On the front door of Roxaboxen Exhibitions in Pilsen, an inscription in faded black permanent marker reads: “Yes, this is a gallery.”Â The remark seems to serve a straightforward purpose, reassuring prospective patrons that they have arrived at the right place.
Like the scrawl on the wall, the evening of performances–curated by Annie Maurer and Millie Kapp and entitled “wave wave, wind wind, bough bow”–explored reflexive reflexivity and the affect in saying nothing at all.
The first performance was a reading by Joni Murphy of her sprawling, oblique meta-script entitled “Victory Over The Sun Was Never Won In The West.” Seated in folding chairs before a crowd of alternative urchins and supportive parents, Joni and her co-performer Brian Wallace took turns presenting a still-hypothetical play, ostensibly a work-in-progress: “It has a beginning, middle, and end,” she muttered apathetically; “There are costumes and makeup…and an unsatisfactory conclusion,” he added with mounting irony. The setting – a picture of a dusty, capitalist dystopia with a murder rate higher than Baghdad’s – is Ciudad JuÃ¡rez, Mexico, although the location is left unnamed in the piece. Murphy’s choice to forgo a more concrete narrative was motivated by a desire to identify with the place on an emotional rather than rational level. “[Walter] Benjamin has a…quote,” she explained a bit awkwardly, “that’s something like, the state of emergency is not the exception it’s the…norm. I wanted [the show] to be like you’re walking past a crime that’s being committed, but you aren’t actually sure that it’s a crime.”
The next self-conscious reading came from recent MFA Benjamin Chafee with his piece entitled “Trying to square the circle, as near a halo appears to be; Daniel Chaffee, Robert Ashley, Yves Klein, and Joan Jonas.” Chafee invited the audience to retreat into the back corner of the gallery where both his voice and face, illuminated only by a meager, incandescent bulb, were conspicuously distant. Born out of an autobiographical impulse, “Trying to square the circle” evolved into a discussion of the vacuity of narrative form, emphasizing the continuity between artifice and lived experience. Ultimately, Chafee’s exploitation of reflexive tropes conveyed a lateral saunter, pointing at each moment to where he had just been and beckoning the listener to follow him.
The keystone of the evening was a primitive dance-like performance by the curators, Maurer and Kapp, as well as Noah Furman, Hilary Kennedy, and Matthew Shalzi. Entitled “The palm poises as a plant does, and slips into the evening of the day,” the performance dismantled and whimsically re-codified bodily form. On a literal level, “the palm” refers to the plant onstage, which was eaten and vomited in pantomime. Figuratively, the violent heaving toyed with the themes of fate (as in palmreading) and irreverence (“talk[ing] to the hand”). With much of the act spent on one foot, writhing fish-like in place or engaged in an absurd game of call-and-response, it was easy to read a certain immaturity in the performance, but Maurer insisted that the evocations were uncontrived. “Think of an untrained dancer,” she suggested. “You could ask him why he is doing what he is doing…but he’s just moving in the only way he knows how …what you saw them doing was a pure expression of themselves.” Like hearing a foreign tongue for the first time, the sensuality of the performance was invoked by the absence of language.
There was a poignant line towards the end of Chafee’s piece that characterizes the dilemma of a reviewer: “Her criticism was in her description.” These pieces, though self-referential and caught up in their own enunciation tend to thwart description; in a sense, the most objective critic of each piece is the piece itself. To describe the Saturday’s performances literally, or even to try to do so, would in effect say nothing. The charm of the pieces lay in their scrupulous honesty about their imperfections. Rather than take artfulness for granted, they left the question open, and allowed the audience to supply their own.