Nora Turato, almost persuaded, 2017. Performance view. Nora Turato. Photo: Sander Tiedema.

Nora Turato, almost persuaded, 2017. Performance view. Nora Turato. Photo: Sander Tiedema.

Nora Turato

Galerie Juliètte Jongma

Nora Turato, almost persuaded, 2017. Performance view. Nora Turato. Photo: Sander Tiedema.

At her best, Nora Turato is absolutely bewildering. The first performance of hers that I saw, in Venice in 2015, was in a darkened courtyard in the middle of the Biennale’s opening week, when nerves are frayed from the constant expectation of novelty. In the midst of a crowd of young people who looked like they were lining up for cheap drinks, there was a sudden shout, as if a fight had broken out, and a circle formed around, or rather backed away from, a young woman who was clearly very angry about something. She had a hell of a voice: insistent, querulous, and gaining in self-assurance with every phrase. It sounded at first like she was denouncing someone; then, perhaps, like a nervous breakdown. The phrases seemed familiar, but inverted: This was a dysphasic rhapsode vomiting up clichés, advertising slogans, and platitudes, and twisting them into open rebellion. In that dark courtyard, for a few precious minutes, people didn’t seem to know how to react—whether to back away or cheer the shouter on. It was only as her language swelled in rhythm and confidence that it became clear that this was something like a theatrical monologue—only not quite.

What keeps performance art from being theater? Is it the importance of the first-person presence of the performer? The denial of conventions? It is not that the performance artist multitasks the roles of writer, director, and actor. Rather, those roles collapse into one another. Recently, in a small gallery in Amsterdam, Turato harangued the densely packed audience: “Fuck up a hundred times in a row, get it right once, call it a learning curve. Fuck it up every single time, and now you get to call it a journey.” But unlike in Venice, the onlookers knew what they were in for, and they seemed to welcome it. Although Turato’s performances are scripted, the scripts are secondary to her physical presence. Like the concrete blocks in the shape of cheeses, the oversize rope, the mirrors placed in awkward spots around the room, the script is a prop—it’s a text without an actor, a life role the artist can’t quite slip into.

Turato recites invented catchphrases—“I misspent my time twice, I live my life and then I talk about it”—that absorb her listeners, who try to discern a thread, a narrative, through the haze of anacoluthon, the familiar-sounding prattle. The constant logorrhea disables the audience members’ own interior monologue, disables judgment, so that they are forced to blankly watch as she stalks around the gallery, the pattern of her gestures not quite corresponding to her speech, and her speech never quite adding up to a story. You can transcribe the text, but it won’t bring you any closer to her disorienting presence: “I sat on my Samsonite, I brought nothing, no things, just some stuff nothing just some stuff, you see me and my boyfriend we like to travel light.” She swings between narcissism and self-abasement, between introversion and aggressive extroversion. She’s not afraid of being ugly. Even as she works the audience, she denies it. She says, in one way or another, often enough, that she does not exist. And neither do those who see her. If there is a weakness here, it’s a problem that goes to the origins of performance: The witnesses have started to enjoy themselves. No longer startled, they count themselves in on the joke, as initiates. They become spectators. She often looks into strategically placed mirrors, as if to try to find herself, but the mirrors are too small, or too covered in steam, to see anyone at all.

Adam Jasper