Performance art, which emerged during the tumultuous 1970s, is widely regarded as weird, obscure, and nonsensical. Artists such as GG Allin, Blue Man Group, and Yoko Ono are among the most mainstream of the avant-garde genre. Burning paintings, on-stage excrement, and bizarre body distortions are all things one may expect to see at a conceptual art performance.
Beginning this week, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art makes a foray into this world filled with sexual monologues, disturbing visual displays and often confusing themes with San Franciscan artist Patty Chang's exhibit "For Abramovic, Love Cocteau." A series of six different media exhibitions by Chang will be displayed successively every three weeks from January 9 until April 13.
The first work, entitled "Melons (At a Loss)", is an eight minute monologue by the artist about the death of her aunt and the subsequent feelings of frustration and pain. While Chang delivers her monologue, she simultaneously balances a saucer on her head and eats a cantaloupe which has been placed where her left breast should be. However unnerving this image may be at first, it has an entrancing effect and the idea that Chang is digging into her own flesh is grotesquely mesmerizing. Prior to eating the cantaloupe, Chang rips out the seeds and places them on the saucer. The significance of the placement of the melon over her heart correlates with the subject matter of the monologue. Chang's monotone delivery is broken only when she finishes the cantaloupe and proceeds to smash the plate on the floor and then fades into dark silence.
Originally trained as a painter at Sarah Lawrence, Chang has gained notoriety for her short films. In addition to taped performances, Chang also performs live solo shows in major cities. A point of interest for Maine residents is Chang's time spent as a teacher at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. An inhabitant of New York City, she primarily performs there but has traveled far and wide to produce performance pieces.
Chang has been steadily producing media art since 1998 and there is a noticeable shift from sexuality and feminism to more organic themes in her present work. Her venues change from close, intimate rooms where she is her own subject, to outdoor, spacious locations in which Chang rarely appears in the pieces. Each exhibition offers a different bold perspective and Chang often uses color to enhance the emotion of the piece. She is also an expert at using distortions of her own body and facial expressions to highlight her artistic intentions. Her parents and family play prominent roles in multiple pieces, and water and purification through bathing are common and transient themes throughout.
Chang's exhibit is wholly fascinating, even if hard to grasp at times, and unlike anything else at the art museum. Chang has managed to create a performance piece that encapsulates pain, anger, and feminine sexuality in a subtle and non-aggressive way. Melons (At a Loss) will be displayed in the Media Gallery at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art until January 27, at which point it will be replaced by Chang's piece "Fountain." Chang will be coming to speak at Bowdoin later this year.