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Gob Squad and the Slow Vogue

Gob Squad, Creation (Pictures for Dorian), REDCAT, October 19, 2018 

Watching The Gob Squad’s Creation (Pictures for Dorian) at REDCAT brought home to me the fact that you can get away with saying anything so long as you say it with a British accent. I’ll go even further—you can, in fact, do anything and seem up to the task and on top of things, so long as you drop a few word along the way in a British accent. Brits will get naked too, I learned at REDCAT, even when they’re older, and they’ll stand there, revolving slowly on an art-model dias, the flesh rippling around them, and manage to achieve a kind of elegance, a grace even, amidst the pillowing wreckage. I also learned how very, very avant-garde they are, the Brits—when they wake up each day all they’re thinking about is how to pierce the boundary between art and life. They get up and have their crumpets and tea, looking out the window at a cat scaling the brick wall of their garden in Kensington or Brighton or Leeds or someplace British like that—an orange tabby scaling the wall under a slate grey British sky—and then they get right to it. It’s art/life, art/life, art/life oscillating all day long for the Brits, like Faye Dunaway slapped back and forth by Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown crying out “sister!”, “daughter!”, “sister!”, “daughter!” and then, after a shocked silence, “now do you understand?” With their British stamina and their imperial fortitude, they never complain, the Gob Squad. Oh, yes, and one of these Gob Squad Brits is German (Bastion Trost) and soulful, which might be confusing if you didn’t know that today’s Brit is also totally, 100 per cent Continental.

I arrived at Disney Hall to see Creation with news of Jamal Khashoggi’s seven-minute dismemberment lighting up my twitter feed. I forget which of the slow-drip news tidbits Prime Minister Erdogan had just released. Actually I think it was the fact that the Saudi Crown Prince MBS spoke to Khashoggi by phone or Skype right before the journalist was dismembered with a bone saw while still alive. Taking our seats I found myself distracted by this return of medieval sovereign power in the age of Facebook and Twitter, as if the new feudalism defining our conservative era had suddenly metastasized into the realm of law. As I watched Creation thoughts about the scandal kept tugging on my awareness—I actually found myself waiting for one of the Gob Squad-ers to pull Khashoggi’s head out of a sack. Having greatly enjoyed their Western Civilization on this same stage four years ago, I knew the Gob Squad to be fully capable of such Daring Activist Gestures (DAGs), so I was on the alert, the way we get when watching our favorite comedian to walk on, steeling ourselves to spot the punchline before it hits us in our funny bone. In Creation, however, I found instead a searingly honest investigation of aging, impermanence, and our persistent fear of death and dying—how’s that for a DAG? The Dorian Gray in the title refers to Oscar Wilde’s famous story about the beautiful youth who makes a deal with the devil to keep from aging—Dorian stays young and fair while his portrait in the attic begins to wither and age. Picture frames large and small figured prominently in Creation, reminding us, once again, how broadly the perspectives of art can be located within “real” life.

One of the first things that came to mind watching the opening of Creation is how smart the Brits are. They know everything about politics too, even if, you know, Brexit. That’s because politics is rooted in history and they know their history, the Brits. Each of them can name their kings all the way back to Charlemagne, which is the kind of statement that makes the Brits snort with derision because Charlemagne was not even English, duh, much less one of the English kings. The Gob Squad understands how ill-prepared we Americans are when it comes to things like politics or history. We’re good at starting things up…and then moving on. We’re not so good at taking responsibility for past crimes and tangled legacies, nor at validating those who call our attention to questions that have no easy answers, or to problems without simple solution.

Everything about Disney Hall and REDCAT was bothering me that night. Lining up outside the doors to the stage the progressive LA audience, myself very much included, seemed soft to me, unequal to the tasks that now confront us in this new Gilded Age. The whiff of fascism many of us detected in the telegenic dip-shittery of Ronald Reagan has now flowered up into a rank wind—indeed a bullshit tornado—that issues forth to poison the mind of America each time the unnamable occupant of the White House opens his festering gob (as the Brits might have it). We have watched this fifty year trend unfold, us quivering Cassandras, and now it is too late, I thought, filing in through the doors. There will be blood, I thought, taking my seat to wait for the show to begin, and we are unprepared. What the Gob Squad served up in Creation turned out to be an ideal palliative for my dark frame of mind. We are mortal and life is fleeting. All things must pass, so love thy neighbor and hold things lightly.

Creation begins with a long sequence about an ichibana display upstage under a camera, its various blooms projected huge onto the back wall. Ichibana is the art of Japanese flower arrangement and the exchange between Sarah Thom and Sean Patten that opens Creation had to do with the banality of this artistic activity. Thom confesses to being a beginner, just learning the craft, while Patten sits downstage sketching various audience members. The two Gob Squaders make smart, art-school observations about the complex attentional dynamics already at work in the low grade theatrical event they are also, in the moment, co-creating. Sophisticated avant-garde gestures delivered with wry self-deprecation, and a downbeat aesthetic that walks right up to its own possible failure and stays relaxed there—this is the Gob Squad’s formula for maximizing the reorganizational impact of their work on hyper-mediated contemporary audiences. Part of why their approach is so effective is that we are all completely traumatized by the ferocious fifty year, class-warfare-from-above campaign mentioned above. Weakened, vulnerable, we simply don’t have the stomach for truly challenging art, and the Gob Squad-ers, with their quasi-confessional intimacies, are right there with us, soothing and comforting even while their aims remain quite radical. In Creation they patiently lead us into the deeper end of the pool, deploying, for example, six local performers to make sure we feel at home there, treading water in our inflatable cartoon monster floats…bobbing up and down…

Even when they’re acting vulnerable your average Brit is completely invulnerable—as soon as they let rip with that accent they might as well be wearing a full suit of armor and carrying a heavy mace. Not so the local performers the Gob Squad-ers have recruited—in these local performers we see our own very American brand of turbo-driven vulnerability reflected, amplified, gently parodied…but also sweetly valorized. These locals come in two categories—the young and the old. The young ones tell us about their dreams of success, while the old ones (including the remarkable Tina Preston, who I have had the immense honor of working with over the years) recount memories of former glories. All of them vogue for us in one way or another, their images projected large on the back wall. The Gob Squad mediate between these two branches of Creation’s Dorian Gray mechanism—they are all middle aged now, situated squarely betwixt and between.

What they love to do, the Brits, is to get us Americans to realize how wonderful we are, how marvelous the moment is. They’re always willing to lend us a hand, like a loving parent, even while we mangle their language and get lost in our chronic dysfunction. They’re fond of us, the Brits. They fancy us. They know they should fix this state of affairs and avoid us—we really don’t deserve their affection—but they’re a bit smitten. At least that’s what they project (the secret, actual truth is they just love our beaches.)

(Oh, and—I almost forgot—it turns out the Gob Squad-ers actually did bring Khashoggi’s head with them. I don’t know how they got access to it—some post-Colonial, Brit-German link to Erdogan’s intelligence service no doubt. Suddenly there it was, emerging from a bloody sack. The audience fell silent. From the shock of this gruesome display a number of people spontaneously vomited. One of the troupe—I swear I can’t remember which now—carried the head to the front row. The audience recoiled, but then one of them—an older woman with close cropped grey hair and wire rim spectacles (I will never forget her) reached out and took it in her hands. She studied the face closely, as if memorizing the features, the expression, the coldness and heaviness of the flesh…and then passed it to her left…And then all of us in turn took the head and bowed slightly before passing it along. It moved among us row by row…time seemed to stand still…and then Khashoggi’s head was returned to the stage to disappear once more into the sack…)

Confronted with fascist violence they just say bollocks, the Brits. There is no possible comeback to bollocks. You’re cut off at the knees. As an American all you can do is head to the frontier…but, of course, there is no more frontier, so you have to sit quietly at REDCAT and watch them undress. They’re not afraid of aging either, the Brits. But they know it’s a crisis for us, given our culture of youth our famous youth culture and our obsession with youth. If they had a Yelp page I’d give the Gob Squad five thumbs up for their Creation, even while I told my friends they’re also a little annoying. All that icy politeness inoculates them against rejection or critique, and the one big tall creature they drew from our local waters needed to be slapped across the face with a rotting mackerel. Otherwise? Much much better than not bad.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Great piece, Guy! Especially the tone, that moves so deftly from critique to self-awareness of one’s own participation in that critique, to acknowledgment of one’s mood to righteous anger, from wanting to be fair to satire (which is of course never fair — nor should be), from informed background to changing circumstances, — the way, in my opinion, criticism should be. Kind of all over the place — which in this instance is a
    compliment, because so much critique wants to GET AT the point, rather than enjoying (both writer and
    reader) the mind at work.

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