Bad girl videos from the fab Patty Chang

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I went to the Fabric Workshop and Museum to see the Yinka Shonibare and Laura Owens work but what I wasn’t expecting, not having noticed any promotional materials on it, were videos from performance artist Patty Chang. I’ll get back to Shonibare and Owens later.

The 14 videos, dating from 1998 to 2001, show Chang fiercely defying any notion of dignity and decorum.

My first take was this was a woman who had zero patience with any stereotypical ideas of Asian womanhood. Chang is outrageous in a gigantic nursing-mother sized bra, one side open to reveal, instead of a breast, a halved melon which she scoops out with a spoon and inserts in her mouth mercilessly (image top, a still from “Melons (At a Loss),” 1998).

When I went to download a still from this video, I got popped into some damned sex site, a place where all Chang’s fierceness and comic self-abuse and irony were clearly lost. But to people in the more usual range of sexual interest, my guess is that Chang would not come across here as sexy. What I got out of this was an absolute determination to make fun of that abusive version of sexy, to shock and even offend.

I’ve read some stuff comparing Chang to self-abuse artists a la Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic (image right), but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, even though Chang names Abromovic [sic.] in one of her titles. Chang’s self-abuse does not veer (at least in the videos I saw) into harming herself.

Rather, she’s play-acting at the self-abuse. This is an important difference, because she’s more about showing her viewer her darkest side, thereby liberating herself from her viewer’s expectations. I don’t get that sense of seeking to reach a higher plane of psychological or religious ecstacy through self-abuse that Abramovic gives.

Because she’s play-acting, the videos have a sense of humor at the same time that they are somewhat repelling. A melon in a nursing bra is just too funny. In “Contortion,” (image left) she plays an Asian sphynx with a sexy self-absorption. The legs come from another performer whose upper half is hidden, creating the illusion of one contorted body moving with a mocking languor. I especially loved the orchid behind Chang’s ear, her half-shut eyes, and the red circus costume, again playing on stereotypes of sexiness.

Another video showed her face and its reflection in a mirror. When her lips move to slurp the water pooled invisibly at first on the mirror, it becomes clear that the mirror must be face up even though it looks like it’s upright. What starts as a gesture resembling kissing herself escalates into vigorous slurping of the water, until empty spots begin to form on the mirror, the mappy edges of the water distorting Chang’s face–a disfigurement that’s only mirror-deep, but what a perfect backdrop for questioning beauty and vanity (image right, “Fountain”). I somehow missed that this mirror was on the floor of a public bathroom, but I read that somewhere later. Eeeuw.

There were a couple of videos of Chang kissing unexpected partners–another woman and in the other an older man and an older woman who are her parents–and passing an onion from mouth to mouth as they weep, and there were a couple of videos with a false perspective where she ends up walking and falling on a waterbed disguised (barely) as grass in a field–it reminded me of Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” especially when she toppled on to the grass–or as carpeting in an office hallway. One of these each was enough for me, and maybe because I saw it first, or maybe because of Chang’s suit and high heels, I liked the office hallway version better.

A movie of her making love or struggling with a blow-up doll in a pool reminded me of a Pipilotti Rist video which I had seen at the Fab as well. Chang’s background music was “This is dedicated to the one I love;” Rist’s background music was Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game.” Although the music in Rist’s video is a renunciation of love, there she is immersed in sensually lit water, floating around. Although Chang’s music is a paeon to love, she’s fiercely entangling with the doll in ways that suggest frustration and anger more than love. And Chang is dressed in white cotton good girl underwear for this.

I especially loved “Death of Game,” in which Chang, looking quite boyish and punchy, looks and acts like Jackie Chan (her name in movie, Mulan Rouge) with Roy, a weak, long skinny guy with a ‘fro and wispy beard and kissy lips–more gender bending. It’s a take-off on not a Jackie Chan but a Bruce Lee movie, “Game of Death,” starring Kareem Abdul Jabar, and apparently was included in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “Black Belt” show (see our posts here and here) but I somehow missed it then.

“Calendar Girl” didn’t have a live human, but rather a cheesecake calendar, a fan blowing the pages up so Miss October’s torso is above December’s sexy legs, and the action of the blowing pages call up Marilyn Monroe and the blowing skirt over the sidewalk grate. Miss December’s legs are backed by another pair of legs–perhaps a woman’s. I was dying to see what that bottom image really was. But all I got was a titillating peek as the fan made the calendar pages flutter.

But my favorite of all was Chang, propped up in a prissy, upright position against a wall (she’s on the floor, but that’s not clear at first), wearing a short, tailored skirt and a blouse buttoned high. It turns out that inside her shirt are eels, although you can’t see that they are eels. She has to poke the eels to rally them from torpor. Their sinuous wriggling and her hands suggest auto-eroticism as well as discomfort, and she pants and moans as the eels wriggle inside her shirt. Her legs she squeezes together much of the time, holding the slit in her skirt down and shut, except she’s got a fan that counters the action. Again, the tension between revulsion and eroticism is terrific, and the story you can make up as you watch the video can go either way, depending on your inclination (image, “Untitled (Eels)”).

I missed pieces of two of the videos, and I totally missed one in which she shaves her pubic hair while blindfolded. I’ll have to go back.

Overall, Chang’s willingness to transgress norms of behavior and appearance give the videos a zing, and her preoccupation with the sexual tension of non-sex creates a sort of story that carries the viewer along. The climax never comes, but it’s worth waiting for.

This show will be up until Nov. 6.

By the way, Laura Owens will be giving a gallery talk tonight at the Fab at 6 p.m.

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