With a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and group exhibitions at the Tate and ICA behind her, London-based Spartacus Chetwynd inaugurates the new next-door project space at the New Museum with her installation, “Home Made Tasers,” and a performance, “The Lion Tamer,” which debuted last night as part of Performa 11.
The New Museum press release touts the young Chetwynd’s invocation of “Brechtian drama,” and the on-site wall text says she raises questions “about the relationship between humans and the natural world as well as the understanding of historical truth.” It’s an ambitious agenda that the work fails to live up to in a meaningful way.
Inside the space, misshapen cardboard boxes host crudely constructed dioramas. On the wall, nude bodies are loosely outlined in primary colors. Organically shaped cardboard mobiles, painted white and patched together with cloth and yarn, are suspended from the wall by cloth strips, and a tent with an octopus’s face (helpfully identified by an audience member as the “brain bug” from Starship Troopers) rests in the corner.
Chetwynd, a charming and sweetly unaffected presence, starts the performance by announcing that there will be formal parts with action and informal parts when nothing happens.
First, a cast of about 10 costumes a skinny young white man in a kindergarten version of a Mayan god outfit by laboriously putting on a long-sleeved red shirt and tying bands of cut-paper feathers around his limbs. He walks a few paces, turns in a circle, returns to the dressers, and they undress him. Next, Chetwynd, wearing a tin foil top, feebly mimes the role of a lion tamer while the others crouch on all fours. A tall man in a wig and a long painted sheath sings badly and speaks incomprehensibly and plays a sound recording from his phone over the microphone.
The parts approached stagecraft as a kind of bricolage, although the disparate elements never compellingly linked up. Chetwynd’s work has been interpreted as using ritual and her college degree is in anthropology. However this performance is so slight that it fails to engage these themes, or even present a subject of particular investigation.
Chetwynd and her approach are appealing. One wishes she would use this platform in a directed fashion, instead of letting the state of “un-finish” descend into extreme casualness.
In the piece’s final sequence, the cast and some audience volunteers jump up and down, slap the floor and make monkey noises. After they fling their arms back and forth dancing, the “brain bug” is clumsily pulled across the floor and audience members are invited to stick their heads in its mouth. The audience participation is consistent with Chetwynd’s ethic of generous invitation and reciprocity with the audience. Unfortunately, nothing virtuosic is requested.
Additional performances of “The Lion Tamer” take place tonight, Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7 and 8 pm. Photo courtesy the New Museum.