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PRINT September 2005

OPENINGS: DAVE McKENZIE

At an opening at SculptureCenter in New York in 2003, the artist Dave McKenzie is wearing jeans, sneakers, a red T-shirt, a zip-front jacket, and a large papier-mâché head. He's handing out little white boxes that contain plastic bobbleheads modeled after his own features. A woman approaches him, takes a box, and walks away. A few minutes later, she returns holding bobblehead Dave in her hand. She stares intently into McKenzie’s large painted eyes. “I know you are Dave,” she says, “but who is Dave?”

A few possible answers:

1. “I’m Dave, and I’m a dancing machine.”

In the video Edward and Me, 2000, McKenzie is bugging out in front of a supermarket in rural Maine. He has taken a fragment of Edward Norton’s performance in Fight Club and extended it into four minutes and thirty seconds of freestyle dancing, writhing, and wiggling, so he seems more possessed than performing. Kevin and Me, 2000, finds McKenzie dancing again, this time a soft-shoe derived from Kevin Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects. The self-as-other is a subject that has intrigued many artists, from Andy Warhol and Alighiero e Boetti to Adrian Piper and Slater Bradley. However, in these two videos McKenzie’s body is not merely doubled, because Norton’s and Spacey’s characters are themselves already doubled—Norton being possessed by his other, and Spacey playing his. The body is a vehicle for other bodies to inhabit and, as McKenzie’s work implies, the more the merrier.

2. “I’m Dave, and I feel your pain.”

“Mr. Clinton, Your Harlem Neighbors Need to See You More Often” reads the headline of a November 2003 New York Times article about the scarce sightings of the former president. During a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, McKenzie set out to rectify this absence by walking up and down 125th Street in a suit, tie, and oversize Bill Clinton mask, performances which became the basis of the video We Shall Overcome, 2004. In the piece, McKenzie seemingly shifts the focus from his own body to that of the icon. While much can be said here about performance as community service and issues of masquerade, I am particularly interested in what the work says about our interior lives. Kafka wrote, “How pathetically scanty my self-knowledge is compared with, say, my knowledge of my room. . . . There is no such thing as observation of the inner world, as there is of the outer world.” In We Shall Overcome, however, the boundary between inner and outer space is blurred. Icons are figures of intense identification that our bodies move into and out of and that speak to us in voices we mistake for our own. To know them is to know ourselves. Wearing a Bill Clinton mask is, then, a peculiar form of self-knowledge that anyone can access because the costume shop is just down the street.

3. “I’m Dave, and I want to be like Mike.”

There are icons, and then there are icons. A pair of arms is mounted on the wall with little black pins. They are cut directly from a famous 1990 poster called “Wings,” which pictures a nearly life-size image of Michael Jordan’s upper body. The excised arms are grayish-black and positioned about six feet off the ground, approximating Jordan’s shoulder height, while the space between them is the width of the artist’s own smaller body. The piece is called Butterfly, 2005, and it conflates the passions of the sports fan and the lepidopterist. But the detachment of Jordan’s limbs from his body and their dull color is unsettling; rigor mortis has set in. Butterfly suggests that fandom is consumption, that the place where a fan cuts and reassembles images of the star’s body is the cannibal’s dining table. We want to be like Mike, but we have to be like Hannibal Lecter first.

4. “I’m Dave, and I believe I can fly.”

The fascination with avatars continues in the video Watch the Sky, 2004, where a cartoonish portrait of McKenzie is superimposed over a balloon of Bill Cosby’s animated creation Little Bill in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The transformation is awkward: The glasses don’t sit quite right; the hair is too helmetlike and matte; McKenzie’s jacket and T-shirt hover over Little Bill’s body. James Baldwin said, “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self.” In McKenzie’s work, what we call “identity,” or even “the self,” is revealed to be a performance, a set of loose costumes layered one on top of the other, to be donned or shed depending on the scene being played.

But as my friend Megan says, let’s call a gardening instrument a gardening instrument. Race adheres to McKenzie’s project like tar to Brer Rabbit. Why, for example, of all the balloons in the Macy’s Day Parade, did he pick Little Bill? He could have chosen, say, Kermit the Frog and titled the piece “It Ain’t Easy Being Green.” Why engage with issues of race at all? The answer may be that even if race is just one more costume to wear, when black folks try to change for the next act, the zipper always seems to stick. McKenzie chose Little Bill because the choice was overdetermined: black artist, black cartoon character. Yet in Watch the Sky, the awkwardness of his transformation turns on its head the assumption that there’s something natural about race. Race is revealed to be something that doesn’t quite fit, something a bit baggy, even. And the hope is that if you’ve got some wiggle room when your zipper gets stuck, you might still be able to change clothes and go.

5. “I’m Dave . . . take this in remembrance of me.”

The self is a performance; a performance is a sculpture; a sculpture is a body; and a body is something to be given away. In McKenzie’s work something is often literally or metaphorically given by the artist to the viewer, and the boundary between the self and other is blurred. Take, for example, the sculpture and video Self-Portrait Piñata, 2002, in which we witness a life-size Dave piñata being hit by a blindfolded man until it bursts and spills candy on the floor. Like Felix Gonzales-Torres, McKenzie believes the viewer completes the work, but the sentimentality of the piñata-bashing (it’s all about the children!) is undercut by the violence of the act, its historical resonances, and a flurry of little grabbing hands. And he’s got more to give: coffee mugs (Remember, You Are Loved, 2004), dinner with the artist (It’s a Date, 2004), and those bobbleheads (While Supplies Last, 2003). Our impulse is to take what’s offered (who doesn’t want free stuff?). But some gifts are problems to be solved. Is it a bobblehead or an artwork? Who is Dave, and why is he “collectible”? And what’s up with the papier-mâché head? The bobbleheads are yes-men, quietly nodding in assent to the questions they raise, while raising even more.

Glenn Ligon is a New York–based artist.