David Sita-Gray sat up straight on stage and kept his coral blazer buttoned over his 22-inch waist. Lights reflected off his loosely-curled, brunette wig and illuminated his brown- and champagne-colored eyelids and glittery, glossy lips. He maintained a face he described as stoic.
Audience members, during a span of almost three hours, cut off pieces of Sita-Gray’s clothing. The audience cut, piece by piece, his blazer, white shirt and most of his matching coral skirt. He was left wearing only ripped panty hose, a black corset, boxer-briefs and a strip of cloth that was once his skirt.
“It was the biggest test of my endurance,” Sita-Gray said. “I kept telling myself, ‘Wait until they cut your bra off. Wait until they cut this off.’”
Sita-Gray’s performance imitated the famous performance art “Cut Piece” by Yoko Ono, which she performed first in 1964 then again in 2003.
Sita-Gray, who is not a drag performer, said he wanted his piece to make a statement about the LGBTQ community and its struggles.
“(My piece) deals with masculinity, it deals with femininity, it deals with the space in between the two,” Sita-Gray said. “It brings that to attention.”
Sita-Gray, Webster University senior wig and makeup design major, was one of five Webster performance artists to imitate historic works by performance artists at The Factory on Washington Avenue on Saturday, Oct. 27. The five students — Sita-Gray, Jackie Maessen, Paige Walden, Michelle Ocello and Will Bower-Leet — attend Professor Carol Hodson’s advanced performance art class.
Hodson selected a performance artist for each student, and then he or she was assigned to study the artist and imitate one of the artist’s more famous works.
“One of the things they try to do is break the normal of how things ought to go and pick up a situation about how they think they should go,” Hodson said.
Jackie Maessen, senior, said Hodson “hand-picked” artist Allan Kaprow for her. Maessen based her work on Kaprow’s “The Happenings.”
Maessen’s piece was a card game. She handed cards to audience members, which had instructions printed on them, such as “Stand next to someone and link arms. Stay.” When an audience member follows the directions, he or she is then a part of the piece.
“With these (cards), I felt it was a good way of gently nudging and not forcing the audience to interact with one another with their senses of taste, touch, hearing,” Maessen said.
“Hive,” Maessen said, reaffirmed her thoughts on performance art.
“As a performance artist, you may seek to control a situation as much as you can, but there are always going to be variables you are not going to be able to foresee, and I love that about this game,” Maessen said. “There are various rules but the audience determines how the game goes, what the experience is.
“The Mandate” and “Natural Beauty”
The audience also played a role in Paige Walden’s performance of her choreographed dance, “The Mandate.” Walden, senior dance major, danced in a soundproofed room with powdered sugar on the floor. Audience members could scan QR codes that linked to various music scores to listen to as Walden danced in silence. This performance, though, was an addition to her piece “Natural Beauty” for the class.
Hodson assigned Walden to the French artist Orlan. Walden based her “Natural Beauty” performance art piece on Orlan’s 1960s black and white photography collection, which featured the famous artist nude. A multimedia piece of nude, black and white photos and video featuring Walden was on display in an upper loft of The Factory. Michelle Ocello, sophomore studio art major, photographed Walden.
“It was a huge feat for me to be completely naked in front of the camera,” Walden said. “It’s really helped me be comfortable in my own skin.”
With her piece, Walden said she hoped the audience members would look at their own bodies and not be discouraged.
“I feel like nudity has such a horrible connotation and it’s so beautiful in itself,” Walden said.
Michelle Ocello based her piece, “Seed Room,” on “Seed Bed” by Vito Acconci. Acconci’s “Seed Bed,” Ocello said, was a controversial piece when it premiered in 1972. Underneath the floor, Acconci masturbated as the people above him could listen to his sounds.
For “Seed Room,” Ocello acted as a hostess and invited the audience into a room in which they could broadcast live sound — sexual or otherwise.
“I hope people gain the openness and freedom to their voyeuristic fantasies and desires,” Ocello said. “It is really up to them what they get from it. I’m just giving people the opportunity to open up themselves.”
“Explaining Bach to a Dead Hare”
Throughout the evening, Will Bower-Leet performed his piece, “Explaining Bach to a Dead Hare.” Bower-Leet, a cellist since the fourth grade, wrapped a cello in rabbit fur and played various suites of Bach. His rabbit-fur-wrapped cello sounded similar to the electric guitar, Bower-Leet said.
“Explaining Bach to a Dead Hare” was based on a combination of two pieces by Joseph Beuys — “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” and another, which Beuys performed on a cello and piano wrapped in felt.
“Explaining Bach to a Dead Hare” was Bower-Leet’s first performance art piece.
“It wasn’t something I’ve ever thought of before. I’m used to sculpture and graphic design,” Bower-Leet said.
After the many performance art classes she’s taught, Hodson said she has discovered her students’ learning experiences are more than pieces of imitation — they are social interaction which break boundaries.
“I’ve taught the class from the history of performance art like Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow and Joseph Beuys,” Hodson said. “But what I’ve discovered is giving the students a chance to imitate some of those behaviors, they actually end up being able to stage events that help them understand life.”