Washington, DC

Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry

Conner Contemporary Art

Cut, 2006, a four-and-a-half-minute video that was accompanied in this show by six stills, depicts husband-and-wife performance artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry methodically shearing each other’s hair with a straight razor, and is perhaps the pair’s most hypnotic, moving, and politically charged work to date. The action walks a line between poetry and violence, a duality conveyed through a complex choreography. The amplified sound—brittle and declarative—of razor sawing through hair is chilling. The work was inspired by images of Nazi collaborators in postwar France, their heads shorn as punishment, and was originally to feature only the cutting of Tarry’s hair. She suggested that the act should be reciprocal, and the result is a study of race (McCallum is white and Tarry is black), power, and identity that weaves together love, fear, trust, intimacy, and psychosexual tension.

Since 1998, McCallum and Tarry have collaborated on a number of provocative videos examining political conflict and homelessness, but this intensely personal work, which integrates, as it were, their interracial marriage, is transcendent. Cut was filmed over a period of two hours in an empty, dilapidated loft in San Francisco furnished with a simple wooden side chair and table, a cloistered, contemplative, and nearly hermetic environment (only once do we get a glimpse of the outdoors). The artists wear scant clothing and take turns sitting almost motionless in the chair getting their hair cut. All this is caught by a single, slowly circling camera; the narrative moves back and forth in time (as indicated by the presence or absence of daylight as well as by the varying stages of the shearing process).

The wheeling camera captures a melodic sequence of gestures and magnifies the exchange between the artists. The head of the seated person is frequently caressed or held from behind, yielding to the touch. A hand sweeps down the side of the face and under the chin; the head rolls toward the hand; an arm slowly goes around the neck; the head nestles into the arm. Movements flow into one another, punctuated by close-up shots of the shearing. There is an ambiguity to these gestures, however, and this is the critical element that creates dramatic tension. Is a given movement soothing or merely an effort to keep the other still? Is an action protective or threatening? Will a neck be violently slit open with a razor or lovingly caressed?

As Cut proceeds, sensuality and intimacy are increasingly tinged with imminent peril. Each cut alters the other’s physical identity, but to what end? Is the primary reference to punishment (after that meted out to the collaborators in France), possession (in allusion to slavery), retribution, or an attempt to bridge racial difference by trying to look alike? Each time the razor loudly saws through another clump of hair, the balance of power shifts anew. The viewer witnesses unselfconscious gestures and expressions that straddle and betray a variety of emotions. It’s not unusual for McCallum and Tarry to draw haunting performances from others—Endurance, 2003, for example, is a stark chronicle of homelessness in Seattle. But Cut wisely trades overt polemic for the vicissitudes of intimacy to deliver a raw, honest, and uninhibited performance that is by turns seductive and unsettling.

Nord Wennerstrom