Is Karen Finley coasting on her reputation as one of our country’s most controversial performance artists? That’s the question that comes to mind after viewing her occasionally provocative, but mostly tedious new show Wake Up! at the Theaters at 45 Bleecker.
Finley came into national notoriety in 1990 after she and fellow artists Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck were denied NEA grants on the grounds of indecency. The quartet, dubbed “The NEA Four,” sued the government, eventually losing their case in front of the Supreme Court while simultaneously becoming spokespersons for freedom of expression.
The performance artist’s oeuvre includes the slyly satirical The American Chestnut and the stunning Make Love, which was the most moving and effective response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that I’ve yet encountered. But Finley has also misfired with the politically reductive and painfully dull George & Martha and this latest effort, which consists of two companion pieces, “The Dreams of Laura Bush” and “The Passion of Terri Schiavo,” presented in one intermissionless evening.
The first piece purports to show the audience Laura Bush’s dream journal, with Finley portraying the First Lady. “Laura” narrates various dreams, accompanied by illustrations (all drawn by Finley) which are projected onto a large screen. Most of the dreams are extremely sexual, and include liaisons with a UN ambassador from Iraq and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The crudity of the descriptions is obviously intended for shock value, but there seems to be very little to the artist’s critique besides poking fun at conservative political leaders.
There are occasional glimpses of something more, such as when Laura describes in one dream how she pulled back her bedsheets to find a bunch of baby parts soaked in blood, declared, “No child left behind,” and then pulled the sheets back over the bloody mess. Finley also comes up with a few rather amusing concepts, including how in one of Laura’s dreams, American sculptor Richard Serra was commissioned to create the immigration fence separating Mexico and the United States. Yet, because neither the character of Laura Bush nor Finley herself offers any kind of dream interpretation, the images are left to speak for themselves, and often don’t say much at all.
The second piece on the bill is more effective. Finley begins it by using paint brushes and black ink to create her own Rorschach test, which serves as background image and potent metaphor for “The Passion of Terri Schiavo.” She then takes on numerous voices on both sides of the national right-to-die debate that erupted around the coma victim in 2005.
Some of these perspectives — such as Mel Gibson’s — are clearly skewered, while others are given more serious dramatic weight. Finley ably demonstrates how Terri Schiavo’s body became a locus for anyone and everyone to project their own fears, desires, and anxieties upon, precisely because it was passive and unable to respond. “We all know that the most popular female is a victim,” she states.
And yet, there’s something very manufactured about the relentless litany of abusive phrases that Finley repeats over and over, building to crescendos that she practically screams at the audience. It’s a vocal trick she’s used plenty of times in past performances to good effect but here it comes across as simply loud, and devoid of real passion. It’s as if she’s merely going through the motions, indicating an outrage that she’s unable to otherwise communicate to her audience.