New York

Claude Wampler

P.S. 122

One of the more interesting performances this season was Claude Wampler’s Blanket, The Surface of Her, not only because this thirty-one-year-old artist comes to the stage with training in numerous performance techniques—ballet, Butoh, opera, acting—but also because she knows obsessively well the work of her peers in contemporary art. The result was a polished, ninety-minute work that is truly of the moment in the way it captures the aesthetic mood of the present, particularly its high-fashion photographic quality and its languorous sexuality.

The concept behind Blanket began with a device that could have been disastrous; Wampler invited eight others whose work fascinated her—Aphex Twin/Richard D. James, Sylvie Fleury, Richard Foreman, Richard Kern, Paul McCarthy, Julia Scher, Romaine Slocombe, and Viktor & Rolf—to tell her what to do for ten minutes each. She imagined they would use her actor’s body as an empty vessel for their ideas, and that, strung together, the performance would unfold like an “exquisite corpse”—the live equivalent to the Surrealists’ favorite literary game of chance. Few of them responded with more than a one-liner: “Bend spoons like Yuri Geller” (Foreman); “Piss onstage” (Kern); or “Get down on your knees and bark like a dog” (McCarthy), which is exactly what she did (except in the case of the bending spoons), resulting in images of a startling intensity. Sylvie Fleury sent a gold-lamé hair dryer from Switzerland and photographer Romaine Slocombe asked to see her videotapes, and they “talked a lot on the phone.” Only Viktor & Rolf, a Dutch team of fashion designers, scripted their ten minutes. They made a dress to measure, gave makeup and styling instructions, specified lighting, and sent a videotape that would run simultaneously with her performance. They also added their own aural byline, a recording that very slowly repeated, “Viktor and Rolf ... Viktor and Rolf,” every two minutes.

Wampler’s talent lay in her canny ability to translate the spirit of each artist’s aesthetic into evocative live performance. As sexually insistent as a Pasolini movie, as glossy and hyperreal as an Inez van Lamsweerde photograph, each tightly constructed vignette was a checklist of current fixations: violence, bodily functions, gender, race, and the music of youth culture. Her interpretation of Foreman, another important influence, was an image-rich homage to a highly visual and ribald director, and her theatrical imagination even ran to a dramatic memorial to the end of classicism; wearing a gown of Prussian blue, perched on a high pedestal, and accompanied by a pianist, Wampler sang an aria in vain as Richard D. James’ techno music blasted the sound of her voice to bits and left the musician’s hands foundering silently at the keyboard.

Blanket marks a crossroads in Wampler’s relatively young solo career, and it will be interesting to see which of several possible paths she takes. Her performances have mostly been limited to vivid, single gestures; in Knit Tease, 1996, she unraveled the knitted dress she was wearing and reknittted it—a process that took three to four hours. In Vertical Smile, 1996, she goosed viewers as they bent over to peer at a video screen behind a peephole installed in a gallery. With Blanket, her most theatrically structured work to date, she occupied a far larger stage; it will be intriguing to see how she fills it.

RoseLee Goldberg