American Gothic

Saint Genet Breaks History

American Gothic

Photos Courtesy of Saint Genet

SAINT GENET Ryan Mitchell performs 'Shoot.'

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Darren Dewse prepares to burn the penis of Thomas Vincent Chapel—later, the humiliation will be reversed.
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JESSIE SMITH The choreographer for Saint Genet.
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RYAN MITCHELL The director of Saint Genet.

At dawn last Sunday morning, in a remote and wooded area of Seattle, Saint Genet director Ryan Mitchell re-created Chris Burden's notorious 1971 artwork Shoot. In the original, Burden was shot in the arm with a .22 rifle inside a gallery and called it sculpture. Mitchell was shot in the arm with a .22 rifle beneath a tree, then walked approximately 10 miles to a theater and called it performance.

The re-creation of Shoot was secret—I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement before I was even told what was happening—because the stakes were high. First, the action was probably a crime. Second, there were some serious liability issues. Third, the action happened the morning before Saint Genet's closing-night performance of Paradisiacal Rites at On the Boards, and if On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski got wind of it, he might've pulled the plug on the whole show.

The shooter, who has been hunting with guns and bows since he was 8 years old, stood in the dim forest with a few other people watching. He said there wasn't enough light for him to take the shot safely. Someone shined flashlights on Mitchell's bare torso. The shooter said it still wasn't bright enough. So we waited, agonizingly, for the light.

Then the shot. Mitchell didn't scream. He didn't fall over. The wound on his arm was bandaged, and a few of us began the walk downtown.

During a previous conversation, Mitchell had said he expected severe backlash on several fronts: the sensitivity about gun violence in the current national dialogue, the perceived stupidity and futility of such performance-art actions, the inevitable accusations that it was a sensationalist but unoriginal move, and even the possibility of a lawsuit from Burden's estate. (Performance artist Marina Abramovic, Mitchell says, once asked Burden for permission to reproduce Shoot and was denied.)

But the opprobrium that he knew would follow Shoot was part of the project. While Mitchell says that reproducing Shoot makes sense as "a satellite piece in dialogue with Paradisiacal Rites"—which is about finding beauty in death, mortification of the flesh, and excessive gestures—I suspect he chose it in part because he knew it would provoke the most vitriol and bile. Subjecting oneself to pain as performance is one thing—but stealing a crown jewel of American art from another artist? Genet, himself a serial thief, might be proud, and might smile on the condemnation that has followed.

Being publicly shat on is part of the mythos of Genet—the "negative ascension" (as Mitchell puts it) in his work, which transformed acts of brutality, crime, and degradation into beautiful and sublime moments. You have to go down to go up. If you're reading this right now and shuddering with indignation and revulsion at the idea of reproducing Shoot, the piece is doing its work. It's clever that way.

Saint Genet's theater aesthetic is a marriage of the high and the low—flour and dirt, gold leaf and leeches, exquisite choreography juxtaposed with people getting so drunk and high they fall over trying to execute it. Rites itself was a series of incantatory images: It opened with a field of wheat on the stage, stuffed and headless pheasants whirring in circles overhead, and a mound of dirt that contained a performer, requiring him to stay buried for hours and emerge only at the end of the performance. Upstage, and on stage left, actors inhaled balloons of nitrous oxide and drank beer, whiskey, and wine throughout the show. Musicians played ominous electro-organ tones and, during some moments of sprightly choreography by Jessie Smith, high and tinkling phrases on a keyboard.

The whole thing had a hypnotic Americana feel, with some very ugly moments: vicious slapping, Mitchell spitefully and serially spitting wine into the faces of some dancers (and being spat upon in his turn), and a raging party scene with strobe lights and double Dutch. The party was interrupted three times by a macho performer with a large beard (Thomas Vincent Chapel) wrestling an effeminate, lisping man (Darren Dewse) to the ground, pulling his pants down to show the audience his ass (which was encrusted in gold leaf), and making him sing the opening lines of "Goldfinger" ("The man with the Midas touch..."). Other moments were more golden-hued and dignified, with dancing reminiscent of colonial American gestures and Shaker spinning. It was like American Gothic fused with Hieronymus Bosch—populist in some ways, but also transcendent in its ambivalence and ugliness.

The morning afterward, I called Czaplinski and OtB managing director Sarah Wilke to get their reaction to the fact that Shoot happened without them knowing. During the conversation, I said I was sorry that I wasn't able to warn them, but I had signed a nondisclosure agreement and then suddenly found myself in a sticky and unexpected situation. Wilke laughed softly and said: "Putting you in a strange situation that you didn't sign up for—it's what Saint Genet does." recommended


Comments (23) RSS

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flaneur 1
As a long time OTB subscriber, my reaction to Mr. Mitchell and his Paradisaical Rites performance is that while I admire his ability to get paid for what he does, I do wonder if he is on a personal downward arc that will end very badly for him and those around him. Is watching a train wreck art?
Posted by flaneur on May 21, 2013 at 3:04 PM · Report this
What if you are reading this right now and rolling your eyes at how forced and vapid reproducing 'Shoot' is? It's not very clever that way.
Posted by I do not think that word means what you think it does on May 21, 2013 at 3:28 PM · Report this
I don't think I even understand what I just read. Was that the point?
Posted by no_such_number on May 21, 2013 at 3:45 PM · Report this
St Genet obviously rejects any traditional standards by which one might judge a performance to be good or bad art. What I can't tell is whether they have any new standards to replace them with. For example, how do they figure out whether this piece was a failure or a success? Or are they immune from criticism because they reject all possible grounds for criticism? Is that what Brendan finds clever?
Posted by Critic on May 21, 2013 at 3:46 PM · Report this
artistdogboy 5
Egocentric, self indulgent, attention seeking, hipster, uselessness. I suppose everyone when out afterwards to a 'self harm' party where they took pictures of their injuries with their iphones and uploaded them to tumblr and instagram.
Posted by artistdogboy on May 21, 2013 at 4:24 PM · Report this
Sorry to say that I left at intermission. The company certainly is talented and has admirable intentions. I even found the compositional elements (on their own) to be beautiful and startling. Unfortunately, there's also the pervasive stench of "why should I care?" and petulant portrayals of suffering that lose themselves in self-referential nothingness. It could also stand to be a little bit more fun for a piece that intends to be about the search for paradise.
Posted by Trystan on May 21, 2013 at 5:05 PM · Report this
For those who have the unregistered comments off, @4 totally nails it. And @6 captures Saint Genet's aesthetic merits and ultimate deflating hollowness.

No matter how deeply Mitchell may believe he is forging a new medium and a new framework for processing it, the fact remains that when you assemble an audience that has paid a fixed, non-negligible ticket price to sit in an established performance space and watch you, your work exists in conversation with that audience and within the history of performance works similarly offered for public consumption.

That "flour and dirt, gold leaf and leeches, exquisite choreography juxtaposed with people getting so drunk and high they fall over trying to execute it... a field of wheat on the stage, stuffed and headless pheasants whirring in circles overhead, and a mound of dirt that contained a performer, requiring him to stay buried for hours and emerge only at the end" describes without variation a Saint Genet performance in the more inherently immersive and interactive Lawrimore space more than 18 months ago confirms my suspicion that Mitchell is an artist without growth and without purpose.

To even mention him in the same breath as Chris Burden or Marina Abramović -- evolvers both, and in the case of Abramović, epiphanically eloquent about her art -- is an unwarranted flattery.
Posted by d.p. on May 21, 2013 at 6:01 PM · Report this
The emperor has no clothes!
Posted by brendankileyshoulddogayporn on May 21, 2013 at 6:12 PM · Report this
You did notice the difference between the Lawrimore show and what was shown at OtB? Yes? If you saw no growth if you saw no purpose, you missed a lot. The shows 18 months ago were part of a process wherein the artist took a look at ideas, sets, physical abilities of his troupe and created a fuller, larger, more realized work based on what he saw. I myself think we have a genius on our hands. I love Ryan's work.
Posted by alms on May 21, 2013 at 6:53 PM · Report this
You should have broke the nondisclosure agreement. That would have been art.
Posted by killingtime on May 21, 2013 at 7:23 PM · Report this
The last time Derrick Ryan Claude Mitchell found himself criticized on the pages of Slog, a mysterious "drcm" registered just in time to offer an insufferable, windbaggy, kneejerk defense of Mitchell's unimpeachable artistic process.

Which member of Saint Genet might you be, "alms"?
Posted by d.p. on May 21, 2013 at 7:50 PM · Report this
johnnie 12
Parasitical Rites, anyone?
Posted by johnnie on May 21, 2013 at 7:57 PM · Report this
AdagioatMSN 13
That gut would have made a better target.
Posted by AdagioatMSN on May 22, 2013 at 12:33 AM · Report this
However it is that one feels about this piece of work, it is never appropriate to wish someone be killed. Come on people, are you really so insulted by this work that you would rather the maker have killed himself? And what does that say about you as the witness? I wish that you could look deeper into your reaction to the work rather than your opinion of the maker.
Posted by soyousay on May 22, 2013 at 11:02 AM · Report this
I think @13 was just calling him fat, @14, not wishing him mortal harm.
Posted by d.p. on May 22, 2013 at 1:01 PM · Report this
The Second Amendment, as the rest of the Bill of Rights, is an acknowledgement of our natural born rights, not a granting. The entire Bill of Rights is about keeping the governments in their place. The Second Amendment is about the common person's right to own weapons of war so that we can keep the governments in their place by keeping the 'monopoly on force' in the hands of the people where it belongs, as in 'We the people.' Remember that? It will not be infringed any further and the 'gun laws' in existence will be repealed. End of discussion.
Guns don't kill, governments do. Gun free zones are the problem, they allow armed criminals to kill. Arm the teachers, the administrators and the parents. Don't allow the "Liberal"(commie) trash who control the so-called educational system to teach mindless pacifism that is ensconced in their arrogance of false civility.

If we have violent criminals in prison who have been convicted of a crime and can't be trusted with weapons why is the govt. turning them back out on the street? So they can point at them and say "See, the sheeple can't be trusted with guns." The 'crime' argument is a red herring.

Time to repeal all of the ‘gun laws’ including GCA ‘68 and the NFA; Shut down the evil BATF Nazis and try them for treason, and murder where appropriate and distribute their retirement funds among their victims; Then enforce the Bill of Rights on places such as Commiefornia and New Yawk and Chigawgo and if necessary bring the troops home and have them restore Liberty here and remove Amerika’s natural born traitors in the process.

Millions will dig the ditch they are told to dig then wet their pants when the machine gun bolts slam home and die stupidly wondering “How did this happen to me?” The tiny minority will have to do what will be required.
It’s time to stop arguing over the culture war. It’s time to stop hunkering down for the apocalypse. It’s time to stop waiting to get beamed up. It’s time to start thinking Normandy.
If you sit home waiting your turn you deserve to have your gun taken from your cold dead hands.
The Founders didn’t wait for the Brits to knock down their doors. They gathered at the green and stood up like men and they killed government employees all the way back to Boston.
What will you do when it’s time to hunt NWO hacks, republicrats and commies(“Liberals” and ‘progressives’)?
Don't understand? Go to willowtowndotcom and read the quotes page first. Then read my column "Prepping for Slavery."
Posted by waypasthadenough on May 22, 2013 at 2:22 PM · Report this
"I had an intuitive sense that being shot is as American as apple pie..."

-Chris Burden
Posted by Chris Burden on May 22, 2013 at 8:31 PM · Report this
Just look at the comment history of d.p. and forget everything you read. THAT is true entertainment. I'd kill for your Yelp name. Thankyouverymuch.
Posted by BrianBlood on May 23, 2013 at 2:46 AM · Report this
...but... the lawrimore performance was in preparation for this larger, longer show.. it was part of the process, not a totally separate project.
so of course it shares elements... you were watching those elements being developed.

its quite common for large scale new works to have "preview" performances where they can test out ideas before completion of the full show.

in fact, some grants specifically require these additional "work in progress" performances!

(no idea if that was the case here, but it's definitely been the case on a few projects i've been involved with)

Posted by bka on May 23, 2013 at 4:40 PM · Report this
Just look at the comment history of "BrianBlood" and... oh, wait... he just registered today!

For artists who burn their penises, huff ether, and get themselves shot, the members of the Saint Genet crew seem surprising thin-skinned!
Posted by d.p. on May 23, 2013 at 4:59 PM · Report this
@d.p. Did you see the OTB show? If not, maybe you can critique performances you've actually seen... I'd honestly welcome that.

P.S. The pheasants weren't headless.
Posted by casey curran on May 23, 2013 at 6:38 PM · Report this
tharp42 22
Uh...sounds like ridiculous performance art horseshit... but my gut says "HELL YEAH." Or maybe that's just the six glasses of vino. Genet was a proper freakshow,though. Him and Artaud.
Posted by tharp42 on May 25, 2013 at 11:29 AM · Report this
Say what you want it takes a lot of guts to let somebody put a bullet in your arm for art and how do you know part of that is not illusion. Plus, you have got to love that picture.
Posted by Sillyhp on May 31, 2013 at 2:42 PM · Report this

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