Grabbing Pussy and Parts Known
ISSUE PROJECT ROOM | SEPTEMBER 12, 2018
Where is Yams Up My Grannie’s Ass? When Maggie Nelson mentioned Karen Finley’s 1986 performance piece in Art of Cruelty, I plunged into internet research. Yams is nowhere on Google. As a millennial, it has taken a while for me to realize that not everything is compatible and available in digital format, particularly performance art. When I saw Finley on ISSUE Project Room’s calendar, I pushed the keyboard aside, eager to witness the salaciousness off-screen.
Karen Finley performed pieces from her most recent work Grabbing Pussy (2018) and a new text-performance, Parts Known, as part of the 2018 Brooklyn Book Festival. The works speak to “the resistance of not being depressed and moving forward with the experience of activism of the past.”1 Finley knows dissent; she has confronted misogyny, homophobia, and censorship since the early 1980s, before activism went digital. In these new political monologues, she brings her opinions into broad daylight, and she cleaves into neoliberalism and imperialism. Her cleverly obscene provocations are not attention-hungry and sensational—they are a tool to convey the vulgarity of our political environment and ruling classes when a shriek is only as loud as the computer’s set volume.
Finley steps on stage and mills about for a moment before warmly greeting the audience. She pushes her wonderfully blown-out hair away from her face and onto her pink sheen top. She strips two single-use plastic water bottles of their brand labels and spills water in the process—foreshadowing the raw and anti-establishment monologue to come. Turning, she stashes the bottle wrappers in one of the many pastel flower arrangements on pedestals around the pink-draped stage. She returns to the audience, professing her nervousness about being on stage. I found comfort in watching the legendary performance artist familiarize herself with the stage like she was stepping out on her back patio after a cold winter.
A brazen and abrasive diatribe, at times facetious and funny, follows.
Finley first performs “Take These Statues Down: On Confederacy.” Her poetry and cadence resound with concrete and unwavering clarity; she calls on the US to remove antiquated statuary from this country’s slave holding past. Marble and bronze idolize an unjust and unequal social system that provides “Comfort to racists—Safe harbor to terrorists.” They are inanimate representations of highly political individuals that subjugated and enslaved other bodies. “Admiring perpetrator on pedestal—From above with profiles against heaven—instead of dirt.”
The following poems include “Grabbing Pussy,” “Red Holes,” “The Magnificent Obsession,” “Its My Body,” and “Pussy Speak Out.” She speaks rapidly, improvising at times, in an overflow of information. You cannot pause her political opinions from your apartment, and nor can she. She recollects attacks on female bodies, immigrants and their families, and under-represented populations.
The bigoted statuary from Finley’s first piece incarnates as Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein: men who unmistakably desire to possess vulnerable populations, to possess what is not theirs, to reduce bodies to obsolete and objectified functions. The ruling class’ heterosexual, white male agenda determines a body’s value. A woman’s body reduces to the pussy.
Finley parallels the vulgarity of the POTUS. He uninhibitedly uses the word pussy, so does she. Finley takes the obscenity further, rattling through the alphabet, listing names for pussy. “Fresh Fish Folded Fins, Glorious Garage Gallivanter Goo, Hamburger Helper Heaven Handle.” Every string of words vehemently resists misinterpretation. “Melania needs long nails to scratch her eyes out.”
An occasional swig of water is the only evidence of transition between poems, making the beginning of the final work, “Parts Known,” indistinguishable. In this piece, Finley speaks to the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, family separations, and the sad humdrum of New York City life.
Her intonation is as polarized as our political system, channeling the alarm of our imperiled democracy. Finley creates vague caricatures: a whiney voice of woe-ridden self-doubt that could only be interpreted as millennial, a shrill panic of public outcry, a low grumble of direct confrontation with political heads. Her movements and gesticulations vary; from standing she suddenly crosses the stage spanking herself and begging for Echinacea tea and to see a pacifying animal video. “Don’t get all soft on me now!” she shrieks. Finley cranks up the volume on the outrageousness of this political moment to a decibel that is often absent in public and physical space.
Finley leaves nothing in her work to be nullified by lofty abstraction or metaphor. The artist’s undaunted performance of these two new works reaffirms that there is something quite different about the activism of the past, before the onslaught of digital echo chambers. Although NYC is itself a progressive echo chamber, and ISSUE Project is a quite literal one, Finley rattles the open space with a vulgarity to match our political climate.
- As quoted in program notes