Friday, April 24, 2009

Playing a Serious Game—The Art of Amy Day

Just how is it that art "works" on us? There may be a commonly held belief that art should possess aspects of beauty. Even a narrow definition that excludes aesthetic sensibilities like the sublime recognizes that art possesses something more than merely technical skill—mimesis of nature’s beauty. There is something transcendent in art that takes us out of ourselves and causes us to look at the world through a different lens.

Sometimes it takes the unsettling to make us take a new look at an old concept. Performance art has had an unsettling quality from its genesis. It wasn’t visual art in the traditional sense and it wasn’t even theatre. This hybrid nature caused questions to naturally arise in viewers and this has often been used to the advantage of artists who employ performance as a medium.

Amy Day utilizes her body in her performance works. Her body is her primary medium. The actions of her body, combined with other symbolically laden objects, reference attitudes and beliefs common in society. Day, however, turns viewer assumptions on their heads. By re-presenting beliefs and assumptions in a new context, Day causes the viewer to consider the cultural qualifiers that may color basic beliefs.

Day’s series of videos entitled Bible Bath (all hyperlinked titles can be viewed on YouTube) consists of various "episodes" in which she plays the hostess of a video story-time. Amid floating bunches of plastic grapes, she relays various biblical tales that are both loosely self interpreted and drawn from versions found in children’s coloring books . Her Eucharistic fantasy is enlivened with occasional sips from the wine glass constantly cradled in her hand, no doubt adding to some non-traditional interpretations of Noah and the Ark, and David and Goliath. All the while she lounges, self-baptized in a water filled bathtub.

Part of the artist’s intention for this work was to relay what her faith would resemble at the age of thirty if it had never changed from the condition it was in when she was a child. In the gospels Jesus admonishes Christians to possess a childlike faith, but that doesn’t mean a childish faith. Day presents a problem to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Are they more concerned with the conversion of the unsaved masses than in the maturation of those same newly converted "baby" Christians? Is American Christianity based disproportionately in the Just As I Am altar call of a Billy Graham Crusade? If this is true then the recent predictions of blogger Michael Spencer, concerning the imminent demise of evangelicalism, may be true.

Bible Bath appears as both amusing and disconcerting. It is imbued with an honesty that makes it unnerving, while still fostering an appeal to both those in Christian circles and in the art world. The use of the artist’s body in other works is more immediate, dramatic, and potentially offensive. Day does not shrink away from the traditional symbolism connected to the physical bodies of female performance artists. The woman’s body is the battleground for feminist concerns and ideologies. By stripping down their bodies, Day and other female performance artists regain the control taken from women by a patriarchal society.

This is most evident in Eve. Once, again, connecting to religious tales, Day presents herself as a sinless figure of the mother of humanity. Her naked body is covered in flour to reveal its Edenic purity. As in much of Day’s work, the performance is then inhabited by the accoutrements of childhood. This time it is in the form of the childhood game of bobbing for apples. One by one, Day grasps these blood red, candy coated apples with her mouth, drops them down her torso, and into her lap. Images of sin, death, loss of innocence, and sexuality merge into one powerful scene.

Eve is far from subtle. It tackles Christian beliefs head on, but it communicates in the language of contemporary art. Physical vocabulary is important to Day. Even when she is not using her own physical body the works enlist a materiality that calls attention to the truth of the circumstances presented. A comparison between Ritual Obstacle Course and Closer to the Light is a case in point.

In Ritual Obstacle Course Day navigates the mythic tasks of some self-imposed bodily challenge. She interacts with structures she has previously built in the natural world. The rituals begin with the gathering of pottery from the puddles of a muddy plot of land. Dressed in garments of white, like her figure in Eve, she performs various tasks with the vessels at the appointed stations. until her white, mime-like mask is washed clean from her face in the "rain machine," completing the ordeal.

Closer to the Light is the alter ego of Ritual Obstacle Course. It is the child’s version—the title coming from a book of the same name that addresses near death experiences of children. It is a stop-action, puppet animation that finds the central character—a doll that seems a cross between Snow White and Alice in Wonderland—performing identical tasks in a world of toys. This is the child-like Bible Bath version of the actual biblical tale. Day wants the viewer to understand that we sometimes require a re-telling, a re-imagining of our archetypes, in order to better dissect their content. Our familiarity with the stories and practices of our youth may cause us to neglect the high seriousness of their full implications.

Performance and even video art are like a foreign language to many people. They do not often possess the intrinsic beauties that many assume are the hallmarks of good art. Amy Day’s work is fun and humorous, but also serious. She uses the first two elements to elicit questions in the minds of her viewers so that the latter is palatable. It is these vivid reinterpretations that work on our imaginations over time.

No comments: