The Anxiety of Influence (catalogue excerpt)
I’m the best ever. There’s never been anybody as ruthless. I’m Sonny Liston. I’m Jack Dempsey. There’s no one like me. I’m from their cloth. There’s no one can match me. My style is impetuous, my defenses impregnable, and I’m just ferocious.
The woman who speaks these words wears a white button-down shirt, clutches a brightly patterned blanket around her waist with one hand, and holds a microphone to her lips with the other. Pacing back and forth restlessly behind a shop window, she addresses the live audience watching her from the street. She is repeating words spoken by Mike Tyson after a particularly short match in 2000, and in doing so she points to a challenge faced by anyone who makes a living getting noticed, whether for creative or athletic accomplishments. “I’m Sonny Liston. I’m Jack Dempsey. There’s no one like me.” We legitimate our favorite new player by comparing her to previous masters, stars, and victors; at the same time we demand that she be original, different, that there be no one like her. In Tender Offer Part I (2014), Moser circles around this conundrum; forgoing Tyson’s knockout punch, she dances through the match, offering an homage to her origins then claiming the unique status of the original, startling us with her freshness one moment, and dismissing the very possibility of such the next.
In an all-white space, occupied by a white performer in white clothes, the aforementioned blanket stands out as the only substantial source of color. When Moser pulls it over her head, it becomes a gaudy substitute for the swath of gray felt that covered Joseph Beuys in in his infamous 1974 performance I Like America and America Likes Me. Standing in profile to the window, Moser hunches forward, her upper body rocking up and down to a looping, poppy synth track. Speaking in time with the music, she says,
…on some days, I get the strange sensation that we’ve been here before, or, more likely, I’ve borrowed a piece or two, or, more, likely, I’m just reliving a past life that’s not mine, and that’s alright. I’m getting by, by getting by, and that’s alright, it’s just one of those things, whispering quietly: ‘I like America and America likes me,’ or, some variation, one of Seven Easy Pieces, and, so it goes.
The last sentence of this brief discourse on creative genealogy traces a historical trajectory for performance art that is either degenerative or liberating, depending on how committed you are to the idea of originality. Here we are reminded of how, in a single generation, the figure of the performance artist transformed from paragon of shamanistic authenticity typified by figures like Beuys and Marina Abramovic, to the performance artist as provider of poker-faced entertainments in a popular culture that consumes and monetizes everything, typified by Abramovic’s recent work, of which Seven Easy Pieces is an exemplary model.¹ Instead of decrying this shift, however, or seeking a return to the seriousness and authenticity of performance art in the early 1970s, when Beuys and Abramovic first made their mark in an art world that set itself staunchly against the frivolity of pop culture, Moser engages that culture—in its current, pumped up, hysterical form—with absolute seriousness. In this and other live performances, Moser wields the shamanistic power that made Beuys and Abramovic art-world stars, luminaries of the eternal and universal, but she applies it to the quotidian culture of WebMD, corporate jargon, internet shopping, youthful nostalgia and guided self-improvement.² Rather than drawing her audiences into the libidinally charged state of awe provoked by Abramovic’s performative presence, Moser casts modest spells that fulfill minor yearnings and assuage absurd fears. In So what?! (2013), after failing to escape her own shadow, Moser conjures up a slouching dance partner in a windbreaker and a ball-cap—a golem summoned not to protect or destroy, but to dance the slow dance of awkward adolescence.³
Etymologically, glamour is grammar corrupted. The Latin grammatica once signified learning in general, which included occult knowledge. The English split it into glamour (describing magical action) and grammar (describing the correct organization and declension of words in sentences).4 Glamour controls perception: it charms, it deceives, it conjures new realities in the eye and mind of the observer. Grammar controls meaning: it orders, it tames, it conjugates when and who and how many.
Bridget Moser’s performance persona is not glamorous: her hair simply hangs down or is tied up; she wears no visible makeup; she wears t-shirts tucked into sweatpants, or a blank white suit; she forgoes the signifiers of sexiness and glitz that we associate with glamour (she does so with such great effectiveness, in fact, that, in Tender Offer, she successfully wiggles herself slowly out of a pair of trousers in a shop window without giving off even a hint of seduction—a feat that would seem to be impossible for a person who belongs to a demographic—young, attractive, and female—that is perpetually and preemptively sexualized). Instead of performing today’s pretty-girl glamour, she operates at the parting of ways, when one word went off to cast spells, and the other was left with the pedestrian task of ordering sentences; here, at the fork in their semantic river, the two words meet to signify the power to create and transform, to constitute new meanings and thus new realities, and this is where she works.
You think you know what kind of person I am, but look what I just did. I just changed everything. I just changed everything you know about me. You thought I wasn’t someone who was wearing a very large, very elaborate necklace, but take a look at me now. Now I clearly am someone who is wearing a very large, very elaborate necklace, and I am telling you, I always have been, and I always will be. Tender Offer Part I
This announcement of a transformation into someone else (even if it is someone that she has always been) is exceptional. Usually, Moser draws our attention away from her own transformations, pushing various objects through absurd transitions from one semiotic state to another, while she shifts the meaning of her own body, rapidly, seamlessly. Our attention is taken by the glossy black weekender in So What, a bag that is a necklace, that is a loss, that is the inside of a small dancer (her partner, pictured above), and its transformations normalize her own—leaving the question of who she really is unasked and irrelevant. Like the objects she engages, Moser’s own body is open to an apparently infinite array of meanings. Are these transformations the product of a glamour, a conjuring of new meaning through deception or illusion? Or are they the result of grammatical shifts, changes in order or inflexion? Looking to the art-historical figures who constitute Moser’s Listons, her Dempseys, we find casters of old-fashioned glamours in Beuys and Abramovic. Taking grammar’s turn, we find its power in the work of figures such as Yvonne Rainer or Marcel Duchamp. The latter turned syntax into an art form when he pulled a urinal from a sentence about men peeing, put it on its back and inserted it into a sentence about art.5 Moser does not stop at a single new meaning, however. Rather, anything can be one thing, and it can be another, and another. In Tender Offer, an ironing board is Darth Vader, it is a motorcycle, it is a body of water that buoys a swimmer. Each new meaning appears as natural, as viable, as the one that preceded it, and the one that will follow.
1. Abramovic performed Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in November, 2005. It consisted of a series of reenactments of “seminal performance works by her peers dating from the 1960s and ‘70s.” View this exhibit.
2. On Moser’s engagement with the culture of self-improvement, see Daniela Sanders’ excellent “Bridget Moser & The Art of Self-Improvement,” Canadian Art, (Winter, 2015), – view article.
3. “Bad” dancing is a constant presence in Moser’s work, tying it to a recent tendency in pop culture, celebrated in Yoko Ono’s 2013 song and music video Bad Dancer, and more recently in Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off video. This approach to dance signifies authentic and unselfconscious pleasure in movement by emphasizing a dancer’s lack of skill. Moser’s use of this particular language of movement, most directly engaged in her 2009 video Real Education, raises compelling questions about contemporary signifiers of authenticity that beg further investigation.
4. “glamour | glamor, n.” OED Online. March 2015. Oxford University Press.
While one might argue that Duchamp took a urinal from a store full of plumbing fixtures and put it in a museum, to the art-historical figures who constitute Moser’s Listons, her Dempseys, we find casters of old-fashioned glamours in Beuys and Abramovic. Taking grammar’s turn, we find its power in the work of figures such as Yvonne Rainer or Marcel Duchamp. The latter turned syntax into an art form when he pulled a urinal from a sentence about men peeing, put it on its back and inserted it into a sentence about art. Moser does not stop at a single new meaning, however. Rather, anything can be one thing, and it can be another, and another. In Tender Offer, an ironing board is Darth Vader, it is a motorcycle, it is a body of water that buoys a swimmer. Each new meaning appears as natural, as viable, as the one that preceded it, and the one that will follow.
5. While one might argue that Duchamp took a urinal from a store full of plumbing fixtures and put it in a museum, the actual history of Fountain demonstrates otherwise. Having been rejected from exhibition, it existed as broadside long before it was ever viewed by the public. See Beatrice Wood and Marcel Duchamp, “The Richard Mutt Case,” The Blind Man 2, (May 1917), 4-6.