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Good performance art makes audience nervous

Shawna Dempsey (left) and Lorri Millan in Transport.


Shawna Dempsey (left) and Lorri Millan in Transport.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/7/2014 (2082 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the gallery stood an oversized door, about five metres tall. In front of a small crowd, the artist tried the doorknob, found it wouldn't open and began to knock. No one answered. But he continued knocking on that giant, closed door for more than four hours.

Performance art has its share of skeptics. The public thinks it's just plain weird, having heard rumours of bull's semen, dancing naked and howling. Many in the art world are of the opinion that since its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, the medium has lost its potency.

Shawna Dempsey (left) and Lorri Millan practise performance art in Lesbian National Parks and Services.


Shawna Dempsey (left) and Lorri Millan practise performance art in Lesbian National Parks and Services.

No matter which camp you fall into, chances are performance art makes you uncomfortably nervous, even cynical. On Aug. 5 at the Free Press News Café, artists Shawna Dempsey, Lorri Millan and guest host Elise Dawson will talk about why this is so. That nervous feeling, they say, is evidence of the medium's unique potential to get people thinking and feeling. Heyday be damned. Apparently, performance art is in the midst of a revival.

Performance is live art. When it is good, it makes direct and personal impact. The artist's knuckles were raw and bleeding when he finally grew too tired to knock on that door anymore. Most of the audience had slowly frittered away, but some returned periodically to watch. It was sad, pathetic and valiant all at once, encapsulating what its like to feel shut out and frustrated in desire.

Dempsey and Millan know performance art well. In 2004 the pair authored a book, to coincide with a Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibition, called Live in the Centre, an Incomplete and Anecdotal History of Performance Art in Winnipeg. They featured the door-knocking artist, a young art student at the time, in its pages. Dempsey and Millan have performed together since 1989, and have graced the stages of countless cafés, cabarets, galleries and women's centres. As their bio states, their provocative, humorous, feminist pieces have toured North America, Europe, Australia and Japan.

In the name of art, Dempsey has donned a giant vulva costume, has had the bust of a vintage dress retrofitted with plumbing fixtures and has assumed the identity of a khaki-wearing park ranger.

Weird? Yes. But weird on purpose. One of the reasons their work is so successful is that it puts a new spin on the familiar. In this way, their work helps us rethink our beliefs and opinions. And, refreshingly, Dempsey and Millan's work does not take itself too seriously. It is smart, witty and funny, which goes a long way in helping people understand what they do.

"Contemporary art can have a smugness that implies to the public that art is something 'beyond them' that they are incapable of understanding. That is so wrong and shortsighted. Art can engage and inspire us all," Dempsey and Millan wrote in an email interview.

The pair made We're Talking Vulva in 1990. The educational rap video was made to provide information on women's sexuality that was freeing, as opposed to stuffy or scientific.

In the 1998 performance Tableau Vivant: Eatons Catalogue 1976, several women modelled formal wear as water flowed from taps at their breasts. The piece satirized the catalogue's implied message that this is what women look like; middle class, white and gushing with domestic optimism.

Their critically acclaimed Lesbian National Parks and Services is a mockumentary about two field guides and their mission to preserve "lesbian wildlife." It was noted by several critics for its radical humour and cheekiness, but also for the fact that it didn't stoop to mean-spirited mockery of conservative religious views.

Author RoseLee Goldberg, perhaps the world's foremost advocate for performance art, believes that art galleries of the future will be less like hushed mausoleums and more like energy-filled spaces that encourage audience participation. Performance, she says, has and always will be an exciting and unpredictable way to layer ideas.

Certainly one of the most attractive aspects of performance art, for Dempsey and Millan, is that it invites dialogue.

"Performance art," they say, is a shared experience. It is between you and the artists and/or you, the artists and the rest of the audience. Coming together is a basic human need. It is community. We have always done it, through storytelling, religion, celebration, mourning. Performance art takes the power of this urge, and uses it to create new, different meanings."


Sarah Swan is a Winnipeg artist and writer. The next Art Talk/Art Walk takes place at the Free Press News Café on Aug. 1 at 6 p.m. Call 204-697-7069 for tickets to the event.


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Updated on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 2:49 PM CDT: Corrects date of Art Talk/Art Walk

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