Jack Ferver, excerpts from Death Is Certain, Vandam Goodbar, and A Movie Star Needs A Movie
The recent onslaught of Performa events in New York, coupled with the hullabaloo over Abramovic’s centerpieces at MOCA’s gala, has got me thinking about Camp and its ubiquity in performance driven practices at present. As Sontag once put it, “Considered a little less strictly, Camp is either completely naïve or else wholly conscious (when one plays at being campy).” Abramovic’s rotating heads (and her flummoxed response to the controversy that erupted) falls at the former end of the spectrum; Elmgreen and Dragset’s Happy Days in the Art World here at Performa likely falls at the other.
The trouble is, thinking about Camp as Sontag does (as a sensibility obsessed with style over substance) is too often elided by a superficial notion of camp that deals with tropes, motifs, and strategies that need not necessarily be Campy. Just because a work is delivered straightforwardly, sincerely, and without the usual cultural markers of an intentional Campiness doesn’t make it other than Camp. Similarly, just because a work deals with style or manner does not make it Camp – the question is whether the issue of style or manner is approached rigorously, or merely in a stylized or mannered way.
Jack Ferver’s Me, Michelle, performed at the Museum of Art and Design in New York last weekend, illustrates the issue. A duet by Ferver and dancer-choreographer Michelle Mola, the work (about forty minutes long) utilizes the figure of Cleopatra as a reference point for the investigation of a number of themes – desire and its frustration, depression, and the often dysfunctional relational dynamics that exist between gay men and heterosexual women. Sound like a recipe for Camp? Only if, as stated above, the piece’s subject matter had been approached in either an overly serious or an overly frivolous way. As in previous works such as Rumble Ghost, which used the film Poltergeist as a jumping off point for explorations of childhood and therapeutic practices, Ferver’s reinterpretation/reenactment/interrogation of Cleopatra is a concerted and serious effort to get at substantial personal truth.
The piece begins with Ferver, as Cleopatra, mourning the death of Antony and awaiting her deportation to Rome, consulting with Mola, playing her servant. It concludes with the pair’s joint suicide. Ferver and Mola slip in and out of using canonical Cleopatra texts and engaging in conversation as themselves, or as characters related to themselves or based on their own experiences. Rather than slipping “in and out of character,” it’s better to describe Ferver’s strategy as one of inhabiting a multiplicity of real, projected, and fictional selves all at once, each of them speaking/interrupting in turn. Rather than “imitating” Cleopatra (or Liz Taylor’s film portrayal of her, or Liz Taylor, or Liz Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at one point) and then “breaking character” and speaking as himself, each figure shapes the other. (This makes talking about who does what in describing the performance somewhat complicated, so bear with me.)
Ferver’s performative dexterity – alternating from the deathly serious to the comic, or better yet, both at once – is breathtaking. For instance, when Ferver/Cleopatra invites his slave/Michelle to aid in committing suicide, s/he invites her to join her/him, because “… I know you don’t have anything else to do.” You laugh, but you also recognize the self-obsession that is part of depression. Ultimately, Me, Michelle is a meditation on absence. Ferver/Cleopatra tries to occupy his/her mind with diversions – a lap dog, Michelle/slave’s stories of other experiences – and the affections of his/her friend/slave, but can’t get beyond the abandonment and humiliation of being left alone. When Ferver demands to know if Michelle loves him, you know that no matter how affirmative her answer, it will never be enough, and it won’t change the ultimate outcome of the piece.
The extended dance that concludes the performance, in which the characters end their lives, demonstrates Ferver’s adeptness as a choreographer and the skill of his and Mola’s dancing. In particular, the dance utilizes the sometimes awkward architecture of the museum in striking ways. Performed on the seventh floor of MAD, the intimate gallery/performance space features a curved wall with large, picture windows overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park beyond on either side. At one point, Ferver hurls his body repeatedly against this wall immediately adjacent to one of the windows, as if he might take a flying leap onto the pavement outside. The effect was as riveting as everything that came before.
I was unable to take photos or videos of the performance, but Ferver often places video documentation of his performances in their entirety on his website, so look out for it in the future. In the meantime, I’d highly suggest attending his next performance, or watching some of the other videos on his site.
Jack Ferver, A Movie Star Needs a Movie