by Jana Astanov
I got back from Washington to see the second day of the ITINERANT performance art festival that was happening at Smack Mellon with a set of wonderful artists. I am particularly moved by Kathie Halfin’s piece “Live Through It” – in its simplicity, emotional intensity, and raw beauty. Kathie is originally from Ukraine, but we learn that her family had moved to Israel when she was still a teenage girl, throughout the course of the performance. In a minimally body-conscious manner, she presents her personal narrative stage by stage. First, she creates an armour over her red overalls by peeling layer upon layer of two blocks of unbaked raw clay with a string of dental floss. Her face is covered entirely, her body enduring the process, her hands searching and shaking slightly. Then she scribbles with a stick some unrecognizable word on top of her clay bodily shield. Finally, she punches the eye holes creating an impactful mask, through which she communicates this visceral persona. She further employs the dental floss to carve the mouth hole. We hear her speak. She deconstructs her life in front of the audience, a kind of disrobing, as she demonstrates her experience of immigrant isolation wherever she goes: not Russian but Jewish in Russia, and also not entirely Jewish but now very Russian in Israel. And then we learn about a new kind of identity crisis. During a teaching training program, she is assigned to join a group of Caucasian people and not people of colour, she is unable to process that as her experience is so completely different from any white American. I am very moved by this. As people from Central Europe or ex-Soviet Republics, we are perceived in the US as white but when it comes to social interactions we do not have the same rights as Caucasian Americans. We face workplace discrimination, are told we don’t speak English well enough and are viewed as second-class citizens. Although I don’t really expect anyone to understand it, because we are white and seen as white, Kathie’s performance resonated with me strongly. Her voice was cracking at points from the intensity of the experiences that she compressed into a distillation of few words within her body language. Ultimately, we need to recognize that we are all humans and we all have stories and hurts and that we all have the need to belong, to be recognised, to be nurtured and seen for who we are – not through the cliches of our race, nationality or gender, but simply as people.
I was also mesmerized by a seemingly tribal installation created through a durational performance by the German artist Dorothea Seror. During her travels, she collects different fabrics from recycled t-shirts and then weaves them together into a 3-dimensional canvas creating her own totemic symbols. Her postindustrial tribalism is rooted in German folk art whose traditions have been assimilated by the Amish community, she explained to me, as she taught me how to weave a mandala-like object. An important part of her work is to engage the public through teaching us the techniques she developed so we all have a chance to contribute to this colorful dreamy web of recycled materials. Her work suggests an opportunity for our society to shift our patterns of consumption and incorporate the concept of reusables into cultural production. It is a hopeful, gentle, and carefully crafted message indeed.
I couldn’t stay at Smack Mellon for the entire evening of performances as my son woke up by the end of Kathy’s performance, and it was time for us to go. Being with my nearly 14 months old baby at Smack Mellon where last year I performed a piece “Who Should Decide” about Roe v Wade brought back memories… Back then my little baby not even two months old yet performed with me for the part of the piece. That piece had a political message as the laws were being debated and rewritten back then, who would have thought the history will turn against us as if all the battles women endured in the 70s, and long before didn’t count. But honestly, how can we continue to lie to ourselves that things are changing if we still have to endure laws that tell us what to do with our reproductive organs. Our bodies our choice! The message is clear! In my piece last year, the video of my lips reciting the poem about the women’s choice to decide about their bodies and our power of creating and destroying life just like the Goddess Kali, played behind me while I kept on pumping the breast milk.
The mechanical sound of the breast pump resonated throughout the space as it was mic’d to the sound system. Then I read out loud the full transcript of Roe v Wade.