That’s the answer to the first question you’ll ask once I report that a local artist, by way of raising some interesting questions about survival, memory and the nature of art, drank his own urine in a gallery the other night. It will bug you until you know, so:
At least that’s what the artist, Jevijoe Vitug, told me later. And I’m telling you now, here at the outset, so we can dispense with that queasy, luridly fascinating detail — which you, as a citizen of the United States of TMI, really wanna know — and move on to the stuff that might actually mean something.
Vitug’s piece was part of an evening of performance art Saturday night at the Pop Up Art House in Henderson. He organized it, in fact, as a local adjunct to the London Biennale. That’s a rebel arts event, founded in 1998, meant to oppose the idea of large, corporate-sponsored arts fairs; satellite shows also take place in Paris, Berlin, New York and other major cities.
Titled Rainbow: 7 Colors 7 Artists, it actually involved a lot more than seven participants. Artists were assigned a color of the rainbow — red, orange, blue, green, yellow (guess which artist that was!), indigo and violet — and created performance pieces inspired by their hue. A few worked solo, others paired up, and the orange team numbered in the dozens. The whole thing unfolded over two hours in the PUAH gallery, empty storefronts next door and an alley behind. It was the most concentrated dose of serious, big-city-style performance art that anyone can remember seeing in Las Vegas.
Shortly before the event, a crazy vagrant lady threw a rock into one of PUAH’s windows, cracking but not shattering it. Said gallery owner Shannon McMackin, “The police in the parking lot as the artists arrived seemed perfectly timed to reflect the rebellious nature of the event toward the establishment.”
In the bright white PUAH gallery, artist Matthew Couper, wearing a gorilla suit and a red smock, sat at an easel, tip jar beside him.
“I’ve never seen Matt look so good,” someone snarked as his performance began. He painted small canvases, either depictions of gold or images of feces; he piled the fecal paintings at one end of a green rainbow mountedon the wall, and the gold paintings at the other, and you quickly see what he’s getting at, the alchemical properties of the green rainbow turning something base into something valued for its beauty.
A few doors down, in the indigo room, artist Toshie McSwain, encased in one of those sterile white suits, worked a sewing machine that was being fed spools of paper with drawings on them. “I just got the Indigo Girls,” she said to colleague Darren Johnson, whose head was craftily mounted on a small puppet body. An unsettling noise filled the room, like something from a David Lynch soundtrack.
For blue, artist J.K. Russ and burlesque dancer Mina Kahn performed “Birds of Las Vegas,” in which with Kahn threw her shapely shadow of a projected video of Las Vegas streetscapes.
But for sheer, exuberant fun, it was hard to beat the violet extravaganza by Brent Holmes and Yasmina Chavez. It was a mock café in which the staff spoke only in inflections of one word — “Ha?” or “Ha!” — served you weird purple food and threw the leftovers on the floor, where a child sat watching herself on TV.
The point, you ask? To impart a sense of woozy dislocation, to estrange you from what you consider normal, as a way to ask, what is normal? Thus, it’s about consumption, waste, media, the ability of people to communicate — the heavy lumber of modern American life. “In order to understand one’s culture,” he explained, “one must first stand removed from it.”
OK, you’re up, Jevijoe.
There’s a solemnity you don’t quite expect to drinking urine for the sake of art. Eyes closed, head down, holding a glass of water, Vitug sat immobile on a stool in the middle of the gallery. Onlookers stood silent a few feet away, behind yellow tape.
He had distributed a flier that both warned of the unsettling nature of the performance and hinted at some of its themes, particularly survival. As a native of the Philippines, it said, he was trapped with his family on their rooftop, without food or water, during the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo: “When it’s a life and death situation, you need to adapt in order to survive. … I drank my own urine, that is why I’m alive now.”
With a sure grasp on the quiet theatricality of the moment, he ever-so-slowly raised the glass and drank the water.
He stood still for a few minutes, then, with exaggerated slowness, he unzipped his pants and carefully removed his penis. Even the monkey stopped painting to watch him pee into the cup.
And then, yes, he drank it. Slowly, eyes closed, lending the whole thing an air of ritual or ceremony. Finished, he solemnly lowered his cup.
Which is when local character Lonnie Hammargren, never afraid to bogart the moment, hoisted his beer and said, loudly, “Skoal!” Without acknowledging the intrusion, Vitug retreated slowly to the restroom.
Hammargren turned to the crowd. “I’d do that,” he said. “But not for free!”
Artist Markus Tracy, for one, was impressed by Vitug’s act. “It takes a lot of guts to expose yourself like that,” he said. A few days later, he e-mailed this assessment: “When I think about Jevijoe’s performance, it did signify replenishment by his act of drinking water, but then drinking his urine signified a last resort to stay hydrated in case of dire emergencies.”
“I was worried at first [it] might offend other people who are not familiar with performance-based art,” Vitug said later. “The audience really responded and understood the context of my piece. The solemnity and tension of that particular moment between me and the audience was an experience that cannot be replicated by any sophisticated camera. I’m ecstatic of the outcome.”
Vitug swears, by the way, that it truly was his urine and not some more palatable fluid piped into the glass by means of a tube hidden under his dick, and yes, goddamn it, I asked him about that — just another example of journalism as a force for understanding in a complex world. Anyway, he added, he was wearing skinny jeans; where would he have hidden a setup like that?
A little later, at the bar outside the gallery, the bartender was overheard to joke, “This guy is killing my business!”
You’re entitled to wonder if there’s an element of put-on to all this, a few hip kids acting weird and calling it art. When, after Vitug’s performance, a woman chuckled to her husband, “Now I can cross that off my bucket list,” it wasn’t hard to sense an undercurrent of how is that art?
In a way, of course, that’s the point. Performance art was born back in the sixties and seventies precisely to raise those questions: What is art? And what should it do? Is it about objects reverentially presented in the gleaming white alcoves of the art establishment? Is it art stars selling fancy goods to rich snobs in the VIP tent at a heavily marketed international festival?
Certainly, Couper’s piece offered a dour reading of the artist as a performing monkey — resplendently smocked, yes, but still a lower primate — trying to turn shit into gold. Is that how society sees the artist? Eri King (orange) organized a squad of volunteers to cut, sew and braid discarded clothing into the ropes she uses in her work. Same basic premise as Couper — fashioning art out of decidedly unartistic material — except that she converted her personal artistic process into a sweatshop assembly line. Creative outsourcing! Both pieces, and several of the others, question our received notions of the life and meaning of an artist.
Unlike traditional painting or sculpture, performance art isn’t about fashioning objects that can be price-tagged and sold, commodified. Take that, values-corrupting art market! Instead, it exists in secondhand ways — as photos or video, or simply as memory, the residue of an artistic experience rather than the art itself. So your takeaway from Vitug’s performance is your memory of his stylized reference to his memory of surviving a childhood trauma. And you’re forced to wonder, where does the art reside? Not a bad thing to ponder at a time when art forms and media genres are collapsing into each other, hybridizing like crazy and complicating our notions of art; a time when beautiful, grabby work can emerge equally from an artist’s studio, a programmer’s cubicle or an urban street.
In any case, the events of the Biennale are not the kind of thing you see often in this town, although there are, to be sure, any number of offbeat variety acts and undergroundish cabaret shows that exhibit a performance-art kind of vibe. But pure performance art is something you associate with larger, more artistically cosmopolitan cities. It’ll be interesting to see if anything further comes of this. Roughly 150 people were curious enough to check it out.
“Just saw some of the best performance art I have seen in a boondoggle’s age!” artist Diane Bush Facebooked after the event.
“If [it] introduced disparate groups, artists and appreciators, then it was successful,” McMackin said. “If this rebellious spirit is corralled and continues to create equally alternative ventures between Biennales, then this will be considered a defining moment and smashing success.”
Photos and videos documenting the Biennale performances will be shown in the Contemporary Arts Center, in the Arts Factory, Sept. 6-29.