Here Comes the Son

Jess Barbagallo on Machine Dazzle’s Treasure at the Guggenheim

Machine Dazzle, Treasure. Performance view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. September 6, 2019. Commissioned by Works & Process. Photo: Robert Altman.

AS A THEATER PRACTIONER who has participated in the presentation of work at major museums in New York City and Europe, I’m no stranger to how the art world loves “hybrid” works of performance, which usually means the poor medium gets run through the blender of conceptualism in the name of some opaque inquiry, only to be spat back out in a so-called novel gesture. Reductions of theater to “performance” are often also thin, begging the question: How does an art practice grow when the porous social exchanges that feed its makers emotionally and aesthetically have been so utterly misappropriated by the institutions meant to support it?

Treasure, a work-in-progress by costume designer and sartorial poet Machine Dazzle that was presented at the Guggenheim in early September, brilliantly captured these tensions between expansion and fixity, community and commodity. Machine is a self-described maximalist (and conceptualist, to playfully trouble the waters further) with a penchant for neon and alarming headpieces. I know him best as the guy who designed Taylor Mac’s ensembles for A 24-Decade History of Popular History, which officially premiered in 2016, but Machine has been honing his craft since 1994. His imagination is fueled by a queer reactionary’s absurdist sensibility, and tenderized by a certain sweetness that seems the product of collaborating with friends over long periods of time.

Machine Dazzle, Treasure. Performance view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. September 6, 2019. Commissioned by Works & Process. Photo: Robert Altman.

Going to the Guggenheim is always a hoot. The uptown/downtown collision can sometimes upstage whatever action one might find in its proscenium. The night I saw the show, cabaret royalty littered the place. I spied the impish Morgan Bassichis. Latecomer Justin Vivian Bond looked glam as ever. One woman was wearing a sequined football jersey, and another was sporting a small hat topped with a Pez dispenser, like a DIY confectionary unicorn disguised as a human. A few rows behind me sat those Upper East Side ladies in unassuming (read: expensive) two-piece suits, and there were just so many men in khaki pants and oxfords, I thought the original Brooks Brothers were here on a field trip. Looking down at my Crossfit hoodie (read: my uniform), I wished I’d made a different choice. But then the show started.

Treasure—“made to measure on the occasion of NY Fashion Week”—is a couture show encased by a cabaret act. With the invaluable assistance of his seriously crushable musical director and guitarist Viva DeConcini (the two actually live in the same building), Machine sang songs exploring his relationship to his deceased mother Debbie (who always preferred to be called Deborah), as well as the growing pains of his coming-out and leaving home for New York. (A black-and-white photograph of Deborah onstage proves that Machine’s horn-rimmed glasses are a dead-ringer for hers). Wearing a wig that resembled a blown-out ball of yarn and a tent-like frock patterned after a luau, our host exuded panache even when self-effacing, which makes sense for someone who has spoken through his clothes for so many years. On the back wall, a small fluorescent sign read, “Hi, Mom,” a phrase that Machine often leaned on, a bittersweet punchline that simultaneously telegraphed the shyness and slyness that mark him as a performer. Over the course of the show, there were a few good jokes (“Can you believe I lost my virginity as a top?”) and a great bit delivered to a piñata of 45 that eventually got its orange guts beat out by a game audience member. Machine recalled meeting The Donald years ago when the artist was working as a stylist, and addressed the surrogate in a deliciously passive aggressive tone: “Do you remember me from the Tracy Reese fashion show ten years ago? I did jewelry. Yes, I look different!”

Machine Dazzle, Treasure. Performance view, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. September 6, 2019. Commissioned by Works & Process. Photo: Robert Altman.

As my earlier remarks might suggest, your writer here is not a follower of fashion. That said, a person would have to lack sentience not to appreciate the retinal assault of Treasure’s climactic two-part fashion show, the second replete with a full blown dance sequence capped off by two sissy bois mirroring each other in ecstatic duck walks. A dozen model misfits descended upon the Peter B. Lewis Theater in full-blown glory, working the natural architecture of the space until they filled a little balcony to the right of the stage, looking like jurists in a surreal court. I remember boas, lots of chartreuse, a pair of tights painted to depict skinned knees. But theatrically what felt more striking was the band: unadorned, tight with talent and seductively nerdy. It was the clash of these middle-aged musicians and the models and the women from the Upper East Side that produced the particular style of Treasure, which could be described as the ultimate celebration of being out-of-place.

Machine Dazzle’s Treasure was performed from September 5th to the 7th as part of Works & Process, the performing arts series at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.