Unfolding

Although of a different nature, Nighthawks being an oil painting and Cage an improvised stage performance, both left a huge impression on me. The type of impression that made me go home and read more about both pieces and artists. I accidentally came across Nighthawks at the Chicago Art Museum, a couple of years ago. Not being familiar with major western artists, other than those encountered in overly ornamented European churches, I was surprised I could immediately relate to this painting. What is more familiar than people having dinner in what looked like either a cold or late night setting? The same happened when I, less accidentally this time, went to Katie Duck’s performance in Vancouver. It addressed many women things that do not leave me indifferent. Both artworks were accessible, relatable, universal and transparent.

However, Hopper’s painting is soothing more than provoking. It is very aesthetically pleasant and the relationship between him and his wife seems sweet and suspended in a beautifully lit space in a quiet city where everyone is asleep, maybe dreaming, with a sense of permanence and confidence in the future. When I went to Katie Duck’s performance, everything I had internalized about performance was gently AND loudly shaken. First, it is confusing because the artists are already in the room as the spectators entered, greeting and talking to people. The lighting and media used are very simple with no ambition to exhibit technical prowess, or impress. I left with the question, whether this woman even knows how to dance? Something that did not occur to me when standing in front of Hopper’s Nighthawks. It was hard to question his abilities to “paint” and “paint well”, or whether this was at all a painting. 

What I can not question in Duck’s work is her directness. She has urgent issues that frame her work and there is not going to be any beautifying of the matter. Feminism, aging, relationship between the audience and the artists, status, and the liberty to improvise. The political nature of the work is clearly stated and the choices made are bold and personal. She puts her own struggles in their raw form on stage. As I am writing about this, it dawns on me that Duck is maybe concerned with authenticity and Hopper with skill and rules; perhaps reputation is at stake too. In Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks, things look neat and in order, while Duck’s message transcends her reputation. The idea of Cage is never to “host” the audience but to have a conversation with the audience. Duck’s provocative, yet caring work, makes everyone uncomfortable, when she stood on a chair screaming Vagina, Vagina, Vagina, Vagina, Vagina, Vagina, she knew she is testing the audience’s patience. She uses improvisation to consciously or unconsciously get her to the next state.

Perhaps the fundamental difference is that Nighthawks gives us permission to talk about everyday life and social situations, elevating the mundane to something worth examining, that contains beauty and complexity. While Cage brings the secret life to the stage and frees us from the social constructs we have been educated into. Duck openly discusses with us her deepest fears, shame and futile pre-occupations. However, both artworks give us permission to relate and talk about different aspects of our human experience. 

Duck was 67 when she gave the performance in Vancouver. In the performance she removes all her clothes and remains for several minutes in her underwear, then goes on to die topless in her panties only. This simple act of showing a decaying, well danced and lived body is political, loaded and bold, especially in the dance and performance world. The performance ended without the audience realizing it had ever started. Time and space were clearly messed up with and the relationship with the audience was fluid. Hopper and his wife remain locked inside a nicely lit cage where the viewer (and observer) is left outside in the cold night uninvited. While Duck’s work denunciates the many cages we restrict our selves to, pointing to every one of them and amusingly showing us how to mess with them.

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