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Flash Review 1, 4-10: Blister Me
Michelson & Muz Raise the Stakes

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2000 Susan Yung

Sarah Michelson & Julie Atlas Muz fear nothing. To paraphrase the hot-button words they use to accompany "Blister Me," neither the shallow nor the deep. They do not fear public scrutiny of their bodies; nor the failure of making perfect logic of an evening's performance. Not getting right up into the audience's face in a big primal scream, not even the smaller things, like slipping on a wet floor or landing from a fall onto a bare hipbone or spine. Nothing. The result is that "Blister Me," their collaborative hour-long performance seen Friday at Dixon Place's quirky theater at Vineyard 26, hits notes in every key and octave, high and low.

The audience is immediately involved in the performance upon entering the theater; we're asked to remove our shoes and walk across the stage past Michelson, who is lying naked, relatively still, on the floor next to the aisle; Muz hides behind a piece of sectional across the stage. Michelson and Muz perform the entire program unclothed (except for an elastic belt, jewelry and tattoos), setting forth a fairly ponderous condition for the viewer. Those in the first row are tucked underneath protective plastic sheeting, the others must pick their way over bottles of blue liquids (mouthwash and Windex) and plexi bowls filled with water. Other props include a variety of sponges, bath brushes on sticks wrapped in plastic, and strategically positioned glasses of water suspended (and emptied) over the performers.

In the context of performance artists--specifically women addressing topics set forth by the female physiognomy, biological function and the social implications therein--the work of Michelson and Muz brings to mind artists such as Charlotte Moorman, Carolee Schneeman, Hannah Wilke, Eleanor Antin and more recently Janine Antoni and Sue Williams. (See below for Links.) The simultaneous exploitation of the naked female performer and the subversive and powerful flipside presents the viewer with several roles to play. The options alternate between sympathetic outsider, cold observer, or repulsed and resentful captive, created for us as integral participants in the performance and at times successfully enforced on us by the artists.

When they get wet, at first we shiver with them, and then remember that they intended the scene to provoke empathy, and we take a step back. They pose coyly like odalisques beckoning a portrait painter, and the next minute they're hissing and snarling like a raging storm or wild animal, or another terrifying force of nature. When they urinate into bags while balancing cups of water on their heads and then drink from the cups only to spray mouthfuls at the audience, we see the body as a vessel and conduit and can intellectualize the motive, but in the end it's still no less repulsive to watch.

Removed from a historical context, the work is less dynamic. The audience sits in two sections in an L-shape perpendicular to the small stage. The set replicates a swimming pool, most believable when the performers lie on their stomachs and sort of squidge (swim) around on a layer of water. The sections of dance are brief and include lots of gymnastic moves which take on drama from their proximity to the audience. Michelson and Muz create an electricity onstage, constantly eyeing one another in complicity or competition.

In an effort to expand the stage's realm, there has been a tendency to explore the dramatic potential of being submerged or contained in a transparent, walled area, adding more planes to react against, like another floor. It also adds a heightened sense of voyeurism for the audience. (The "tank" effect finds company in recent productions by Neodanza (in "Carne en doce Escenabolo") and Betontanc (from Slovenia, in "Secret Sunshine Schedule"), both at LaMaMa, and the Silesian Dance Theater at the Kaye Playhouse, where a metal skeleton became the structure for a plastic-covered greenhouse and a set of rooms.)

"Blister Me" can go from shallow to deep and back again. The artists literally bare themselves in a high-stakes gambit, testing to see if the audience is up to the match and raising the stakes in the world of performance art.

"Blister Me" continues Thursdays through Saturdays, through April 22. For more information, go to http://www.dixonplace.org/calday.html#00006.

(Editor's Note: To see images by Carolee Schneeman, go to http://old.thing.net/ttreview/janrev97.08.html; by Hannah Wilke, try http://www.artnet.com/GalHome/FineArtThumbnails.asp?GID=510&CID=&AID=4597)

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