Kembra, provoking urban dreams, rural memories

On Friday night we almost, but didn’t quite, catch a performance by the artist Kembra Pfahler. We left early as I’ve reached an age where the over consciously hip ambience of cool distain found in the roof bar in the Public Hotel is not something I cannot tolerate for long. She was born in California in 1961, the daughter of counter cultural parents and is someone who has been a quiet force in the New York art scene for many years through her music, performance work and other multi-disciplinarian practices. The core of her work is a philosophy she calls “availablilism”, using what is to hand – which is normally her body and “antinaturalism” which often means decorating her hair and skin in the most outlandish manner. Her most familiar work is based around herself and sometimes a small group of women loosely called “The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black” the spirit of which I think is occasionally revived. The performances are usually considered sensational because of the nudity and abandonment but also occasionally because of the extreme nature of the action, such as famously having her vagina sewn closed. She is someone whose work has perhaps been unfairly underrated by the larger public and you might only be familiar with the startling photographs memorializing performances of these feminist tableaus. The cynical amongst us might timidly offer the observation that photographs of nude feminists are almost always those of the perfectly formed one’s, and have a strange tendency to be commercially successful. Another performance artist, Vanessa Beecroft, employs similar strategies to generate powerful emotional responses which are almost daringly anti-intellectual. Face to face with a room full of naked women standing in regiments, there is a solemnity to these occasions, a grave transfer of power that paradoxically leaves the audience feeling exposed.

Several years ago, for reasons I cannot remember I walked alone through SoHo, visiting galleries in the fog of low expectations. Entering one I encountered a scene that took me completely by surprise, five women with fiercely upright hair, naked with their bodies painted in bright colors were sitting motionless on a bench. It was one of those moments where eyes register information but the brain rejects it. A person thus confused doesn’t endear themselves with the performers who now moved in slow animal motions, allowing my brain to reject the first theory that this was a hyper-realistic sculpture. I was scrutinized by comically exaggerated cat eyes, calmly assessing me as prey. Now I was the entire center of attention and I felt a remorseful chill as if I was the outlandish one. And so I did what comes naturally to an Englishman, I mumbled an apology, saw them looking at each another, blank, deadpan stares, a dare to see who would relent first to the suppressed mirth infecting the rest; is it possible that I also walked out backwards, as I had once heard that this is the correct protocol when leaving an audience with the Queen of England? I left them to unspoken but irrefutable gender superiority, their mysterious ways.

I tried not to think of this humiliation any more during the remainder of the maudlin day but it must have struck into my sub-consciousness because Kembra reappeared as soon as I lay in bed that night and felt Mary’s warm, gentle embrace sending me as always into the deepest, luxurious sleep. This time I walked into the gallery with a gravitas which was entirely new. The five women looked up with expectation, and we immediately engaged in a smart, street banter. After a while, clearly amused by my company Kembra said to me, hang out with us on this bench, and for God’s sake take off your clothes (yes, the others insisted, take off your clothes!). Minutes later I am on the bench with them, I feel the thighs of my neighbors and I’m looking at a careless pile of cloths that in the enthusiasm of removal took on the form of a body that has turned into dust. This being a dream, at some point I was aware of the glow of tungsten light and the eerie presence of a TV crew. Kendra questions were now being done with a microphone in hand. The girls responded with encouragement, for example, when Kembra asked me if I am gay, the others laugh but seemed to really want to know, and I answered in a different voice to my own, a strange campiness, “did my answer need to be so absolute?”, “doesn’t our generation needs to be open enough to answer in percentiles?” (The laughter was generous, as if Oscar Wilde had returned to entertain them, although for me it’s a perplexing and uncharacteristic alto-ego). I stole glances at the women whose bodies were hairless which somehow de-sexualized them making them seem childlike in their innocence, invoking taboos and leading to protective rather than erotic thoughts. Their colored skin highlighted its smoothness which was as chalky and full of minor interests, but as exotic and unreachable as the surface of the moon. At some point I grew alert to other sounds, women’s heels in the gallery but when I turned there was no one else there, the smell of Chinese food overwhelmed me, I am not an olfactory dreamer but this was undeniable and added to the extraordinary nature of the dream, lastly the cold breeze from a door….I was receiving sensory, un-dreamlike experiences in order to wake me, to save me from myself. When another woman asked what I do for a living I told the truth and they are empathetic with the struggle to make sense of numbers, to keep them aligned and in order like a regiment on a battle field, I casually mentioned my job title and they audibly swooned. Sometime later I walked home, up fifth, then weaving between the familiar streets and avenues, I might, or might not, still be naked. It wouldn’t be the first time in these streets. A taxi pulled to a sudden stop and a friend leaped out running towards me “You are going viral!” he tapped on his phone to pull up a sketchy video clip. There were several depressing things about the next few minutes and they were not predictable ones.  Of course I appeared ridiculous amongst these terrifying beauties, yes, my un-exercised pale body, and yes, the stomach fat not quite covering….of course….it’s the banality of the joke – not the joke itself that offends, I protested in the predictable manner of men throughout the ages and now with a nod to modernity claimed digital manipulation, but it fell on deaf ears as he was laughing too much; it was the sound of my own voice that unsettled me, its mid-Atlantic neutrality, and its pomposity. I was also disturbed by the fact that my friend, who continued to wheeze without control, wanted to make the image bigger on the phone but for reasons of its own did not relent and so he used his thumb and forefinger to try to expand the image and there is for the first time in this dream an unwanted subliminal sexuality arose from the gesture. Was it an admonishment to my early boast of sexual freedom, a disingenuous lie, the vanity to sound more interesting? He knew I wouldn’t be entrapped by illicit, unrequited desires for exotic, athletic pursuits nor manage the subterfuge these must require and upon closer scrutiny I saw it was David Bowie during his Berlin years. I felt indifference… yet still woke up with a sense of relief and rose from my bed to wrench open the windows to wash out the pathos from the room.

During the following day, a very distant memory surfaced into my consciousness which I had suppressed for half a century. I was about seven or eight years old and therefore it was one my earliest; A midnight walk had been planned for the girl scouts, of which my sister was one and my mother a reluctant helper. Although it was only to the local park at midnight, and I think there were only about ten of us, the excitement was intense and we formed a line to traverse the now quiet streets and into the dense woods. It was an odd quartile of land, with roads on two sides, from the main road it fell a short distance to a playground with a rusty slide and swings, then fell again sharply to a mangled patch of wood containing half secret paths made by children and animals leading to dens and worse. Further down through the thickets and bramble there was an open glade where we felt the undeniable presence of the tree’s surrounding us, providing a canopy for our little troop, and it was bright enough now that we could look into each other’s faces as if it were daylight and see each other happily in a new blue tinged light.

At first the busy chatter and halfhearted songs spoke to our sense of occasion but then we became quieter at the bidding of the grownups then silent to hear the sounds around us on the floor of the earth and up in the night sky, there was no sound of cars anymore and the moon, as the adults must have known, was full and icy bright. After our eyes had adjusted to the dark they allowed us to see deep into the acidic, dappled interior. We were encouraged to mimic the sounds we heard and did so with the joyous innocent abandonment of children in that brief window of time before we sensor ourselves (which mercifully was still some years away); owls, deer, the urgent scuffling of hedgehogs and the wild cry of a house cat, nocturnal creatures. It was a magical, parallel world full of the laboring noise of animals and plants and not entirely discounting elves and faeries. This was a few years before I discovered Tolkien and those pages came to life for me at least partially because of what I experienced during the walk, the closeness of nature, it’s raucous promise, a sense of being alive.

Later back at the meeting house I was tired yet still forced to partake in games, in one I found myself the center of female attention, vulnerability overcame me, self-awareness which was new and I cried. The next day I was scolded by both parents, to show myself as weak, a pansy in front of girls…the shame. The hurt was particular from my mother’s reaction who I could normal count upon, and this treachery I think might have planted a seed of some mild, well-mannered but obstinate misogyny which I always attempt, but never quite manage, to smother.



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