Critical Distance

Lies about Betty and The Truth About Zucchini: Lori Weidenhammer
29 May – 27 June, 1998

a response to the exhibition by Lisa Mark

I saw Lori’s performance the night before the beginning of Perf ’94 (the performance art conference sponsored by the Saint Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre) and that has certainly coloured, if not intensified, my initial response to her work. Let me explain…

During the weekend I heard the litany of Performance Art History repeated for the audience’s benefit by one panelist/performance artist in particular. Starting with Hugo Ball and the Cabaret Voltaire, we were treated to a recitation of the received (and overwhelmingly male) History of Performance Art. It seemed to have been lifted straight outta RoseLee Goldberg’s book Performance Art, with a few local artists and women tossed in for good measure. I felt kinda sad after, like something had died; a moth flying too close to the light, or a butterfly perhaps. There was Performance Art, pinned and wriggling, as though snatched up by some taxonomist seduced by its iridescent wings. I’d always thought of performance art as something whose power and resonance derived largely from its deliberate resistance to (or at least discomfort with) classification. Something must die for classification to occur; at least one butterfly must be caught for the species to be studied.

How many times has a performance artist had the question posed “But is it Art?” by even the most sympathetic viewer/participant. Attaching yourself to another person with a eight foot rope but not touching for a whole year (Linda Montano); masturbating yourself to climax while timing the duration of your orgasm (Annie Sprinkle); shooting yourself (Chris Burden); dressing your penis up in bloodied bandages to look like you’ve been castrated (Rudolph Schwarzkogler). Performance Art has so often begged that question while at the same time rendering it irrelevant. Call it what ya like, but what is it telling you?

Well now we know it’s Art for sure. With apologies to Allan Kaprow, the realities of funding bureaucracies and political censorship make it so. The battle lines have been drawn. We Legitimate these Histories as such, lest someone pull the funding, leaving us artists without a legal leg to stand on, or a pension for that matter. Too bad. I’m not arguing for naïve ahistoricism but all that legitimizing, all that patriarchal posturing, makes performance art less interesting. To me at least.

Then there’s Lori Weidenhammer, chopping up a zucchini in time with the Double-Bass beside her, biting it lustfully when she’s done and gazing out at us with a look of post-coital satisfaction. Shortly after, Louise, the 49-and-a-half foot woman recounts her two/too problems: she’s too big and too lonely. And she’s lookin’ for some biiiiiig sperm. Later, the gut-splittingly funny “Moment of Horror” segment and the story about the sexy bus-driver. Weidenhammer makes all that serious art history stuff irrelevant again.

Besides being very funny, this is also a tremendously subversive feminist strategy. Her humour works because of its anxiety in relation to the patriarchal canon. Rather than mythologize “serious” subjects, worthy of inclusion in the annals of Art History, she chooses to mythologize Betty Crocker, the E-Z Bake Oven, and the giant Louise. She takes a trip to the island “Fembos” for her “Holiday from Mysogyny”.

For the most part, Weidenhammer has a hold on her irony, deploying it cleverly between comic anecdotes. She tells stories of desire, of shyness, of strength and fragility. And wow, can she sing a torch song!

Once in a while however, she loses her grip and the irony falls (splat) on the floor like one of Betty’s cakes. For example, “Holiday from Mysogyny” takes a turn for the awkward when she explains why she can’t fly: “there’s too much ice on my wings, my wings… my anger.” For a brief moment, Weidenhammer doesn’t seem to trust the potent flavour of her own allegorical recipe and opts instead for bland literalism.

Happily, these occasions are rare. And I can’t help but admire her for her refusal to posture “Art Historically.” Lori Weidenhammer reminds us that there is always another history; there’s always someone else’s story to be told, even if it’s Betty Crocker. (My belly aches just thinkin’ about it).

Lisa Mark is an art writer and critic. She is currently Program Director at Floating Gallery.