Decider Does Decorator
The NEA's Going to Love Karen Finley Now
It's a night like any other. The 2004 Republican Convention is gearing up for an early-morning start while George W. Bush, having a crack attack in a dingy hotel room nearby, hallucinates that Osama bin Laden is lodged in his rectum, so he asks Martha Stewart, who has pleasured and diapered him, to check. Upon telling the president that she sees bin Laden in there—"And he's tall, too"—Martha wonders whether a coffee or wheat-grass enema would expel the terrorist more efficiently. "Martha, why don't you stop using my colon for comparison shopping?" the president says. "The problem with you liberal types is that I have bin Laden up my ass and you're asking why. Honey, my ass is Central Intelligence so let's keep the whys out of it."
This is what it looks like on the other side of censorship, when you've been dragged in front of the nation, declared officially indecent, and dropped off again at your own front door to do what you will. There's wild-eyed freedom in Karen Finley's George & Martha, which began as a play in New York and has now been published by Verso as an illustrated novella that Finley will read from Thursday, May 4, at Hugo House.
"This is the most outrageous piece I've done so far," Finley says in a phone interview. She also says things like "Art isn't dentistry. We're not as boring as the rest of you" and "I feel that I was in a sexually abusive relationship with Jesse Helms. If I knew then what I know now, I would have sued him for sexual harassment on the job."
Finley's a punk, like Jello Biafra, an artist also cast into the position of First Amendment crusader for specious reasons. For 25 years, she's performed outbursts as crazed and elemental as the pain that inspires them, with causes ranging from rape and sexual abuse to generalized denigration and disease.
Infamy came to her in the form of chocolate, which she famously smeared on her naked body in homage to the case of a girl found alive in a Hefty bag, her body covered in shit. In a public battle with Jesse Helms and a trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1998, Finley, AKA "the chocolate-covered woman," was deemed unfit for public funding by the Supreme Court.
In addition to her cocoa-based offenses, Finley has recast Winnie the Pooh in S&M scenarios, orgiastically painted her breast milk onto black velvet, posed for Playboy, mooned an audience with mashed yams stuck between her butt cheeks, and run dripping honey over her naked entirety. She sees George & Martha, named after Edward Albee's marital meltdown, as Shakespearean; that would be Titus Andronicus, not Hamlet. Over the course of a dark and filthy night, the stuttering, idiotic president and the neurotic domestic maven infantilize each other in a cartoonish oedipal frenzy that ultimately represents the flailing helplessness Finley herself feels in the face of the war on terror.
George, "aside from his evil parts, should be, like, running a barbecue restaurant with a low-carb menu, you know, going to the game on Sunday and mowing the grass," Finley says. But Martha—Martha, c'est moi. "While you are bombing Mesopotamia, I am thinking about pies," she tells George. Finley doesn't mean that as a joke. It's a description of national sublimation, her included. She says, recounting her own little shock waves, "I'll be at the grocery store, and I'll think, we're bombing right now."
Scattered through the text as "psychotic breaks" are simplistic drawings that bring to mind Andy Warhol's early commercial sketches, intended to mirror the way that a horrific Seymour Hersh report in the New Yorker might be interrupted by a cartoon about a duck. Presenting the crude story using the New Yorker's recognizable headline font is intended to heighten the satire, but I imagine its best, most nasty and raucous representation is still as a piece of ritualistic theater, with Finley playing Martha, her nude body painted in prison stripes, as it was in New York. Finley does a brief impersonation of Martha on the phone, her voice moving with the steadiness of a barge as she rhapsodizes about the virtues of quail. It's not so unreal. Finley says that when she gets off the phone, before bed, she's going to make herself an artichoke-and-grapefruit salad, for health, for comfort, and because it will be pretty.
Karen Finley reads at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave, 322-7030) on Thurs May 4, 7:30 pm, free.