We all decided to chime in, prove we knew what we were talking about, and write long think pieces that either defended or tore down the work in an effort to prove what matters or doesn’t matter in this world, including this one.
BY DALLAS ATHENT
Artist and comedian Lisa Levy threw off her robe and sat naked on the porcelain throne placed in the center of Christopher Stout Gallery. You heard that right. In her performance art piece The Artist is Humbly Present, Levy mocked the art world, pretension, and herself. During the performance, viewers were invited to sit opposite Levy on a facing toilet and interact with her in any way, other than touching her. If you’re familiar with Marina Ambramovic’s performance at MoMA, The Artist is Present, where viewers were invited to sit and face the artist in a chair, you’ll immediately understand the blatant reference.
When the performance art piece was first announced, it was met with great controversy and gained mass media attention, sparking articles in Papermag, The Daily Beast, Mashable, and tabloids such as The New York Post. Even Howard Stern discussed it on his show. While some found the work exciting, clever and applauded Levy for calling out the art world, others used the readily available puns to make fun of the work, calling it bullshit. Some people stated she was more pretentious than Ambramovic herself.
It’s easy to understand why not everyone took to the work at first. It’s grotesque, for one. Anything having to do with our bodily functions causes us to automatically categorize and file in a safe space—that being the bathroom, not a gallery setting. For many, art, or the interaction with art, is to escape what is morbid, and create something more beautiful. Then it also depicts a woman naked, and not in a sexualized manner. I don’t think I need to explain just why this is problematic for the Western World. Also, everyone is allowed to have an opinion, some people just don’t like certain things which is totally okay.
But most of all, it’s stupid. It’s a woman sitting naked on a toilet! How ridiculous! This isn’t art. But its stupidity is precisely what prove’s Levy’s point. In its simplicity, The Artist is Humbly Present, successfully makes a mockery of the artist, those who write about art, but also how the viewer perceives art. For a week straight we were all talking about a woman on a toilet, and everyone had an opinion. Everyone. We all decided to chime in, prove we knew what we were talking about, and write long think pieces that either defended or tore down the work in an effort to prove what matters or doesn’t matter in this world, including this one. The articles and responses became a part of the performance itself, adding to the sensation in believing that all of this, including our thoughts, actually means something. And just for the record to do my due dilligence, I think it’s genius.
On opening day, Levy and Stout wondered how the work would be perceived, what would happen. Groups of people gathered at various times to sit opposite Levy and get the full experience. While nobody went to the bathroom, one guy did pull down his pants, jumpstarting at least five others to get naked. Another lady brought in a peacock (??) to join her on the porcelain throne. Many stated that sitting opposite Levy was indeed, a profound moment for them. Levy, who wouldn’t speak while being naked and exposed to the public ended up being more than a parody performance--but a powerful moment that made them question the motives behind art and also the ego of the artist. Afterwards, while being interviewed by the press one viewer said, “I came out because I think it’s brave.” It’s hard to put into words just why it’s brave, but I know what she means. Levy allowed us to just sit there and gawk at her, discuss her and put her in a humbling state while we all pretend to know what the fuck we’re talking about.
Dallas Athent is a writer whose work has been profiled in Bedford + Bowery, Brooklyn Magazine, The L Magazine and more. She's also an artist and has exhibited in several galleries across New York City. You can learn more at dallasathent.com.