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Notions of Womanhood


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at N.A.M.E. Gallery

November 10 and 11

N.A.M.E. Gallery's "Opening the Circle of Identities," three performance pieces by four women artists, was a show intended to "question, undermine, or present new possibilities to conventional notions of female identity." This two-and-a-half-hour program, though it offered momentary insights, was too often confused and unclear, making for an evening more taxing than illuminating.

Dominique Dibbell's Dean Rivers was the lightest of the three. Dibbell, dressed as a slick 70s Vegas singer named Dean Rivers, enters the tiny performance space and saunters about the stage, lip-synching some overproduced Tom Jones extravaganza with lyrics like: "Hollywood, stardom, fame, that's you, girl." Dibbell's cross-gendered persona is beguiling. Her hair is plastered into an imitation of the classic male hairdo--parted on the side, combed over, sideburns--and she wears a black velour shirt open to the waist, so that from the front she seems quite "masculine." In profile, however, as her breasts become visible her "feminine" attributes become more apparent.

Dean Rivers goes on to speak "candidly" with the audience, offering trumped-up personal confessions that drip with insincerity. "Some people laugh at me when I say this," he begins, his brow furrowed in mock humility, "but I do feel a lot bigger when I'm onstage. Sometimes it's hard to come back to normal size." He elaborates on his painful life--growing up on an Indian reservation, not being liked as a child--and then attempts to turn the proceeding into an Oprah-style sharefest. "Do you sometimes feel completely alone?" Rivers asked a woman sitting in the front row. When the woman nodded, Rivers said, "Thanks, that makes me feel better."

Dibbell's character is self-aggrandizement personified. While Rivers continually protests through word and song that he lives for his audience, it is charmingly clear that he lives only for himself. Most successful about this piece is the image of Dibbell herself, at once nonsexed and double-sexed. But since Dean Rivers is quite brief, Dibbell is not able to probe this image in much depth. She also seemed restrained, even uncomfortable in the performance, never committing fully to the character she had invented. If she had, though such an actorly concern may be frowned on in certain performance-art circles, it would have strengthened this piece immeasurably.

Suzie Silver's Desire Denied, Deferred or Squared has a similar weakness. Silver's piece alternates between cuttings of "lesbian scenes" from a variety of Hollywood films and live performance, in which Silver dons a series of satirical costumes--the artist, the punk, the career woman. I must say I got very little out of this piece primarily because Silver's performance was so muddy. Each of her characters spoke in the same cadence and tone of voice, delivering aphorisms and platitudes without clear intent or subtext. In the section in which the "artist" spouts a series of Oscar Wilde's witticisms, for example, she delivers statements full of high irony--"Only the shallow know themselves; experience is what you call other people's mistakes"--with utter directness and seriousness, as if they were to be taken at face value.

The tone Silver wanted in Desire was never clear. I was very uncomfortable, not knowing whether I was laughing with or at the piece. The film clips served as a disappointingly obvious analysis of pop culture's images of lesbians--as insatiable, miserable, or dangerous. They also seemed to be a way to take a few cheap shots, as when the audience ended up laughing at the stilted way in which Elizabeth Taylor tried to seduce Tuesday Weld. However, a fair contingent of women in the audience seemed to enjoy the piece immensely; and perhaps it's only fair to observe that a certain language derived from lesbian culture may have been operating in this piece that I simply didn't understand.

The last piece, Duel/Duet, offered something of a lecture in art history, psychoanalytical theory, and sexual politics. Christine Tamblyn and Joanna Frueh, who performed the work, are two academics, critics, and performance artists who work on opposite coasts. They exchanged letters, examining female representation in a patriarchal culture, and then came together in Chicago to read these letters in dialogue. Both women were remarkably insightful and passionate in their search for an appropriate image of femininity, looking at such things as statues of ancient goddesses, Mother's Day cards, and pornography.

This dialogue was most successful when the women raised questions rather than suggested answers. Frueh meditated upon photographs of female body builders, musing that such women paradoxically embody that which makes men most masculine. She then compared body builders to women who are overweight, saying that both phenomena represent "disruptive excess" of women's standard image. She was troubled, however, by this line of reasoning, since if she used a term like "excess" she implied a normative model for women's bodies.

For the most part, however, the letters were so filled with academic jargon that they were nearly unintelligible. I'm sure that reading the letters would be fascinating: the reader could weave his or her way through the text at a comfortable pace. But here the listener was not allowed time to reflect and assess before the performers moved on. And these women did little to illuminate their texts, tossing off complicated phrases and idioms as if everyone knew what they meant.

"Opening the Circle of Identities" was an ambitious project, exploring the critically important issue of female representation in a male-dominated society. Such an event gives women the opportunity to develop a woman-centered language. And perhaps if programs like this continue in Chicago, the confusions that clouded this particular evening will begin to disappear.

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