Lauren Bakst’s More Problems with Form
I once watched Lauren Bakst get accosted by a fan. A woman, intensely moved by Bakst’s performance at St. Marks Church in 2015, grabbed Bakst by both shoulders and launched into a monologue of praise that went something like this: “Oh my God, Lauren, you were so beautiful. SO beautiful! Not that you’re not always beautiful; you’re ALWAYS beautiful. But this time you were different; you were so in your body. Because sometimes I see you get in your head, you know? Because you’re so intelligent. SO intelligent!” And on and on.
April 3 – April 6 2019
Long Island City
What does this story have to do with Bakst’s latest solo show More Problems with Form, which premiered at the Chocolate Factory Theater this April? Nothing, really. But it does highlight my discomfort with a particular kind of heart-gushing earnestness. I always take this kind of talk to be self-mockery. Surely people don’t actually talk this way, I think, but it turns out many people do, especially Americans, and especially when it comes to dance. This same confusion confronted me during Bakst’s More Problems with Form, where Bakst was “looking at her life as an object of study,” and asking “when does performing, in life and on stage, make space for the unwieldy contradictions of living?” I wasn’t sure whether Bakst’s project of self-reflection was entirely in earnest, or whether she was sneakily making fun of herself.
In More Problems with Form, Bakst presented three short films, introducing them by way of a performance lecture, with occasional interludes of movement. The films featured people from Bakst’s life—her mother, people from her therapy group—playing versions of Bakst, with scripts written by Bakst. An actual event from Bakst’s life, which she eludes to but never reveals, was a catalyst for this show. In her opening monologue, Bakst explained that she couldn’t understand how she could be inside of her life and simultaneously be observing her life as if from outside. She’s always behind herself, or is she in front of herself? “It’s like a pot of boiling water,” she said. “When do you know when the water actually starts boiling? Is it when you fill the pot with water from the tap?” to which the answer is, to my mind, No, clearly not then. All this felt like a series of rhetorical rabbit holes that didn’t seem worth going down; when water boils, it produces hot air. Then, when Bakst used the phrase, “I couldn’t help but wonder,” I thought Here it is, a wink! Here is a kind of parody Carrie Bradshaw, who left her job as a sex columnist to become a downtown performance artist, her breezy ruminative style mutating into the painful self-seriousness of contemporary theater! But as the work continued, it became apparent that either this self-parody wasn’t sharp enough, or that there was actually no winking intended.
More Problems with Form is a personal work, which makes critiquing it seem a little callous. I’m reminded of a scene from The Argonauts: Maggie Nelson remembers a lecture she attended, during which the artist Jane Gallop showed a series of photographs from her domestic life as a mother. Gallop was followed by art critic Rosalind Krauss, who dismissed Gallop’s presentation as soft and vain, eviscerating Gallop as guilty of “the narcissism that makes one think that an ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting,” Nelson writes. Nelson suggests that Krauss’s attack boiled down to a denial of “the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity,” and that this is unjust.
Similarly to Gallop, Bakst declared her role in More Problems with Form not only as artist but as “wife, woman, dancer, audience member, analysand.” There was a vulnerability to Bakst’s presence; some of her acts were so raw—like when she sung an off-key song about (yet again) whether or not she was in front of or behind herself—that they bordered on humiliation. Exposing herself in this dangerously precarious way made for an uncomfortably thrilling moment. But there was also a self-satisfied air about this personal profundity. The actual material of Bakst’s life was cooly obfuscated. That in itself is an interesting foundation—to contend with the problem of how form is imposed on the mess and mundanity of experience—but instead the lack of specificity, in both language and movement, left the impression of vague navel-gazing.
There were, however, two moments when Bakst’s ideas resonated, and both occurred in her films. The first moment was a filmed image of older women in what looked like a domestic sitting room, all standing to have their photo taken. Their faces tried to hold onto photographic expressions, their smiles pinned on and straining. This duality of performing and not performing was beautifully immediate and familiar, yet seemed alien. The image lasted for about half a second, yet made a lasting impression.
The second moment was a silent video of Bakst and her mother, rehearsing and preparing for a scene they had enacted earlier. The intimacy of this working space between mother and daughter had a quiet reflection, a temporal quality that finally felt true to Bakst’s proposition, with life and the theater dissolving into each other. I couldn’t help but wonder if these moments might have come to life even more without all the labored rhetoric that preceded them.