Performance artist Holly Bass, in the board room at Seattle Art Museum on Friday night.
  • Performance artist Holly Bass, in the board room at Seattle Art Museum on Friday night.

When Holly Bass dances, she wears two basketballs strapped to her ass and golden shoes a half-size too small. The pain of the shoes reflects the pain in parts of the performance. A carnival barker goes around cajoling the audience into giving dollar bills in order to open the curtain on Bass. If you don't give dollars, the curtain doesn't open. You're paying to see her do things that are questionable and/or beautiful and/or painful—or if you decide not to pony up, you're stranding her inside those closed black curtains. When the curtains come open, she performs to songs arranged in an order so that the hardest ones (for her) don't come two in a row. There's Tina Turner's "Private Dancer." There's segments when she's Saartjie Baartman ("The Venus Hottentot"). She does a Rihanna and Chris Brown domestic-abuse scene set to music in which she plays both parts, knocking herself down.

She performed the piece, called Pay Purview, Friday night at Seattle Art Museum. (I wish I could tell you she has another scheduled performance here; she performed it once before in Seattle, at the EMP-hosted pop music conference in 2009, so let's hope she'll be back.)

This was the first time she ever staged it in the round. The audience had to scurry after her, which was weirdly herdlike and effective. The environment—with finely wood-paneled walls, glass sculptures in glass cases all the way to the ceiling, and recessed lighting through, all designed to please and impress donors behind the scenes of the more publicly accessible galleries—was the center of SAM's institutional power. The last time I walked by this room before I caught Bass's performance Friday, it was hosting a crowd of moneyed older folks, mostly white (having their sneak preview, before the masses, of Elles). I'd like to wish that they were Bass's audience, but I'm not sure I'd want to wish that on Bass.

I'd love to hear feminist scholar Amelia Jones's take on Holly Bass's work. Jones is talking tomorrow night at SAM at 7—I also really wonder what she makes of Elles, Elles: SAM, and the differences between them. Jones is a leading feminist/anti-racist art historian, now based at McGill. (I disagreed with her about the work of the artist Liz Jones a few years ago.)