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Guts Get Out of Hand

Tareq and Michaele Salahi with Joe Biden.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi with Joe Biden.

On 7 AM on Thanksgiving morning, I was sitting on my aunt’s couch in Atlanta, watching news coverage about the “uninvited, well dressed Virginia couple” that had crashed Obama’s dinner party the night before. I was thinking about how gutsy you have to be to think you can outsmart the Secret Service—or maybe it’s not guts at all, just senselessness. The funny thing is that it’s often almost impossible to tell the difference between what’s gutsy and what’s senseless.

Act Up, "Silence=Death," 1986. Silence=Death Project, Copy of original from the collection of the New Museum, New York. Photo: Katya Kallsen.

Before going to Atlanta for the holiday, I visited friends in Cambridge, MA, and went to see ACT UP New York: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987–1993, curated by Harvard’s Helen Molesworth and graduate student Claire Grace. The exhibit chronicles key years of AIDS activism through posters, footage, and hours worth of video interviews (the transcripts of which can be read here). When I first walked into the Carpenter Center gallery, clowns with garish makeup were projected on the wall closest to the door. They were prancing around on urban streets and, not long into the video, filmed by Diva TV correspondents, a police van rolled in. Officers started to arrest the less-than-congenial clowns, another instance in which guts could have been confused with craziness. I knew, because of the context, that the clowns had an important cause behind their behavior—a cause so dire that their outlandishness seemed completely proportionate–and so it was the police that struck me as excessive. But, to someone unaware of  the circumstances, the clown’s obstinacy must have seemed over-the-top.

2 weeks ago, while still in Los Angeles, I attended a Sunday afternoon walk-through of LACE’s I Feel Different, an exhibition full of gutsy work that makes sense on an emotional level but often seems rationally absurd, even tasteless. Early on in the tour, curator Jennifer Doyle explained the origins of the exhibition title: Doyle had been visiting her sister when her petite niece had an unmatchable tantrum and let loose cries of agony and anger that didn’t seem like they possibly could have come from such a small body. When Doyle’s sister put the little girl to bed, the girl held a blanket up to her chin and said, “I feel different.” That sentence seemed perfect.

James Luna, "History of the Luiseño People: La Jolla Reservation Christmas," 1990. Courtesy LACE.

On the exhibition’s opening night, James Luna performed his “sad Indian” routine, sitting in an armchair set up in the back corner of the gallery, surrounded by a ceremonial circle of Christmas lights and making perfunctory phone calls to relatives as he slowly drank himself into oblivion. Getting drunk while on display—that’s something I’d never be brave enough, or crazy enough, to do. The exhibition is full of things I’d never do. In a video of an earlier performance, Nina Yhared sets up camp outside a pharmacy, playing the role of a shaman, though she candidly acknowledged that all her spiritual authority came from the magic of performance art. And then there’s David Wojnarowicz’s heart-wrenching video, ITSOFOMO (which stands for In the Shadow of Forward Motion), made the year he died of AIDS, in which the artist yells at an imaginary public, ranting about healthcare reform as he rants about his own disintegrating body in a way that is resentful and proud and self-effacing and naked all at once. It also makes no sense–why put yourself through that? Yet if Wojnarowicz hadn’t let himself implode in his work, I suspect he would left a whole era of emotional pain voiceless.

Niña Yhared (1814), "Ritual Marino." Courtesy LACE.

This year, I think senseless art with guts is what I’m most thankful for.

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