Out of Shape

Kate Sutton on Ieva Misevičiūtė’s Lord of Beef

Ieva Misevičiūtė performing in Sanya Kantarovksy’s “Apricot Juice” at Studio Voltaire.

WHEN THE DEVIL COMES TO MOSCOW, he puts on a vaudeville show.

At least, that was his M.O. in Mikhail Bulgakov’s mesmerizing The Master and Margarita, which was written in the prime purge period from 1928–1940, but could only be published in 1967. Dazzling and dense, the book splices a reverie on writer’s block, a defense of Pontius Pilate, and a razor-sharp critique of the early Soviet state—though to be fair, that last one writes its own jokes.

The novel opens with a kitsch-schilling poet and the director of the Writers Union in conversation at Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds. The city is slathered with an unseasonable heat, and the kiosk advertising cold beer has only apricot juice, so warm it’s starting to ferment. Artist Sanya Kantarovsky chose this scene as the point of departure for his ode to the novel, an exhibition titled “Apricot Juice” that opened in London’s Studio Voltaire this spring. The painter modeled the near-grotesque, cartoonish stances of his main characters on gesture-studies made of shape-shifter Ieva Misevičiūtė, who delivered an opening-night performance on a stage cut like the silhouette of a fat black cat, a nod to Behemoth, one of the devil’s more absurd accomplices in the novel.

After startling audiences with her linguistic triple-lutzes in Michael Portnoy’s 27 Gnoses, which premiered at Documenta 13 in 2012, Misevičiūtė has been honing her act through a series of solo performances and occasional curatorial forays (she helped craft the conceit for the “Mindaugas Triennial,” the 2012 edition of the Baltic Triennial). Her particular brand of sorcery is hard to pin down, alternately suggesting Butoh, cabaret, calisthenics, an open mic night at a comedy club, or an exorcism. Long and limber, her body wraps itself around snippets of recognizable choreography—a grand plié, a lock step—incrementally exaggerating the gestures until they have reached a point beyond slapstick. “Unproductive gymnastics,” she calls it. It might be worth noting that the artist spent her youth training to be a clown.

With its mix of sensuality, fantasy, and satire, Master and Margarita offered an ideal context for Misevičiūtė. Her act opened quietly, with the artist gliding through the crowd in a crimson-colored tunic, her ears painted to match. Once on stage, she slipped almost imperceptibly into the poses that inspired Kantarovsky’s paintings. Like the novel, there was no clear linear narrative, only a series of “bits” set to a soundtrack patched together from krautrock, NASA recordings of sound in space, and contemporary techno. Misevičiūtė moved in and out of the music, her body disconnecting with the jerky persistence of a wind-up-toy. For one bit, she tucked two long red poles into her sleeves, mimicking the expressive proportions in the paintings. Her body no longer appeared human, but rather like one of those windsock salesmen genuflecting over quickie car washes.

These kinds of contortions formed the heart of Lord of Beef, a performance Misevičiūtė premiered last year at LAXART and which has since traveled to Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, the Centre Pompidou, the Block Universe Performance Festival in London, and the Liste performance program curated by Eva Birkenstock. On Sunday, October 18, the piece will make its East Coast debut as part of the programming for the fourth edition of “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1.

Ieva Misevičiūtė, Lord of Beef, 2014. Performance views. Left: Centre Pompidou, Paris. Right: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London.

Lord of Beef opens with the artist taking the stage, all in black, with semi-translucent tights and a thick black stripe effectively voiding the space from her forehead to her nose. She addresses her audience directly, her voice pouring thick like that warm apricot juice: “Now I am going to do a series of impersonations for you.” Like her choreography, her impressions emerge from a kernel of recognizable reality—Slavoj Žižek’s sputtering proclamations, Putin’s all-purpose power stride, or Klaus Biesenbach’s hawk-eyed once-over of a room—then lunge into increasingly exaggerated riffs. The targets of her impersonations follow suit, veering more into comedic surrealism, à la “The Space Between the Anthropocentrism and Object-Oriented Ontology, Or Angelina Jolie Swimming in a Giant Bathtub,” or “I Don’t Need Friends, I’d Prefer Some Parents.” Huffing and snorting, the artist uses chewing-gum bubbles or manipulations of her tongue (based on a rare breed of Butoh) to further distort the shape her face, while her body lurches in and out of sync with the soundtrack.

Misevičiūtė’s efforts to obscure the legibility of her figure only amplify the audience’s awareness of her body. She applies a similar pressure on theatrical conventions. Her set is interrupted with the pantomime of a phone call, which the artist fields dutifully, casting pleading “forgive me” eyes at her audience as her invisible conversant appears to drone on and on. It is theater interrupting theater, with no attempt at artifice.

Master and Margarita ends with its main characters vanishing, leaving Moscow’s tongues flapping and the city’s only sane minds carted off to a suburban sanitarium. When the lights go out on Misevičiūtė, the audience is left in a similar pause, struggling to piece together what we’ve witnessed. Too slapstick to be genuine, too genuine to be satire, too unnerving to be empty-calorie entertainment – that’s the way it is in vaudeville?

Lord of Beef runs on October 18 at 3 PM as part of MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions, “The Cringe: Art, Anxiety and Performance: With Ieva Misevičiūtė & Rebecca Patek,” organized as part of Greater New York.