Nancy Buchanan

Nancy Buchanan is well-known as a committed activist who believes art can change the mind of the observer about political issues. In her recent performance extravaganza, “Freedom Suites,” she attempted to call attention not only to a particular political situation—United States involvement in Central America—but to the issue of personal responsibility for world problems and their solutions.

The piece was commissioned for Los Angeles’ “Explorations II” series, sponsored by the Museum of Contemporary Art, the California Institute of the Arts, and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. The sponsors are to be commended for their choices in curating this series; not often will major institutions take on openly political work, and this series included such outspoken malcontents as Tim Miller and Cheri Gaulke. While it is encouraging that a mainstream public venue has taken on works of controversial content—works that operate on the flip side of formalism—the intensity of the spotlight exaggerates the difficulties encountered at the crossroads of politics and art.

Buchanan’s performance was true to the LA/feminist/political-art credo in the clarity of its motive. Not only was the structure spelled out in the program, the piece opened with an explanation—a conversation between Buchanan and one of her actors—revealing that the dominant metaphor in the performance was the human body, the integration of its parts and function, which represented, in the larger sense, the interdependence of all the world’s people upon each other. The notion of freedom in this work was inextricably linked with personal responsibility for good and evil. In slides, videotapes, recordings, and live performance segments Buchanan referred repeatedly to American action in Central America, placing before the audience evidence of our apathy about the atrocities there, which may have been caused, either directly or indirectly, by our government’s intervention.

Working with many collaborators, Buchanan pulled out all the stops at every production level. Her knack for simple, potent, often humorous effects has never been more substantially displayed. For example, during the “Eyes/ Sightline” segment an actress opened a window high in the backdrop of the modular stage (think of the “Laugh-In” set) and applied camouflage makeup, while taped voices remarked, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Behold, beholder, I am beholden to you.” While a voice-over recited truisms about sight, four actors entered wearing glasses fitted with eyeballs on springs through which they examined the audience. Buchanan performed a beautifully written piece about once having made eye contact with a bum at a stoplight, a moment that catapulted her spirit to a point high over the city from which she looked down to see “millions of tiny sparks, of souls—making connections, all capable of this kind of connection.” At this moment, huge white balloons painted like eyeballs descended from the ceiling and were batted about by the audience. As several actors rose from their seats to reveal shirts painted with hearts, strobes were set off and red light pulsed through the room. A beating heart appeared on the giant screen and Buchanan read a Rosario Murillo poem that spoke of planting a heart in the earth.

The great strength of the performance was diminished, however, by one element—Buchanan’s final addressto the audience. This is a device she has used often in her work and its effect is overwhelmingly disappointing. In her effort to make sure the audience gets the point, she delivers a parting speech that points a finger of guilt and pleads for direct political action. The device insults not only the audience’s ability to grasp the performance, but the performance itself. The audience has just spent more than an hour howling with laughter and gasping at the beauty of her effects, only to be told that these elements were little more than sugar coating on the bitter pill of political remonstrance.

Didacticism is the Achilles’ heel of political performance art. If the motive of the artist is to urge her audience to action, she must first recognize the delicacy of this task and then respect art’s special gift for unfolding the truth and touching the heart and mind.

Linda Burnham