Yesterday over on Culturebot I published a response to Jack Ferver’s and Marc Swanson’s Chambre, at the New Museum, co-presented by the Crossing the Line Festival. My response was…not very positive. You can read it but it basically came down to how remarkably conservative I found the choices in the piece. Today, Helen Shaw reviewed the performance (which runs through this weekend) in Time Out, and she had a rather different response.
Which is great. I like that work can induce widely different responses, and anyway I don’t have to feel so bad writing something critical about an artist whose work I respect. But Shaw’s response likewise left me sort of scratching my head. Like Ferver, I have immense respect for Helen Shaw—she’s one of only a couple critics in this city I believe are actually serious—which is why it was so weird to read her review.
When did Helen Shaw get so conservative?
Here’s the problem: Ferver’s show is a sort of devised, fragmentary adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids through the lens of drag. Which Shaw doesn’t seem to reference at all. The word doesn’t even come up in her review. Now I know you might be tempted to say, “Oh Jeremy, it’s not a drag performance just because men play the roles of women.” And you’d be right in general; just because men play the roles of women doesn’t mean it’s drag. But I do mean very specifically that this is a drag performance, in that part of what it deconstructs and reconfigures is drag performance. Like the sort with drag queens. In a bar. Performing.
Look: Ferver and Jacob Slominski perform as women. They dress in women’s clothes. Ferver imitates a celebrity pop-singer in high camp mode, and the only female role is performed through lip-syncing. How does this not sound like drag?
Now the reason I think it’s important to acknowledge this is because, as I argued overall, the entire piece is fairly conservative. And as drag, it’s conservative and mild. Yet somehow Shaw winds up arguing that:
Rather than admiring Ferver the choreographer, we’re watching Ferver the postmodernist, the comic playwright, the social critic and provocateur. He consistently engages with ideas of selling the show and himself (he chose the title because it’s “fancy-sounding”), and in this we see the fury at the heart of his humor. Ferver frankly equates himself with a girl whose poverty and social proximity to wealth drove her to pluck out a rich woman’s eyes.
Ok, so playing up the idea of pretending to be fancy and using humor to reveal hidden fury? That sounds a hell of a lot like the heart of a drag performance. Which leads me to point: Given that—compared to most drag performances—Chambre is pretty tame, why is it that Ferver doing it in a museum makes him a postmodern provocateur and social critic? Surely Shaw has seen a drag performance, many actual drag performers having been co-opted by museums and the Art World.
It’s just weird. Maybe I’ve reached the point where nothing’s shocking anymore, but I can’t help but feel like she’s dramatically overstating the case. A little not-so-nasty ribbing of Lady Gaga, playing up the poverty of artists and joking about prostituting yourself or your art, and doing scenes from The Maids in drag as the sisters whose sensational crime inspired the story isn’t provocative or transgressive or subversive. To suggest that it is feels like dilettantism, in that the hallmarks of such things are assumed to shock in lieu of the actual thing.
The actual thing, in this case, being a drag show. Or Jean Genet’s The Maids. And this being the year 2015.
I just don’t get it.