If you’ve been to this year’s quite good Whitney Biennial, you’ve definitely heard Marianne Vitale’s voice. In fact, you’ve probably heard more than enough of her and tried your best to tune out her rant about art patronage in a video (pictured) on the second floor. Provocative, nagging, funny and annoying, it’s also one of the few works that still stands out weeks later. Vitale was much less in-your-face in a performance last night that she organized for the international curatorial network Kunstverein‘s New York chapter at White Slab Palace on the Lower East Side.
As the crowd at the door to the bar’s back room grew steadily ahead of the 8pm showtime we were given regular updates on the delayed performance, The Clipper, for which Vitale invited writers, actors, musicians, artists and singers to join her on the deck of a makeshift ship-shaped stage. At 8:15pm, sailors/performance artists Michael Portnoy and Walter Gambini emerged from the doorway in half-Popeye, half-Jack the Sparrow costumes and shouted over the bar’s low murmur: “The fucking show is starting!”
As the audience of 50 or so filed into the narrow, L-shaped back-room performance space, the Clipper was already on its voyage. At the front of the twenty-feet long raised stage, a model stood motionless throughout the 30-minute show, topless, covered in gold body paint and adorned with angelic wings, serving as the boat’s figurehead designed by actor and performance artist Jessica Mitrani. Behind her, a latticework of ropes, pulleys and nets adorned with fresh fish—the room smelled very fishy, which added to the show’s impressively immersive effect—gave some sense of the ship. On deck, Portnoy and Gambini were joined by the loudly apologetic captain (author and performance artist Todd Colby) and Dina Seiden, the ship’s fed-up sex object. The performance’s first section centered around her hilarious, harrowing story of having to compete for sexual supremacy with the sailors’ preferred partners: a particular variety of skate whose insides are so vagina-like that in their minds the fish has become more desirable than an actual woman, forcing Seiden’s character to make her genitals more skate-like.
Thereafter Seiden’s tragic character crawled across the ship’s deck, playing with a a huge, formless fish carcass and trying to use various objects to get off, while Portnoy sang a campy number, only to be interrupted by black-clad pirate (Sandeep Bhuller) trying to take over the chaotic vessel. After a speech about capitalist hegemony, terrorism, political action and those sorts of things, the irate sea bandit was dispatched with some collective neck-snapping, but not before setting off a small smoke bomb, filling the space with an acrid smell that drowned out the pungent fish odor.
Suddenly, the giant clam shell that had been rocking at the front of the stage throughout the show sprung open, and singer Josh Boyer emerged smeared with oil and wearing little more than a loincloth, spraying the audience with a water gun. He then screamed through a punk rock performance whose chorus went, “You come in my mouth and I’ll come in yours.” After returning surprisingly obediently to his shell, The Clipper entered the last leg of its voyage, with singer and burlesque performer Brandon Olson—donning a scintillating dress and sailboat-shaped hat—recounting and reenacting the final voyage of a Vaseline fortune heiress in a hilariously campy musical routine. (Pete Drungle on piano and electronics, Tony Lewis on drums, and Al MacDowell on electric bass managed to provide a coherent live score to the disjointed narrative fragments.)
The Clipper‘s impression—once the performance ended as abruptly as performance art tends to—was of a playful feminist re-assembling and updating of shipwreck and cast-away narratives, from Moby Dick, South Pacific, Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies to, well, Cast Away. Leaving the small, hot, smelly space and stepping back out onto Allen Street was refreshing, but also made me miss the strange, often uneasy camaraderie that the piece generated between the audience and performers. As with most journeys, the trip was more interesting than the destination (which, in this case, didn’t even exist), and having arrived at the end part of me wanted to get back on board for the 10pm performance.