Saint Genet Breaks History
Photos Courtesy 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."