticism at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe. Ramos recently completed a PostDoc on Heritage and Patrimonial Studies at the University of Santiago de Chile. She has lectured and published widely on art, literature, heritage studies and architecture in scholarly journals, and in reviews, magazines, collective books and museum catalogs.
1The Russian government stopped defraying the cost of preserving Lenin’s body in 1991, two years before Rivera’s performance. Since 1991, preservation is carried out thanks to private, largely anonymous, donations.
Jacques Rancière. 2010. The Paradoxes of Political Art. In Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, translated by Steen Corcoran, 149. London: Continuum.
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