New York

Johanna Went

Pyramid Cocktail Lounge

Johanna Went hit New York City touted as a “rock ’n’ roll performance artist” from the Los Angeles club and performance scene, a New Wave witch/goddess whose gross, weird, and cathartic rituals have mesmerized Californian crossover audiences for the last four years. But her appearance at this, the current hot spot of bizarre spectacle, was completely undone by a raucous, good-naturedly perverse, knowledgeable crowd which quickly unmasked Went’s “frenzies” as the superficial displays they are. Every “provocation,” every gesture toward “transcendent disgust,” every “outrage” was countered and finally outflanked by an audience ready and able to deflate her crude efforts at transgression into amusing silliness.

Things were off to a rowdy give-and-take from the start. Went, dressed in layers of old clothing and shouting gibberish into a microphone over a banging, dissonant, “noise rock” soundtrack by Mark Wheaton, began throwing life-sized dummies into the crowd—which gleefully passed them overhead around the packed room like drug casualties at rock concerts (this was perhaps the only real reference to rock ’n’ roll in the performance, and an apparently unintended one). Went punctuated her shrieking rants—and the donning and doffing of a number of masks with apron-like attachments—with increasingly grotesque maneuvers among various props. From the crotch of one mannequin she pulled its large phallus, a totem which also turned out to be the conelike head of a baby doll. She scraped excrementlike material from a hole punched in the anus of a jeans model on a billboard sign, and ate it. She hammered on a large plastic replica of an eye until it shattered, and then wiped the gooey insides on herself. For a finale, Went slit open a bag of liver and chewed on the meat, gnawed on a lamb fetus, and splashed around in several quarts of animal blood.

This activity was messy, deliberately childish, willfully ridiculous, and therefore somewhat diverting, but hardly shocking and never truly disturbing. The fact is that the Pére Ubu style of revolutionary outrage no longer cuts the conceptual mustard, and hasn’t for some time. Went’s solo attempt at shock tactics had none of the obsessive madness of Hermann Nitsch’s bloody-meat mystery performances, or of the witty macabre of some of Alice Cooper’s rock ’n’ roll shows. The discrepancy between her seriously intended acts and their ludicrous effects was underlined by the vociferous reactions of the ever unruly audience at this club, which cheered every “excess” as a parody of transgression, not as the thing itself. At one point two young women began a spontaneous satire on the performance, laughing, shouting curses, and making obscene gestures; Went overcame this sustained retort only by the power of the PA equipment, not by any response that could answer their jokingly scatological challenge. Far from being “gone,” Went was only going through the motions of primal provocation.

John Howell