Dallas — Performer, author, visual artist and poet Karen Finley is perhaps the most famous of the so-called NEA Four, the controversial performance artists at the center of a notorious debate over financing “indecent” work from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. (The others were John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller.) Even among people who have never seen her in action, Finley is known as the performer who smeared chocolate or honey over her body—and expressed her feminist anger and pain through “spoken word in relationship to the male gaze,” in her words. “I manipulated my body as an instrument, the embodiment of taking control, displaying the abjection of the female form.”
Now 60 years old and a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Finley continues to sell out performances in this country and internationally. An artist, whose work includes music, visual art and installation, she has written eight books on her work and experience. WordSpace is bringing Finley to the Kessler Theater on April 1 to perform The Jackie Look.
TheaterJones chatted with her about her provocative early work, her many current projects, how she teaches her craft, and what drives her Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis monologue
TheaterJones: For three decades your controversial high-profile performance art has wrapped itself around many social issues, including sexual abuse, female anger and power, the marginalization of AIDS victims—and that’s a short list. What experience drives your fierce style and performances?
Karen Finley: I respond as the artist, as the historical recorder. At the Kessler, I am performing a work that I first premiered as a work in progress in Dallas. I will be performing as Jackie Kennedy. This is my interpretation of Jackie returning to Dallas to speak about her life in photos, of her life as transformation of trauma photography. Although I am speaking through Jackie, I am also speaking about witnessing trauma, about the closeness and the documentation. I performed the work at the new Broad Museum in Los Angeles recently to rave reviews and sold-out shows.
You performed in Dallas at Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum in 1986 in a show that shocked many with its confrontational style and the theme of rape, and at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary Gallery in 1989, in a body suit covered in honey, inviting audience members to join you. How do you deal with such images from the past in the audiences’ mind as you perform new work?
I never saw my work as being confrontational. Raw, emotional, cathartic, disturbing, yes; but not confrontational. I spoke about abuse in a series of vignettes. The reason for the shocked response at Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum is that there were laws in terms of showing pubic hair and serving alcohol. I was wearing panties, yet I remember asking, “When does pubic hair begin and or end?” Can we lighten up this interview? I do make jokes.
How do I deal with disturbing images from my past work in audiences? In my work I have some type of transformation of experience, and that is art. There is the distance, the unreality of art. I think audiences can navigate that information. They are able to realize this is art, controlled in space and time, not reality. My images may be disturbing, but the history that I borrow from is much more disturbing. How does any artist deal with their work from yesterday? Hell if I know. How does anyone deal with traumatic images in their past? That is what I address in The Jackie Look. How do we all deal with images from yesterday? Not very well. Let us talk about images of today—the racist images of violence and speech that Trump provokes, his indecency. What about images of our racist history? What about the shocking lack of abortion facilities in Texas? Let us talk about the wall being proposed for our border with Mexico. How do we reveal the image of Sandra Bland’s final moments? Let us think of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, and how my life is a privileged one. As artists, writers, and musicians, we have work to do.
Was there a specific performance piece that caused the NEA to question funding for individual artists? Do you think such a furor would be ignited over the piece today? Can you comment on how your work has changed the perimeters of performance art?
I would prefer not spending my time going over the art and legal history of the Supreme Court case.
But my whiteness, social standing, the way I represent myself and identify, my education allowed me to be censored—meaning that the state felt that I was powerful enough to be threatening. There are many artists who are never recognized, or even centered on and then censored, but simply devalued, discarded. Most of these unrecognized artists are artists of color. So yes, the powerful institutions of selective forgetting exist now more than ever. I own up to my own participation of the space that the white liberal media gave me and for their emphasizing the sexual fantasy of my work, rather than my politics. I spoke out against Bush, Senior and the war, and spoke up for women’s reproductive rights and gay rights.
Today, I am concerned about the ridiculousness, the humiliation over sexting. I think it is tragic that young people are quote-unquote discovered with a nude selfie, followed by a shaming embarrassment that is ruining lives. One of my recent works is called Sext Me If You Can. The idea is people would be able to sext me through the museum and or gallery and commission me to create artworks based on the sext compositions.
The Jackie Look, which you’ll be performing at the Kessler, was first performed in 2010. What did you find compelling in the first lady’s life as you created the work? How does that work relate to America’s social and political spirit today?
The work has continued to develop. I found Jackie’s life compelling, through our national witnessing of her trauma—and the way she lived through the most public events. I have also been making art works based on that imagery. I am addressing the casualization and commodification of trauma in memorial museums, such as the JFK Museum [the Sixth Floor Museum]. I think the museum is so peculiar, that you can rent it out for social functions. There’s the Disneyland marking of the X on the spot. I know that in Dallas I need to be sensitive to location, yet the recurring space of trauma and the memorial is always so close and continues to resonate.
When you are not performing, you are teaching young artists at NYU. How do you define performance art, and what do you tell your students about creating their own work?
I don’t tell my students what performance art is. People know. But I don’t just teach performance. I teach the theory, research and, on occasion, new genres. I teach the performativity of manners, tourism, other rituals. I don’t have a narrow understanding of my art practice. I teach cultural activism, in which where we consider artistic responses, including social change through art. We have students and alumni in my classes from Dallas and Texas.
I have also been busy promoting my book Shock Treatment, which is the new expanded 25th anniversary edition of the book published by City Lights, first published in 1990. I am getting ready for my public installation of Ribbon Gate, first seen in London. The public ties ribbons in memory of those who have died of AIDS. I am hoping some of my paintings from the Zapruder stills will be included at Coagula Gallery at the Dallas Art Fair. I am working on several collaborations, some new art works and performances.
This is an oldie, but the question I go to first when I read an interview of a writer or performer I admire: Who would you invite to a dream dinner party, and what would you serve your guests?
I would invite my family to an old-fashioned garden party. I would have to research what to serve—that would be fun. The table would look nice, with flowers and thrift shop linen tablecloths and napkins and mismatched calico plates. It would be outside and there would be twinkle lights as night enters.