Privilege vs Purpose: Performance Art and The Isolated Affinity

“A human being is part of the whole called by us,universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.. “–Albert Einstein, 1954

I was recently a witness to a 50-minute solo journey, titled LIVFE, by the visual artist & performer Ian Kaler at Hebbel Aum Ufer or HAU in Berlin, Germany. Within the span of the show time I felt captivated, at times, distracted, but most importantly, inquisitive: of the choices he made, and its relation to the larger patterns I’ve noticed in watching performance art since moving here to Berlin.


Ian Kaler in LIVFE.

Kaler took us on a personal journey into his memories, all of them connected in some way to his father’s passing. It was not a eulogy where happy memories played catch; rather, it was an intuitive look into his relationship with the first man in his life. Like so many fathers, who are essentially just men, his father was complex and troubled. He shared his father’s alcoholic past and paranoid personality with the audience. But he also shared his father’s love of horses, a love which he passed on and has remained with Kaler as the ideal example of sensitivity in a harsh world.

This tale of lackluster idolizing of the parental role and its effects — that stick like gum on your shoe into adulthood — is one that countless people can identify with. With this identifying of carried trauma, how does one cope? While most turn to therapy, or exercise the right to choose a new family among friends and mentors, Kaler, like so many other artists before him, decided to dissect and funnel these emotions through his work. What is assuming the title of an artist anyway but the ultimate gift of constantly evolving self-actualization?

Yet, I couldn’t help wondering, after being wrapped into Kaler’s mostly monologic style of presentation, complete with beautiful cinematic imagery and remembrance of a dream in acute detail, of the privilege that comes with self-medication through live performance.

Almost all actively engaged performers are guilty of this phenomenon, right? Using our practice as a way to reflect our experiences, triumphs, mortal shortcomings; making a conscious effort to “overcome” or at least fuel this teetering spectrum between pain and joy with purpose and execution. But is there a point at which it become self-indulgent? At what point is one merely gazing into the same pond as Narcissus and how long are we allowed to peer before becoming merely a field of daffodils?

Kaler’s command of the space was undeniable. Rich with colorful moods, the piece sustained an engaging vulnerability of perception, exposure of his many selves, all while urging the audience not to “mistake me for me.” With his carefully cadenced train of thought, almost hypnotic in its void of emotional range, he described his present experience as Trans. Transonic, trans dance, transforming, transient, “trans, trans, trans…” The moment that rang most true for me was when he addressed the audience directly, as actively emotional participants in this unending road, searching for closure regarding his father’s death. Using red marshalling wands, he seemingly directed us into the empathetic space in which we could compassionately accept his need to share so openly.

This direction of the audience occurred about midway through, and with the combination of his lulling speech and Butoh-like hands, which moved through an unperturbed stream of the past, I found myself entranced. Yet by the end of this 50-minute astral projection, I was swimming in isolation from all of the overanalyzing. This detailed dream had solely occurred in His mind. The experience was like being led into the woods with no trail of crumbs to guide you back. As the performance came to an uncomfortable, anticlimactic close — with a childhood dialogue in which he played both characters and sang a song about a yellow house in the woods — the lack of resolve sat like a pink elephant in the room. He even encouraged the audience to make up our own ending to the song and the story.

Sitting in the theater after this performance, questions, that have been bubbling at the surface as I have seen shows in a similar performative style here in Berlin, came flooding into my mind. Since questioning is an essential part of the process for both artist and subject, my frontal lobe sparked with thoughts regarding the entitlement which comes with showcasing personal traumas in public, for a paying audience. With this admittedly advantageous liberty, is it enough to simply acknowledge the pain or is there a responsibility of the artist to crack it open, dissect it, embody it even so that a dialogue can spin out from the webs of misfortune. If not, than with this idea of taking pleasure in transparent self-reflection, at what point is it just taking? Time, resources, space?

One can’t write about these issues without bringing up the often triggering role that Ego plays in our personal and performative lives. It’s the thing that gives us essence yet blinds if given too much attention. Can the exploration of the self be its downfall as well?

Many theorists claim that this generation of millenials are experiencing a newfound conscious shift with the help of technology and global access that gives anyone a pulpit, everyone a voice. Such liberty this gives to us all, yet how narrowly we attune the lens inward in its wake. In the age of the selfie, personal brand, forever following, what is this obsession with sharing really for? Our shadows, our light, our strive for individuality. All positives in reclaiming power, seeded from the same power that builds the mighty nations we so desperately want freedom from. Is the land of self the final frontier?

I humbly believe art still has this ability to connect and bridge shared experiences of universal joy and suffering. As Einstein theorized, there is more connecting us than separating, and many of us are stuck in our limited imprisoned delusions. Where is the awareness of the artist in this simple truth even when aiming to uncover our personal universes within?

I ask these questions not out of criticism for the bravery that comes with presenting work, specifically one that contains personal truth. Rather all of these queries are a reflection for myself, as a fiercely independent artist, aware of the privilege I have to continue choosing this freedom to shed and spiral out. Everyone has a story, so maybe the most essential question is: in telling your story, is the aim to isolate or connect?

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