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Published in Carets and Sticks on July 28, 2015

Emily Mast, ENDE, at Night Gallery

The large garage door swung open, and crowds of hiply dressed people, Tecates in hand, swarmed into Los Angeles’ Night Gallery to witness Emily Mast’s performance ENDE, last Saturday. The crowds were met by an array of props, hanging lights, tape on the floor demarcating the performance space, and Emily holding a microphone; dressed in beige corduroys and a brown t-shirt.

The crowd settled into place around the catwalk, and suddenly, things were moving: fourteen people that had been sprinkled throughout the crowd rushed up to the catwalk in their normal attire. A soundtrack, and a live drummer began to play. The performers each grabbed a stack of neatly folded clothes, and lined the catwalk to disrobe and change into muted yellows, ochres, and browns. All the while, Emily walked around pacing, and eying the performers, whispering things to the camera men, calling certain performers by name, and asking them to move here or there.

 

The performers scuttled about, creating a beautiful sort of chaos, punctuated by focused moments of loosely choreographed movement; recalling a Fluxus energy. The chaos stretched out laterally – everything happened at once. As viewers, we felt lucky to witness sweet little moments, yet also distraught over what we might be missing on the other side of the room. The mundane tasks being performed were exciting, and stupid. Important and meaningless.  Organizing yellow paper cups into a pyramid stack, tap dancing, posing with a yellow hankie over the face. Yet cloaked in aestheticized intentionality, these actions were captivating. The rich yellows and warm browns that the performers donned served to connect viewer and actor – a warmth emanated.

Like any sonata, the performance ebbed and flowed, and the performers became loose and languid, then staccato and intense. In one moment, a piece of cardboard was laid down, and 5 performers instantly attacked it, as if trying to contain a loose animal. They wrestled and grabbed, manically tapping it into a ball, and fighting for control. The drummer matched this intensity with rapid beats. After a couple of minutes, the ball became contained, and the drumming ceased. Peace again. Back to organizing feathers, and posing in the corner. In another crescendo, two of the men began full out wrestling on the floor. The intensity in their faces was palpable, as sweat dripped off their foreheads.

Amidst it all, Emily walked through the performers calling cues like “more intensity Chris” and “Jim, swap places with Jenny.” A live video stream projected onto the gallery wall, highlighting detailed moments throughout the cacophonous show, allowing for a sort of call and response game between image and audience.  In addition to Emily and the camera crew, one woman acted as a gaffer and grip for the performance; shining lights onto the actors, and at one point dragging a ten foot ladder onto the catwalk to change a lightbulb.

Towards the end of the performance, a new performer took the stage, and began a beautiful and haunting rendition of T Rex’s “Life is Strange.” The drummer put down his sticks, and began to strum along on a guitar. The other performers winded down their actions, and began sitting, and staring, or slowly organizing props.

After this barrage of actions and chaos was over, it all began again, and the entire script was re-performed start to finish, albeit with small changes in posture, mood, and sweat levels.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to know which elements of this complex and layered performance are meant to be obscurely stored in the depths of memory, and which should be pointed at and decoded. In one’s daily life, does eating a carrot or taking a shit hold more meaning on any given day? They are just things that we do. We get into some touchy semiotic territory here.

In ENDE, each action became both syntagmatic and paradigmatic, both vital and replaceable, collapsing the basic understanding of semiotics, and instead relying of something much more touchy-feely: emotions. In art criticism, we must look at things practically, harshly, state facts, discover truths. In other words, check our baggage at the door. Yet, baggage aside, there is something truly spectacular that occurs when you are 5 feet away from another human watching them act and react, move and contort. It cuts through all the social bull-shit that we are subjected to as a culture, and connects audience and performer into a humanizing and real exchange.

Striving to create a similar connectedness, one goal of the Fluxus artists was to step away from ego.  “The manifesto of 1963 exhorted the artist to ‘purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual”, professional and commercialized culture…to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.”  (1) They created objects in multiples to rid the artist of ego, and to comment on the cultural status of art.

Perhaps this was the goal that ENDE was striving towards in the re-performance of itself. By creating a doubling, a separation of self occurs: myself  becomes us, and the ego is lessened. Yet, Emily’s actions throughout the performance –tromping through the catwalk calling shots and issuing orders– pretty much mute this whole Fluxus angle; her ego is clearly the dominant one.

In Emily’s writing on the show, she states, “Supposedly, when we’re very near death our whole system shuts down and all sections must be emptied. Stored memories dart by as each section of the brain is extinguished. The people you connected with, moments that had an effect on you and things that were a part of you flash by and disappear. And when this happens all one hears is silence.” (2) The artist’s role in this performance was one of an oculus: filming and interpreting actions as they flew past, editing the raucousness of life into bite-sized video clips. The orchestration of the whole thing made the next life of the performance ( i.e. an embedded Vimeo link on the artists website ) every more present; a little sister trying to steal the show.

Our proximity to Hollywood heightens the aestheticized artifice apparent in this performance– admittedly, Emily made us feel, relate, emote, yet the smoke and mirrors were also revealed. Emily’s role in her own performance shattered a certain “pureness” of action that the rest of the performers embodied, and instead asserted notions of ARTIST AS GENIUS. Her role in the performance acted out the very thing that the Fluxus artists were vehemently against: she was “the man”: the critic, the dilettante, the professional.

By evoking a certain art historical language, and then Nancy-Karriganing it at the knees, it’s hard to know if the performance was a critique of capitalist hierarchies, or it was reenacting the very thing it is against. Like Lindsey Lohan in Mean Girls, becoming “Plastic” to destroy “The Plastics.” In this regard, it’s unclear which end (pun intended) the artist is working towards. Love, pain, struggle, beauty all exist, Emily plays God, and the rest of us try to go about our days. Try not to let the man drag you down.

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