Dallas — On April 1, Jackie O. came back to Dallas to visit the city that housed and lead to the subsequent capture of her husband’s assassin, Oak Cliff. Taking the stage at the Kessler Theater, Jackie O. graced us with her effervescent and ethereal presence, helping us to realize that life for her exists in two parts: Before Dallas (B.D.) and After Dallas (A.D.). The haunting constantly continues, just as life continues, on and on in a revolving circle of trauma, grief, and memories.
Jackie O. returned to us thanks to Karen Finley, performance artist extraordinaire. In a career that has spanned nearly 40 years and has examined almost every social injustice, nothing seems to escape Finley’s eye. Her latest work is no exception. In what she calls “the casualization” of violence, Finley provides new insight into the concept of the “the gaze” in The Jackie Look, presented by WordSpace.
Using Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her trauma as a replacement for all of our lives and how we view trauma, Finley raises an important question: “If it wasn’t for art, where would my recovery go?” The implications go beyond Jackie O., the JFK assassination, and Dallas; instead, they touch on national issues of education, diversity, and gender equality. Art provides us with a mirror on society, granting us the protection and the entrance into discussing polarizing issues. Yet, that mirror calls forth a specific voice, but not the one we would normally expect. What Finley so deftly does is conceal and reveal the act of “seeing” and “looking,” while promoting and negating their generally understood definitions and roles in society.
“Please release me from your gaze…I was your target practice…” she says, opening up a dialogue about the asexual (read: unisexual), nature of “the gaze.” Gone is its masculine quality; instead, she wants us to understand “gaze” as an act that is performative and transformative. We perform “looking,” we photograph “a look,” a moment, we capture “the gaze” and create its memory as we want to memorialize it.
Even though Finley first performed this work five years ago, its relevance is still prominent today as these concepts are amorphous, intangible, and ephemeral. With each fresh human tragedy in our society, we become instantly and increasingly connected to our world. Whether or not we want to.
While talking about these concepts feels like being lectured to—and that’s how this first section of the performance began to sit, as a graduate school lecture on art history, photography, and the male gaze—Finley smartly reminded us that she was playing a character. The use of “playing” is not to diminish what Finley accomplished through her performance, but rather to highlight the act that she completed and had us complete with her, as she sweetly convinced us to “play” along with her.
To follow her non-linear narration into a fantasy world that was too full of reality.
In playing a character, in working through and becoming the transformative figure, one leaves their body, traveling outside of themselves to explore and examine the world in a distal and metaphysical manner. In doing so, one is able to return to their physical body, with a new reading of reality. Finley works to achieve this transformative state, and maybe that’s the thesis of this production, that the act of transformation allows us to become wise together: “We cannot separate fiction from fact…it’s an illusion of space, time, and reality.”
Finley uses her body both as subject and object, and her voice becomes a vehicle for political and social action. The cadence is both poetically enveloping and painfully grating. The sweetness is inherently sickening allowing Finley to explore the feminine, and in sense, recreate trauma.
She accomplishes this task in a number of ways, by searching eBay for JFK memorabilia—“That’s what I collect, my husband’s head in my hands…”—by making connections to riots and police violence throughout history, and by examining the media’s treatment of women in positions of power—“We had to wait until Princess Di…Jackie retired to the White House…I see you Michelle Obama, not as a vehicle to see your husband…I give you my place Michelle, my privileged whiteness splattered with blood…”
It’s time to be exposed, and the performance was an ode to the human gaze. The result: a new mirror on society was created as Finley became Jackie O. and we became Finley, and thus, became more than ourselves. “I become you, you become me.” She pulled the audience on stage with her—literally, for a Studio 54 dance party, a semi-intermission and welcomed reprieve from the dramatic action, and metaphorically, by turning the questions onto us, forcing a rhetorically situation to arise. She hit her stride in her monologue on shopping and compulsive behavior. It was wild, transformative, and unapologetically feminine.
Yet, at times the performance was lacking in clear structure or cohesion, and the balance of comedy and drama was uneven. But issues that can be rectified with editing and a deeper directorial investigation of what the work holds. Such is the double-edge of sword of solo performance work, or performance art in general. It can always grow and develop and be improved upon. But that never negates the power of the words and the actions, of the gaze it places upon the audience. “Thank you for looking at me. Your looking at me protected me. I’m no longer at the mercy of emotions.”