Heather Kravas & American Realness

Rennie McDougall: Heather Kravas’ dead, disappears

Heather Kravas, dead, disappears

Heather Kravas, dead, disappears

“Realness.” The word suggests an art grounded in truth, but also ‘fabulousness,’ exaggeration, the illusion of real; It has its cake and eats it too. No wonder it’s a staple of the drag lexicon, where the construction of both truth and illusion is so playfully muddied.

The American Realness festival—which took place at Abrons Art Center in January, in its seventh iteration—has become a flagship for experimental dance and performance in New York City. Founded and curated by Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor (that “Snapp” really fits the bill), the festival brings together artists who “expose issues and questions around identity, ritual, blackness, history, pop-culture, futurity and consumption.”

A breeze through the festival program reveals a penchant for pinks—lipstick smeared, hair-dyed, skin blushing, pearlescent light through fog. This is the “future,” where we will witness “transformation,” taste the “erotic,” the “ecstatic.” (This language loses its power through so much repetition. One artist knowingly fills the space for his program note with a solid black box. Words just won’t do.)

One word that hovers over the festival, although it doesn’t actually appear, is “queer.” That word is now wielded like a brand, along with its difficult relationship to definition, but here it feels relevant, perhaps due to its omission. There is a strong queer presence among the artists and their propositions, but any political agendas, rather than being trumpeted, are more covertly entrenched in the art, a queerer act in itself.

So much of a festival is about catching glimpses of other people’s reactions, gauging the ‘vibe,’ looking for someone to agree or disagree with. If post-show talk is anything to go by, Americans seem to want to love things so badly. Their praise, sometimes offered with evangelical levels of enthusiasm, renders any dissenting voices threateningly cynical. There’s a spirit of community championing: the more positive the feedback, the stronger the art becomes. This raises plenty of dilemmas: again the question of truth and illusion (or delusion), and the endless challenge of critical evaluation. We are completing a qualitative circuit with the work; we are responsible for its actualisation as much as the artist. We create our own realness.

One artist who directly engages with this confusion is Heather Kravas. Over her 20-plus years of making work in the US, Kravas has examined a politics of the body—particularly the female body—by unpacking choreographic conventions, and at Realness she continued this line of questioning in her methodical and affecting work titled dead, disappears.

Heather Kravas, dead, disappears

Heather Kravas, dead, disappears

“[Heather Kravas’] dead, disappears invites the audience to view the performer as simultaneously woman and object—and to see their own observation as completion of the artistic act.” [program note]

She is rolling with a pillow.

Pillow heaved over body and thrashed against floor. This sequence on repeat, this incessant rolling with a pillow. Now comes the exhaustion, hers and mine both—surely more than this rolling with a pillow could actually generate. Her heavy breathing, her frustrated heave intensifying. Rolling with a pillow. My bottled frustration. Her trapped activity, there’s nowhere to go. This ritual of effort. This rolling with a pillow. Stop this, please, end this now.

We discourage each other from assessing art in terms or liking or disliking, or at least from only thinking in those terms. Any unreasoned response then feels shameful, incorrect. My physical act of watching takes on an object quality, a mirroring of the ubiquitous contemporary object performance.

Kravas, “simultaneously woman and object,” complicates this relationship, presenting herself as both an object-body, complicitly executing a roster of tasks in the prescribed order—sometimes literally reading them off the wall—and as a woman pushing back against these self-imposed limitations, full of frustration, absurdity and power.

Citing Richard Serra’s 1967 verb list, To Collect, as catalyst, Kravas performs a series of choreographic actions: to stamp heels in a precise number sequence; to walk a fine line on tiptoe, shrouded by a garbage bag, shouting “Bimbo” repeatedly (Kravas’ voice so wonderfully brash, so Jennifer Jason Leigh); and to roll, with a pillow.

There’s a masochistic pleasure to be had—a rebellion against my own object-hood—when finding myself in a state of anger over something as inconsequential as rolling with a pillow. Kravas inflicts her own flagellating ritual, and I inflict mine by watching it.

If my observation is the “completion of the artistic act,” surely I have to accept this generous invitation and observe all my readings, however inappropriate, including my unaccountable disdain for this rolling with a pillow.

Each of Kravas’ actions is self-contained, the space between a jump-cut, an A-to-B. My sense of time keeps refreshing, fracturing my impulsive habit to connect the images, to follow some kind of holistic logic. Instead: Now this, look at this. Look closely. Now forget that, what about this?

Kravas ties the aforementioned pillow to a chair and metronomically beats it with a wooden pole, while reciting, alphabetically, a lengthy list of verbs. The virtuosity of the task—the fastidious recitation coupled with the violence inflicted on the pillow—brings the two performative proposals, the object and the woman, into their greatest tension. She is sustained by the thankless task, wielding her exhaustion like a weapon. The collective desire of the audience to drive this action together with Kravas was palpable. And that pillow had it coming.

“Women are not objects” is an unimpeachable maxim and one that Kravas now momentarily disrupts, confusing my perceptions somewhere between the troublesome, the funny and the commonplace. Who wields more power in this exchange? Is it me, observing through my ‘male’ gaze, sitting cross-legged, arms folded, vainly qualifying her actions? Or is it she, owning and subverting her representation, offering equally “woman” and “object,” leaving us to grapple with the responsibility of that dichotomy? While tempting to choose her side of that coin, it never actually lands resolutely, such is the potency of Heather Kravas’ rich dilemma.

Heather Kravas, dead, disappears

Heather Kravas, dead, disappears

A brief interview with Heather Kravas includes excerpts from her performance.

The review component of this article originally appeared on Culturebot, 11 Feb.

Australia’s Luke George and Singapore’s Daniel Kok will appear at the Abrons Arts Center 20-23 April with Bunny, a co-production of Campbelltown Arts Centre and The Substation (Singapore). Read the review of the Australian premiere performance here.

Heather Kravas, dead, disappears, American Realness, Abrons Art Center, New York, Jan 7-11

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016, web

© Rennie McDougall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

20 April 2016