The first time I saw Dawn Kasper perform she sat, covered in fake blood, in an old wrecked light blue Toyota Corolla parked in the lot of the Bergamot Station gallery compound (Los Angeles). Though meant to look as if she'd died in the accident, her makeup was theatrical and crude. When I saw her later, walking around with blood still caked on her forehead, Kasper was so animated and crackling with anxious energy as to erase any lingering memory of the dead girl in the car.
In intervening years since that performance, I've seen Kasper brand herself with hot steel and a blowtorch, crash her truck, run around naked, plant vegetation and try to beat the shit out of me. All in the name of art. If you've seen Kasper in public when she's not performing you’ve noticed she's full of twitchy vibrations. She walks on the balls of her feet always bouncing and pitched forward like a welterweight fighter. She's usually wearing one of two looks on her face: either a toothy grin pushed so far as to almost be straining with feeling or wide-eyed almost-surprise. She speaks quickly and with nearly awestruck enthusiasm. There's more there than is meant to be held inside of a person.
Last week I stopped by to see Kasper preparing for her newest performance at Honor Fraser Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard. In a large room in the back of the Culver City gallery, Kasper had deposited heaps of junk including old t-shirts, borrowed furniture, paper sacks filled with cables and pipe-cleaners. She pointed out to me a jar containing bits of wire and screws and paper. She proudly said it had been her grandmother's. She picked up an old half-rusted Sawzall. She said she thinks it might have belonged to Jason Rhoades.
There were a pair of video monitors stacked on top of one another. One was playing old episodes of the British TV show "The Young Ones." The other played Suspiria by Dario Argento. Kasper flitted about the room working on drawings of the junk in the room and rearranging things. She offered me a t-shirt she had made a few years before. "There's a bag of them over there. I don't know if they're all clean but you should take one." I took one. It was black with tiny iron-ons of photographs of a lawn on a sunny day. The iron-ons made floral patterns. It struck me as one of the prettiest things I'd ever seen Kasper make. I took the gift and promised to return again for the performance.
• • • •
In one of the last performances of Dawn's I saw before this week she crashed her truck by accident on a street in Chinatown in July 2009, she had been mostly naked save for a trenchcoat and sneakers. She was standing in the bed of her truck yelling at people outside of a gallery and smashing shit. She recited lines from a Fugazi song loudly. She walked in circles around her truck, jumped back in and and squealed off into the night. We all heard the car crash. She ran an intersection. It was fucking nuts.
Dawn's work up to this piece called "Repeater" had been pretty easy to attach directly to her earlier body art. Gina Pané, Valie Export, Skip Arnold were all artists you could see Dawn trying to reckon with. Without knowing better, you could see her work as part of an undifferentiated mass of performance tropes. Sometimes performance art is easy to dismiss. It's people acting like weirdos. It's violence against the self. It's like Jackass without a sense of humor. In much the same way the biological theory of Recapitulation suggests that embryonic development in humans mimics stages of evolution, the development of an artist’s career often mimics the history of art until the artist evolves into herself. With performance art, because it has become so stereotyped in certain circles, this recapitulation can look particularly bad along the way.
But I know Dawn Kasper and I know that there was always a real search going on there. "Repeater" didn't seem like the old stuff. It was more openly emotional rather than theatrical or demonstrative. Kasper wasn't performing actions with iconographic meaning as in the past (burning the word "truth" into her arm), but rather existing in a state of feeling and erasing the boundaries between herself and others that normally serve to keep life from being a constant onslaught of psychodrama.
This is to say: Crashing her truck in the night and running around naked was a controlled and contained moment of completely inappropriate behavior, and in that was, I believe, the beginning of Kasper's most mature work. She was capable of summoning a presence all her own into behaviors which outside of the containment device of a performance would be wholly pathological and at odds with an idea of the cohesive self.
• • • •
So Thursday night I went down to see the performance at Honor Fraser. The piece, called "Music for Hoarders," is Kasper's most ambitious project to date. That room full of junk I described... she had added more stuff over the week including file cabinets, more drawings, a kiddie pool and some skis among other things. The agglomeration of crap made me notice that the ceiling of this gallery was open joists and rotary cut plywood that had oxidized heavily and was starting to de-laminate a little. Just like an uncared for warehouse. What room was left in the space was filled with people. One half were spectators and the other half were holding musical instruments, noodling. Dawn was running around the space fiddling with things. She was wearing white nylons and a man's white dress shirt.
Prior to the performance each musician was asked to pick an object in the room and to pick a feeling to associate with that object. When Kasper would interact with the corresponding object the musician would play, trying to evoke the chosen emotion. So Kasper in the end can play the room as a conductor plays an orchestra, the difference being, these musicians haven't told Kasper what objects or emotions they are playing. All of the hoarded material is a physical manifestation of a jumble of emotions. As Kasper deals with the material, a sign for an emotion is released and yet Kasper doesn't know exactly what emotion or what sound or what sign.
The musicians started to escalate the noise as Kasper began her expedition into the mountain of detritus. She struggled with tables and stacked them randomly. She took off her clothes and put on a red leotard. She carefully folded a pile of ashes into a quilted dishtowel, rolled it up and put it safely inside a jar. Occasionally she would knock something over. She accidentally bumped into a high-hat cymbal and it landed with a shimmery crash. Everyone applauded so she knocked down another cymbal. It sounded great. For an hour she ran around and played her poorly wired emotional orchestra, trying to make sense of how organizing space could possibly make harmony. A small woman, childlike in a white dress, assisted Kasper throughout. Sometimes, Dawn gave her directions. She seemed so eager to please and at the same time was totally useless. The sounds were spooky and teetered at the edge of logic. The whole room seemed to turn into a giant neurotic head--thoughts as objects being rearranged and mulled over in an attempt to make a reasonable expression that someone else could comprehend.
About an hour in, Dawn stopped the musicians. She asked for whoever had chosen the table as an object to play music for to hold off. Dawn climbed up on the table and onto another table stacked on the first. High above the hoarder's junk she delivered a monologue. She held a rolling suitcase in her hand and yanked the handle up and down as she shouted to us. She told us about fighting with her mother about making art about her mother's hoarding. And she told us about seeing a woman in Penn Station who might have lost her children because she couldn't stop obsessively yanking the handle of her rolling suitcase up and down and up and down. Then Dawn climbed down and did more. The musicians started again. I think she stopped when she had hoisted the kiddie pool onto those tables and reached the ceiling. She sort of just disappeared into the crowd and when she was gone no one really knew whether to clap or not. I kept thinking how sad it all was.
The beauty of the piece was not in the sound or the arrangement of objects, and not even in the mechanism of how Kasper's actions motivated the sound. The beauty was in how the whole performance was a model of a brain off-kilter, trying to find a way to express through manipulating objects in space. On the one hand it is a description of the mind of a hoarder, trying to handle all the stuff in the world as a proxy for emotions. And on the other hand it is a description of a sculptor trying to get a thought that is inside into the world through materials in space. In both cases it describes the struggle of getting what's inside and what's put into the world by that inside to line up in a sensible way and how nearly impossible it is to contain and organize the mess that is the mental interior.
Afterward, everyone went outside to smoke or talk. They all seemed very well adjusted. Dirty jokes and dinner plans were tossed around by people who had just seen the show. It seemed like a reasonable cover to put on after the rawness of what had just gone down. Inside, the room looked lonelier and for that sadder, still packed to the ceiling with stuff.
- Julian Hoeber
Performance still of Dawn Kasper's Music for Hoarders, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery.