Last Saturday evening began with Oktoberfest, a one-night event at Crawl Space, where performance artist Toi Sennhauser invited viewers to drink from a keg of home brew containing her vaginal yeast. It sounded less like a performance than a dare.
Born in Bangkok and raised in Thailand and Austria, Sennhauser specializes in combining food, sex, and squeamishness. She served deep-fried underwear pastries at Bumbershoot in 2003; the year before, she invited viewers to lick red fluid dripping from a tiny skirt on a gallery wall (it was raspberry sauce).
Oktoberfest viewers sat at a long wooden table with pretzels and coasters advertising her "Original Pussy Beer: the Mother of All Beers." Sennhauser wore a St. Pauli Girl outfit and a stereo played what sounded like Bavarian beer hall music. She offered me a cup and a pretzel while a photographer hovered to catch my reaction. Sennhauser said she brewed the beer with oak chips and stuck a few up her vagina before tossing them into the mix. I sat down at the table, toasted with a few other participants, and drank.
The experience wasn't disgusting or enlightening—it wasn't much of anything. The beer was fruity, light, and sweet. (In a less gynocentric context, it might be described as, ahem, "girly.") I drank a cup, ate a pretzel, chatted with a few nonchalant attendees, and left.
The most troubling thing about Oktoberfest wasn't the beer. It was the artist's statement—which, like most artists' statements, was fatuous. "Woman is literally reunited with beer... I share my body and mind... Essence meets essence. The participants begin to understand me and I them."
Socrates makes the case for art critics (and against artists' statements) in Plato's Apology. In the middle of the trial before his execution, Socrates says he tried to understand poetry by talking to poets and discovered that artists aren't very good at describing, or even understanding, their own work. "Bystanders might have explained the poems better," Socrates says. "Poets say many fine things, but do not understand their meaning." I didn't see any essences meeting at Oktoberfest, nor did Sennhauser and I "begin to understand" each other. She got to serve vagina beer and I got to drink it—we were just generating cocktail-party stories.
Saturday night ended with a little artists' revenge at the Stay Up Late Show, where host Rebecca Davis gently mocked a review I'd written (without knowing I was in the audience) and the crowd jeered critics in general. During intermission, a former critic told me about getting hit in a restaurant over an unfavorable review. Elsewhere in Plato's Apology, Socrates mentions the play that prejudiced the jury at his trial and contributed to his death sentence. The Clouds, a satire by Aristophanes, caricatured the old philosopher -critic as a silly, double-talking scoundrel. Poor, despised, and sentenced to death by a hostile mob for saying unpopular things—Socrates is the art critic's patron saint.