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Into the Ordinary

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David Kodeski's True Life Tales: Another Lousy Day

at the Neo-Futurarium, through April 24

By Carol Burbank

Solo performance artists are notorious for challenging the more polite conventions of the theater. Karen Finley used metaphorical excrement (pudding and canned yams) to express her disgust with the eroticization of violence. Chris Burden injured himself to prove that the artist's involvement could go beyond pretense. Chicago's Anita Loomis has created a transsexual S-M clown persona in a business suit to tell her stories of postmodern disconnection. The audience seems fated to veer between shock and voyeurism, responding to artists' playfulness and despair as they assault or distort beyond recognition the ordinary world.

It's all in the name of superrealism, the wish to make the invisible visible, mark the unmarked, and force audiences out of complacency. Performance art broadcasts its creator's compulsions. Yet ironically these compulsions often get in the way of the story itself, shadowing the invisible with the artist's obsession with showmanship. It's difficult to balance a sense of ethical obligation with blatant self-dramatization, and the results are sometimes entertaining and stimulating but not always as powerful as the Christian right would have us believe.

In fact, such performance art can be pretty tiresome. Certainly there's a lot to rage about, and howling is sometimes exactly the right thing to do. But shock value loses its currency. If there's no affection behind the artist's disaffection, we drift away. With Another Lousy Day, however, David Kodeski calls us back to the alchemical basics of performance: personal involvement, straightforward storytelling, and a grudging respect for unanswerable questions.

This piece, part of the Neo-Futurists' "Neo Mondo Solo '99" series, grew out of Kodeski's obsession with a woman he discovered through her journals and scrapbooks in Chicago junk stores. Dolores lived in Chicago with her father and sister and worked at the factory that produced the first Zenith color TVs; the only journals Kodeski has found so far--from 1960 and 1961--document Dolores's lousy days at work and at home. In one entry she writes, "Although I worked like a horse, I was stuck like a dog all day."

This isn't the outrageous, tacky but glamorous kind of subject we've come to expect from solo performance artists. In fact, Kodeski resists making Dolores's life into any sort of drama. He makes it plain that his guesses about her are often wrong; in the end she's still a mystery, and we get to make up our own stories about why she never married, why she collected sugar packets, and whether she was as depressed as she sounds. She's Kodeski's ongoing research project, an obsession that makes him blush once or twice as he describes his excitement at meeting her friends or finding another scrapbook. It does seem an unlikely passion for a sardonic gay man with a feeling for political causes and pop-culture iconoclasm. But Kodeski takes the leftover pieces of Dolores's quiet life and makes her into a shared passion.

His strategy is simple. He sits at a desk pulling out books and journals and scrapbooks from drawers, occasionally getting up to write names and draw maps on an upstage blackboard. He projects a few slides on a screen and talks about his leads and his feelings about Dolores or about his expenses and his self-consciousness about tracking her life when he doesn't even know if she's still alive.

We follow him along his path of discovery, learning as he learned. First the journals give us hints into Dolores's daily life: what she wore, why her work or friends were (usually) lousy, how she fought with her sister Rose and her father, how she cleaned her bedroom and tidied her drawers with meticulous regularity. Later we see Dolores through her scrapbooks: her trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas documented in souvenir sugar packets, postcards, receipts, and menus stapled and pasted into cheap, crumbling volumes. Despite Kodeski's flat book-report style, we get sucked in. Like him, we want to know more. Every scrap of information seems a significant clue.

Kodeski uses diversions in the style of the Neo-Futurists to keep us traveling with him on this oddly anticlimatic journey. Every time one of Dolores's favorite expressions comes up in the diaries, he rings a little bell. Every "lousy" friend, every "sharp" outfit gets a chime. It's a convenient, funny shorthand that reminds us to notice nuances--because there is nothing but nuance in this sparse documentation. He also gives a few speeches about the transience of life and the ultimate anonymity of the things we leave behind, using the blank, almost deferential confessional style of the Neo-Futurists. These speeches are the weakest elements of his performance, raising points that the audience would have picked up on anyway. Whenever we clean out the apartment of someone who's died or visit a resale shop and find some intimate remembrance of a life we'll never touch, we're confronted by the fragility of our stories. Some audiences might like a little reminder, but in this case it's unnecessary, because Kodeski's delighted, continuous discovery of Dolores's life makes the philosophical subtext quite clear.

Somewhere between a lecture and a confession, Kodeski's performance marks out a territory he began to explore in 1996 with David Kodeski's True Life Tales: Doris. Though Another Lousy Day lacks the spectacle and surprise of his 1997 Niagara! (You Should Have Been Yosemite), he still manages to find a compelling piece in a story that ended before he found the journals and that began with his curiosity. He doesn't judge Dolores's life or try to make a unified story out of scraps. She's not heroic or pathological or fabulous in any way. She's just a ghost he's found, a character he can't analyze or become or even really understand.

But she's lovely. When we finally see pictures of her standing in front of her house, she's suddenly real--in a shadowy way. After all, we know how she arranged her dresser drawers and how her mother died and where she went on vacation. It's as if she's become a distant aunt. She's gone, but she comes back in Kodeski's piece, as every night he tells somewhat different stories about her. After the show, the audience looks at the scrapbooks and journals and asks questions. Kodeski has a few answers, but everyone also makes up something about Dolores. The evening I went, one audience member had a theory that Dolores was a complicated functional depressive, having one lousy day after another but acting a cheerful part. Someone wanted to know why she didn't marry; others wondered about the African-American housekeeper who raised Dolores after her mother's death. This quiet, gentle, mostly unassuming performance somehow brought us into a family network, puzzling out a life whose remains were scattered across the city in thrift stores and junk shops.

I admire the dignity of this straightforward piece. Without shock stylings or a grandiose wish to stun us into awareness of this or that issue, Kodeski rouses us to see the power of ordinary lives, even the value of another lousy day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Newberry.

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