Outlaw Mythology and Postmodern Purgatory

Photogenic and Lost: two performances by Grant Guy
November 27 – 29, 1997

a response to the exhibition by Sharon Alward


“To learn truly what each thing is, is a matter of uncertainty.”
( Democritus 500 BCE)

Democritus, the laughing philosopher, suggested that the soul is a form of fire which animates the human body and that pleasure along with self control was the goal of life. His statement that we know nothing truly about anything, but that for each of us, opinion is an influx conveyed by the influx of idols from without is at the heart of the evening of performances by Winnipeg artist Grant Guy.

The dual performances of Photogenic and Lost are the mature and penetrating works of this veteran performance artist. Guy’s work has always questioned the performance – theater hybrid, but if the viewer is willing to accept the traditional definition of performance art as visual art that borrows from the area of theater, without narrative or plot but rather a central concept or core that is explored through the performance, there is no doubt that this is performance art at its most elegant and engaging.

In performance art the artist’s own body or self is a part of the work. Guy is the master puppeteer replacing traditional actors with puppets which are, in the case of Photogenic, rectangular photographs. His puppets claim a historical connection with the Modernist artist Paul Klee, who created reductive, whimsical and spontaneous puppets for his son. Guy’s photo-puppets avoid the actor’s sense of authority and the problems of compromise and collaboration of the artistic vision. The objects possess the final authority.

The evening begins with a seamlessly edited video montage. The video script is a logical extension of Guy’s Cowboy Tapes, which were about the American and Canadian psychosis with regard to heroes and mythmaking. It is a fifteen minute preface, providing context. At first the voices are a cacophony of monologues. Eventually the frenzy pares down to singular voices, accompanied by images of fire and fireworks. “I am not the victim”, “John Dillinger”, and the phrase “good looking” fight for supremacy with dictums like “The very first rule…you must be photogenic” and the tongue-in-cheek “Honey – got a match?”. After an alarm clock goes off, the artist rises from behind a 2 1/2′ x 2 1/2′ x 2 1/2′ cube and raises the curtain on the cube. The confessional is ready, ritual candles are lit, and Photogenic begins.

Dressed in neutral mechanic’s coveralls, Guy places a white face mask over his face and begins to manipulate black and white photographs within the cube. The audience encounters images from the True Detective genre. There is a photographic image of a corpse. It is John Dillinger’s body in the morgue. For the artist, Dillinger is the ultimate; a type of Errol Flynn character who possessed a sense of theatricality – and while it’s true that he killed a lot of people, he was polite in his robberies. But corpses eventually turn to dust, and many in the audience will not recognize the stark, reductive images of a bygone era.

A criminal is someone who has violated the law, but an outlaw is someone who is outside the law. According to the writer Tom Robbins, while the criminal may be photogenic, the outlaw is always photogenic. Mythologizing the social bandits of the turn of the century so that they become outlaws requires several precise steps. Rules must be followed if a criminal is to be elevated to ‘photogenic’ status. First, the outlaw never commits a crime for mere greed.

Today’s criminals appear to be avaricious. Or is it that time puts a patina on the past? Secondly, the outlaw is never a victim. Other necessary criteria are that outlaws must believe in their own superiority, and that the world owes them a living. Frank “The Jelly” Nash, Bonnie and Clyde, “Machine Gun” Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger are all fuzzy images from Guy’s mythologized past. Time and distance roll history into myth and some of those names have been enveloped in a “Robin Hood” halo, if memory serves.

Numerous photo-puppets of these dark black and white images are examined by the white faced figure, then are cut and burned. Two are not destroyed. Machine Gun Kelly mythologically bombs because he is a coward – he is mercifully spared. Pretty Boy Floyd is strung up in a manner worthy of an ascension into sainthood because he loved his wife and child passionately and spread his wealth around. The photo of Baby Face Nelson gets removed. Bonnie and Clyde, the lovebirds, receive a blessing of confetti before being destroyed. What is this fire? Is it cleansing or consuming? A rite of passage or the agony of eternal Hell? Destroying the puppets allows the mythology to break down. But for many in the audience who are far removed from the turn of the century mythology of outlaws, the murkiness of the images raises more questions about history and memory. If Photogenic is a secular examination of the drive to create myths, then the second performance, Lost, is its sacred counterpart.

Lost is influenced by – but not based on – “The Lost Ones”, by Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s novel takes place in a cylinder and explores human weakness, frustration and helplessness through the coupling of tyrant and victim. Guy pushes Beckett’s belief in the inadequacy of language for meaningful expression through to a haunting conclusion by the absence of language. There is only the hollow sound of a drip echoing through what might be imagined as a cold, dank dungeon – a counterpoint to the crackling flames that consume the puppets of Lost.

In the performance Lost the white-faced mask takes on a more sinister edge. While the personalities and identities of the photos command attention and the inclination to mythologize in Photogenic, the generic nature of the paper dolls demands that the puppeteer become the focal point in Lost. While the puppeteer in Photogenic is interventionist, the puppeteer in Lost is an intervening deity. In an otherwise expressionless white mask there are two generic eye holes, a prim, generic white nose, and taut lips, pulled back, ever so slightly, into what could be interpreted as a sneer. Historically, the White Face references the white faced clown. The White Face is the Nasty Clown and in the silence of the space, the sound of labored breathing behind Guy’s mask compounds the vulgar melodrama.

The Deity holds up a candle, offers it to the audience and then places it at the side of the cube. The curtain is raised and a paper ladder is dropped into the space. White Face lovingly caresses the cube and then lights the ladder on fire. Paper dolls with heart shaped holes, hearts on sleeves, and holes in their heads attempt to climb ladders and get burned in their attempt to ascend. The image of five traditional paper dolls with a fuse that connects all of their hearts together is one of the more thought-provoking narratives. As the first doll is set on fire, a fuse snaps through each heart of the connected paper dolls in a contagion of consummation and death, evoking thoughts of plagues and shared dogmas that consume those connected by love or tissue. The fire efficiently consumes each of the figures in this Dante’s Inferno.

Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, accompanied by the spirit of Virgil, was an allegory of the progress of the individual soul towards God and possessed a mystic vision of the Absolute. Part Two of The Divine Comedy, Purgtorio, or purgatory, is about purification. The higher on the mountain the spirit climbed, the less grievous was the sin of which it must be purged. Like the mountain, the ladder appears to be the only way out of purgatory. In a fitting reminder of Sartre’s No Exit , the ladder is always lit on fire by White Face and there is no escape.

But who is this clown, this White Face Nasty ? Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of the God-shaped hole in the human consciousness. He insisted that even if God existed it was necessary to reject him since the idea of God negates our freedom, stunts our creativity and stifles our sense of wonder. This tyrannical deity allows us to see the danger of creating God in our own image, confining God to a purely human category, an anthropomorphic, traditionally male God who is Lawgiver and Ruler – a God of Revenge who will damn for eternity those who do not keep his commandments. “May the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn against this man henceforth, load him with all the curses written in the book of the law and raze out his name from under the sky” was the curse uttered against Spinoza by the churches of Europe.

In the final tableau, the back curtain of the cube rises to reveal a mirror. White Face sets the last puppet on fire. Their faces reflected, the audience become participants in this mythology. The final soul looks into the abyss of the Personally Created God and sees his own terrified reflection. The final curtain drops as the inferno of paper figures continues to burn, evoking images of corpses in death camps. This is what happens when God is mythologized. Lost is concluded with the absent or merciless God of Auchwitz.

In the Gospel of Christian Atheism, Thomas J. Altizer spoke of the necessary freedom to kill the god of the tyrannical deity. This empty space permits the silence that is necessary before God can become meaningful again and gives credence to the idea that a passionate and committed atheism could be more religious than a weary or inadequate theism. In Grant Guy’s Lost, only one figure survives, providing a clue as to how we seek God above a discredited and inadequate theism which has lost its symbolic force. The doll that was saved gave up, entering the human experience of nothingness. Although in Sartre’s Existential philosophy humans never give up but actively engage in the business of living despite confronting the emptiness of their illusions, in the journey of the dark night of the soul there the experience of a mystical God. Like the empty chair of the Buddha, mystics saw God as the nothingness from which we came and will return.

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar believed that instead of seeking God in logic and language, we should look to art for a God found by our senses. Guy once said to me that as long as he was in an authoritative position he could not come to terms with his own stupidity. That sense of inadequacy that he is so acutely aware of is at the heart of the figure who gives up. Approached by the imagination, faith is rekindled as a kind of art form to express a reality that goes beyond concept. Silence is a tangible material to fill the space with necessary Nothingness.

When I interviewed Grant prior to his performances, he recounted a story to me that is the essence of his approach to artmaking. He related the story of a brilliant academic by the name of Sheldon Glashow who had just given out examination papers to his students. As his students worked on the exam questions, he drew their attention to one of the questions and interjected, “By the way – I haven’t found the solution to question number five myself so if you find the answer please let me know.” Grant Guy’s performances will provide you with questions, but not answers. If you find an answer, please let him know.

Sharon Alward is a multimedia artist whose performances and videos have been received in museums and site specific locations throughout the world. Sharon is a professor of drawing and open media at the University of Manitoba School of Art.