#HerToo – Pioneering Performance Artist Karen Finley Takes Miami

Listen up kids. One of the raddest and baddest female performance artists ever is playing Miami tonight (Friday). Before #metoo, before mansplaining was called out, before performance was “time-based art,” Karen Finley was shocking our cultural system. Calling out the patriarchy? Finley took her challenge to the Supreme Court.

Finley was one of the most radical and revered figures on New York’s downtown club and performance scene in the 80’s, where I encountered her on a regular basis at clubs like 8BC, where I used to work. Even in those gritty, grotty, hardcore times, her raw, gut-wrenching and unflinching pieces stood out. She exposed and manipulated herself physically; slathering her body with chocolate or canned yams, draped her glitter-covered breasts outside her dress – a metaphorical slam your face, defiant takeback of how society abuses women’s bodies and dictates how they should look. She seemed possessed in monologues about hideous subjects like incest and rape, passing instantly from a soft-spoken woman to a maniacal, screaming figure who dropped your jaw and made you squirm and laugh at the same time. She was deeply disturbing and wonderfully liberating, our revenging id, the thrashing inner child trapped in a silent scream.

Finley’s work put her at the center of the culture wars of the early 90’s, as the religious right moved into politics and attacked abortion, LGBTQ rights, sexuality, and brazen artists who asserted the right to express sexuality and physicality the way they wanted. An increasingly conservative Congress attacked the NEA for funding artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, with his erotic photos of black men, and what came to be called the NEA Four – Finley, and artists Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck, who were gay. When the NEA bowed to pressure and took away their grants, the four artists challenged the decision all the way to the Supreme Court. They lost. But their stand for self-expression and freedom of speech and sexuality and self did not.

Since then Finley has become an international figure, performing everywhere from Lincoln Center to Harvard to London’s ICA, while her artworks are in collections at the Pompidou in Paris and LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Karen Finley. Photo by Max Ruby.

While she has appeared at several Miami Art Week fairs in recent years, Finley’s show tonight, Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, at the Miami Light Project space in Wynwood, is her first open Miami performance since a show at the long ago South Beach venue Club Nu in the late 80’s. It kicks off an ambitious city-wide, months-long performance art series, Living Together, presented by Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art and Design (MOAD.)

Here’s some of Finley’s thoughts (edited and condensed) on Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, which deals with Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, the “genital election,” why women always feel like they have to apologize, misogyny, #metoo, and going first.

  • Where does Unicorn Gratitude Mystery come from?

KF – I was thinking about whiteness and mythical magical enchantment, neo liberalism condoned spaces, sacred consumable spaces for enlightenment. Then I was thinking about faithfulness and women, the constant gratitude in that position and that I as a woman am very resentful of having to use that gratitude in deference to men, or any type of a situation where I’m presenting my ideas, like in a meeting where I feel the way to make things work is to have this sense of gratitude, like I don’t deserve to be here. I started examining that within the culture and thinking about that in terms of the misogyny towards Hilary Clinton, applying these ideas towards the genital election that was going on. I had done a lot of work on people hating her so much. At the same time I was thinking – and this is not necessarily a linear proposition, it’s more a garden of ideas – about Trump and this infatuation and the blondeness in his hair. I had been writing about Trump as an archetype for ten years. He is a unicorn, the mythical beast of whiteness.

This is not all anti Trump, pro Hilary. It’s very critical of Hilary Clinton. But I’m looking at it in a deeper way. I’m thinking of them more as archetypes. You’re looking at these drama traumas as ways to look at the human condition. Though it is political it is about looking at these public personalities to look at ourselves. It’s real life but it’s also the drama we’re living every day. I want people to realize we don’t have to be complicit or complacent in revealing these scenarios.

  • You’ve been making work about how the culture treats women and their bodies for decades. Do you ever get frustrated that you’re still dealing with this?

KF – I was asked that question yesterday when I was speaking to a school here. And I said I have seen some progress since when I was a young woman. When I was going to school I didn’t see women in positions of power, there were very few women who were professors, there were less women in museums or shown. And in the last few months there seems to be less tolerance towards misogyny and sexual violence towards women. They’re small steps but I am noticing some change. One of the reasons I was defunded [by the NEA] was because I spoke out about misogyny, the destruction of the female body, the representation of women because of their bodies. I was silenced for that reason.

  • Do you think younger people know about what you did as part of the NEA and Supreme Court challenge? A lot of people no longer know about the NEA Four.

KF – They might not know it but they’re living the results of it. Do people know about the Hollywood Ten? There’s many parts of American history where people aren’t aware of. So that’s not my complete responsibility. But we’re living in a culture where our personal rights are at issue. We have lots of examples in our society where the government refuses to support programs or people based on decency, whether abortion or books in schools or sex education in schools, the issue of the military and changing norms of whether gay and trans people can serve.

– Can you tell me anything more about the piece?

KF – It’s very funny. There’s a lot of humor. In this political moment there is always this feeling of disempowerment, feeling doomed and feeling in the corner. The art work allows for a space to feel responsive, to react. Many of us hear this information from a TV or [social media.] So when we’re in this room processing it together in the heart, it gets in the body and makes us feel we are part of a community. We can respond. Humor and laughter are very very powerful. A good reason for going to shows is being together in a human gathering. That’s why I love performing. I love physically looking at my audience’s eyes, the intuition and the invocation. All that energy goes into this moment. It has a tension, it can fall on its face. It’s living the struggle together to have a poetic moment, to make sense of where society is at.

Karen Finley performs at 8 p.m. tonight/Friday Jan. 12 at Miami Light Project at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami. Tickets $15, $5 for students with ID, at mdcmoad.org . 

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