Los Angeles

My Barbarian

Steve Turner

My Barbarian, LA’s own all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting performance troupe (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, Alexandro Segade), can be read as a gentle parody of alt-rock’s claims to ownership over experiential extremes, as per the band My Chemical Romance. But one might also consider how names follow other names; after all, could there be a (My) Chemical Romance without a (My) Drug Hell without a (My) Bloody Valentine? My Barbarian nods to all of these, while also suggesting rapprochement. The inversion of “the other,” via the personal pronoun, into something approaching “the same” is central to everything the group does, beginning with their appropriation of a host of theatrical—moreover, musical-theatrical—tropes for purposes of performance art. “Show-core,” as they have dubbed their practice, is exactly the antithesis to the antitheatrical thesis of performance art.

Within the fine-art context, the fact that My Barbarian are hugely entertaining is a problem, and they exploit this problem for all it’s worth. Over the nine or so years of their existence, they have refined their showmanship to the nth degree, while carefully preserving the rough, ad hoc edges that keep the artifice of it all exposed. Filtering steely-eyed Brechtian Umfunktionierung through the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Andy Hardy, My Barbarian adopt the mantra “Let’s put on a show!”—one best suited to the live arena. How then to transition from the “call and response” of physical performance in all its immediacy to the re-presentative delay of the art object? For their first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery, the group placed two monitors and hung five screens throughout Steve Turner, showing videos on continuous loops. And, in keeping with their strategy of reversal, they titled the show “Suspension of Beliefs,” turning the supreme law of theater on its head.

Most of the videos document a regime of theatrical exercises under-taken by the troupe in a variety of workshop settings. Designed to instill a sense of physical trust and solidarity among the “players,” these might be described as G-rated versions of Hermann Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theaters, fully clothed and without a drop of bloodletting, though no less compelling for their presumed normalcy. In a key routine, each member is encouraged to fall backward, eyes closed, into the collective embrace of the group. The resulting “suspension” of the figure two feet above the ground was echoed in the show’s only crafted objects: a troika of nearly life-size marionettes, bearing vague likenesses to Gaines, Gordon, and Segade, hanging from the ceiling.

On opening night, these scary/funny effigies were dangled during a performance staged from the gallery’s second-floor balcony to a crowd gathered below on Wilshire Boulevard. Swaying stiffly to live music supplied by the chamber quartet LA Fog, the puppets were subsumed into an occult narrative about realizing the impossible—flight— through sheer force of will. On the street below, the real-life members of the troupe strutted about in billowing blue capes while chanting “Hail Satin.” Expanding on the theme of suspension, they first raised an audience member from a chair on the tips of their fingers, and then proposed to “levitate” the entire Los Angeles County Museum of Art complex, visible right across the street, from its foundations. One was reminded of that primal-hippie scene of the 1960s in which the “freaks” summoned the power of the “armies of the night,” as Norman Mailer famously put it, to float the Pentagon. And by extension, one was reminded as well of Mailer’s own botched merger of “same and other” in the figure of the “white negro,” just the sort of mainstream extreme that My Barbarian might also be channeling, to suspend, invert, and—I want to say, magically—set right.

Jan Tumlir