New York

Gina Wendkos

Studio 54

Up through her performance of Blue Blood at P.S.1 last spring, Gina Wendkos was doing primarily installations of living sculpture involving ever-increasing numbers of people and filling ever greater amounts of time. Story lines were not forthcoming and pacing was jettisoned in favor of an antistructure that spread out over time rather than rising to a climax. Insofar as the performances tended to be public events rather than self-referred theatricals, the format was perfect. (Cast a cold eye on life, on death/Pedestrian, pass by.) One encountered Wendkos’ productions in Washington Square, on Fourteenth Street, at the Battery Park City landfill, and on Fifth Avenue. Inevitably their plotless progressions twined around issues of sexuality and stereotyping. Then, this past summer, Wendkos took Blue Blood to Studio 54, where her living sculptures underwent a subtle metamorphosis. The simplicity of the P.S. 1 presentation gave way to the high-tech capabilities of the Studio 54 machinery. The elements of the performance didn’t change but the look was markedly different, almost glacial.

More recently, Wendkos was back at 54 with a provocative installation executed over the Halloween weekend. The piece, Short Blue Eyes, was once again open-ended and circular; by virtue of its placement, it was also reminiscent of the confrontational nature of her earlier outdoor performances/installations. Situated just past the club’s entrance foyer was the enormously over-scaled bedroom of a child. To enter the club proper it was necessary to pass through this strobed chamber, which was unsettlingly rolling to and fro like a boat on rough seas. Reduced to the scale of dust balls, the clientele teetered into a literally unstable environment and found themselves ducking under a gigantic bed which dominated the space. On the wall to the right was a window scaled to the room in which was visible a rear-projected film of a little Brobdingnagian girl ostensibly looking into her doll house. For an instant, this image resolved into one out of Lewis Carroll. Then, hearing a portion of the child’s monologue (“I hope you understand, this is revenge for me”), one suddenly realized that it was not Lewis Carroll’s Alice that was being referred to but Grace Slick’s: “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small . . . ”

Scattered throughout the room, a number of identically ponytailed, prepubescent blonde girls in matching pink party dresses were revealed in the flicker of the strobe. One was helplessly ensnarled in a giant ball of yarn, a second was impaled by a giant hanger, a third was trapped atop the giant bed, a fourth was nailed to the floor by a giant pencil, a fifth was caught in a giant mousetrap, and a sixth roamed the room tentatively approaching the crush of incoming clubbers. All were woefully crying, “Help me.” The actresses were flung around the room like slivers of a mirror; my immediate recollection was of Orson Welles shooting an infinity of Rita Hayworths in the funhouse finale of The Lady from Shanghai. That the children’s victimization was so patently absurd only heightened the theatricality of their performances. (While I was there, the girl who was caught in the mousetrap ran through a repertoire of attention-getting devices that would have made Liza Minnelli blush.) At no time could one think of responding to the pleas for help on a humanitarian basis; if these girls were looking for anyone in particular, it was their agent. This made the situation basically unthreatening.

Yet the room was truly unsettling. It was permeated by the psychology of abandonment and alienation. It was a surrealistic predicament with no possibility of solution, and there wasn’t even the promise of a moral to brighten the post-Freudian darkness. Trapped in their grotesque pink fantasy of a bedroom, these contemporary little women would all appear to be headed off toward the Valley of the Dolls, clutch purses crammed full of regressive stereotyping. That Wendkos chose to realize this splintered meditation on “the girl child as victim” (albeit unwilling victim) in a social rather than presentational setting became a fascinating component in the activation of the piece. There was, for the audience, no choice: to get into the club, you had to run Wendkos’ psychologically charged gauntlet. If you looked back, it was at the peril of understanding your role in the drama.

Richard Flood