Spartacus Chetwynd Tames Lions, Audiences at New Museum

November 2, 2011
Photos by Andrew Russeth

Though she is more than a decade into a fast-rising career in Europe, English artist Spartacus Chetwynd has been a scarce presence in New York. However, thanks to a current show at the New Museum’s new Studio 231 space, just south of its Bowery home, we have been able to get a sense of what we have been missing. It turns out that is a lot.

Last night, Ms. Chetwynd made her Performa debut with a work called The Lion Tamer at Studio 231, curated by New Museum associate curator Gary Carrion-Murayari. She was clad in a tan leotard streaked with spindly black lines, and she welcomed the audience of a few dozen (including Art in America editor Lindsay Pollock and curator Clarissa Dalrymple) at the start, telling us that the piece would proceed as a series of short events. Surrounding her were performers dressed as black ninjas, or wearing white outfits painted with bright colors–Kimber Smith paintings made over into theater garb.

The action began with an ominous, shuffling beat coming through the room’s sound-system. The black ninjas placed a crown that looked like fire on the head of a thin young man, who was clad in tights of the same color. They wrapped him with red fabric bands, and he then walked slowly through the space; he looked regal, though with a strange gentleness, a vulnerability.

The king’s walk complete, Ms. Chetwynd returned to her role as emcee. “This is very informal now,” she said, as her performers scrambled about, some on hands and feet, for the next act. “There is nothing formal about it. There is even a bottle of horrible whiskey I can offer you a cap of.” A few audience took thimble-sized shots.

More raucous and ritualistic performances followed under the room’s purple and pink and lime-green lights. Seven performers got down on all fours in a circle around Ms. Chetwynd, bobbing energetically in place. One jumped up to kiss the artist, though the ninjas came to her rescue, pulling her from the attacker’s grasp.

An androgynous-looking woman, in heels and a white dress (a blue zig-zag running down her chest), sang over a cello, crooning, “I’ve got to get out of town.” The red-orange king returned, wearing only his tights, and danced about like a boxer, surrounded by more of the people-lions.

Later, a tall cloth sculpture, a pod with a mouth near its base that resembled a vagina or an orifice on some undersea animal began gliding quickly across the floor. “Look out!” one audience member shouted, pulling me from its grasp. The performers held one of their own aloft, and lowered her in front of the mouth. Her head disappeared inside.

Then they came for us in the audience. A woman in black grabbed the pen from our hand and danced us to the pod’s mouth. She gently glided our head inside, and a warm mouth kissed our brow. Dazed but enthusiastic, we stumbled over to a friend who had undergone the ceremony just before us. “Not bad,” he said, a grin across his face. “Not bad at all.”

The performance, we had read, was inspired by the films The Dresser (1983) and I’m No Angel (1933). We have seen neither, but the latter apparently features Mae West in the role of a lion tamer, gamely training animals and “society swells.” Expertly moving the audience through the space over the course of the hour-long piece, guiding us from one peculiar scene to another, Ms. Chetwynd was no mean lion tamer herself.

The final performances of The Lion Tamer are tonight at 7 and 8 p.m.

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