Thursday night at the Contemporary Arts Museum, visitors were invited to a performance and photo shoot by Clifford Owens before an opening reception for his first one-person show. About 50 of us fit into the tiny room, where we were seated chockablock on the floor, leaving just a narrow, open alleyway where Owens spoke and where portraits were taken. The intimacy of space proved to be conducive for the project, breaking down ordinary divisions between performer and audience, fostering a friendly if sometimes perilous conversation.
It was a performance about anxiety and fear, and about how cameras organize our lives (and due to the personal nature of the performance and the audience's participation, no additional photography was allowed). Owens opened by asking who was afraid of flying. With this and subsequent questions, he brought up audience members to enact or confront their fears. Five folks admitting to fear of flying stood up to be posed with their arms out like airplanes. From there, the categories depended on impulse, audience energies, and Owens' own ideas about Houston, where he had just arrived for the first time. To facilitate the project, he'd fetch a bottle of champagne to be passed around, posed with, and spat in his face.
("Eat," a 2003 performance by Clifford Owens)
Who had lost a loved on in 9/11? A woman joined the quintet of flyers. Who is actually from Houston? This group was the largest, but hardly the majority in the room. Of these, who voted for either Bush I or Bush II? "Tell the truth." He brought up four others who had voted for a Bush to join. He pointed out the apparent demographic: white folks. For the portraits, sometimes he'd arrange the group in a row, like a holiday family picture; sometimes he would enter the photo himself. He'd ask the audience, "How's this look? Is this okay?"
He'd put an arm around the subject, or would hide behind her, or would lay down on the floor before her. Who is a father to a son? Who mistrusts him? Each of these categories allowed some discussion about topics like what it means to be a father, or to be touched, how to admit male vulnerability, what constitutes trust. "Now relax your shoulders and look into the camera. Don't blink. One, two..." Flash! "Is this what immigration looks like?"
Who is an immigrant? These included folks from Trinidad, Chad, and Japan. But where are the Mexicans? At first reluctant, a Mexican laborer, likely unfamiliar with the practices of performance art, volunteered and became a centerpiece for the rest of the show. With limited English and at first a thuggish posture, he spoke when he wanted, clearly enjoying the audience's attention. "I thought I was going to a museum to look at pictures." He said he worked three jobs: flooring, landscaping, and as general labor. Who else held down three jobs? Three women joined him, and they held hands and embraced.
Now, who's not afraid to get naked? Five men and two women volunteered, and soon we had naked people in the room. More champagne was called for. The laborer joined them at last, showing off his tattoos. He was the shortest and darkest of the group. The emotional pitch of the performance heightened here, when Owens took shots of the group, and then joined each, one-by-one, for improvised portraits. He first posed the laborer as choking him with both hands. Then Brett Sillers, who was operating the cameras, switching at times between Polaroid and film and responding to rapid-fire instructions from Owens, had to reload her camera. (She said later that Owens wasn't sure that people in Houston would agree to get naked; he seemed to learn a lot in a very short time.) The laborer began a short extemporaneous speech. Owens said, "In Spanish, please." The laborer's refrain was that "arte no tiene un lenguaje." Owens then asked him do another one, this time an embrace, even though the nakedness had opened with the laborer's proviso: "no homo!" Owens very nearly came to tears during parts of this interaction.
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The nakeds were naked for quite a while. The performance went over schedule by a half hour, with the reception already underway. When we were let out, we found great sandwiches at the "H-Town strEATs" food truck outside. The naked subjects were seen to enjoy an easy familiarity with one another, having skipped ordinary social cues entirely. Because of the tight space of the performance, the bright lights and the camera, what might have been awkward, for audience and subjects both, seemed nearly unremarkable. Museum Director Bill Arning later said that he was made more uncomfortable when the subject of the Bushes came up than seeing some people naked. It's a touchy subject in the arts in Houston.
Owens' show at the CAMH includes documentation of other such performances. A video called "Belt Piece" depicts him facing a wall and visibly flinching as others behind him flog the floor and wall around him with a belt. The sound of these reports pervades the room. Several of his collaborations with other artists, called "Gallery Visits," are displayed as well. We see videos of several artists using his body as an artistic medium. The most compelling of these is with Joan Jonas, who attached graphite pencils to Owens's hands and feet, laid him on the ground, and dragged him about by his arms and legs to mark up sheets of paper. The results of this experiment are hung nearby.
Tonight at 7:00 pm, at the Glassell School of Art, Owens will take part in an artist talk, where if you're interested, he'll answer questions about his work, his process, and his ideas about performance and documentation.