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Karen Finley delivers meaningful pink performance art

Karen Finley’s performance focuses on the disembodiment of women — a topic she uses poetry to unravel. She explores the perspectives of white neoliberals, MAGA supporters, President Trump, Hillary Clinton and those from her own life. Finley cycles through steady streams of consciousness during her performance. The shifts in consciousness within her monologues demonstrate a mature understanding of the sexualization and objectification used by Trump during the 2016 election cycle.

Finley uses a sultry, dynamic speaking voice to make the audience question their role in the objectification of women. Her message is powerful: She wants to emerge listeners in her invasion of the self. This is the first half of her show, Venus in Retrograde, titled “Grabbing Pussy.” The stage is set with red, white and pink flowers. Even her outfit, a bubbly pink jacket with a large pink band wrapped around her waist, calls a certain image into mind. Behind the artist is a digital screen that projects the imagery of red lilies unfolding.

The red-haired speaker allows her vocal timbre to rise and fall in combination with dramatic gesticulations that act as Finley’s main vehicle for signaling strong emotion, as well as shifts in consciousness during her performance. “Jam and jelly, jewelry box, kangaroo, couch, kitchen, knit, mixer.” Finley pauses, looks down at her phone, then out across the audience says, “I’m just trying to figure out how to get this on Instagram.” The room swells with laughter.

At the height of this sequence and to the amusement of the audience, Finley takes on the identity of Trump. “Castration, complex, obsession … She deleted the mail! Fifty-five thousand pages of [e-mail]!” Finley grovels to the audience, “The size of the mail, and Hilary did it! Thirty thousand deleted emails on her personal server!” Finley mimics the president’s aggressive fixation on former candidate Clinton’s email. At times Finley provokes the audience to question the absurdity of the Trump administration through the absurdity of her own words and on-stage presence.

Maybe it is a sign of the times – that the performance is sprinkled with these small quips and jabs at Millennial and Gen Z culture. The second half of Venus in Retrograde called “Parts Known is signaled by a small costume change. Finley swaps the hot pink jacket for a sparkly silver and gold robe. A disco ball dramatically descends above the stage of the Recital Hall. The digital projector changes the imagery of flowers to the words “it’s my body.” Next, the film transitions into The Statue of Liberty and clips of New Yorkers getting on and off a busy subway train.

In this portion of the performance, Finley targets the perspectives of neoliberals. She jokes about everything from freeze dried mangoes at Trader Joe’s to the effectiveness of the Bush administration. The audience sprinkles laughter between uncomfortable pauses; there is undoubtedly confusion over whether Finley expects the audience to laugh at her bold words.

However, if one thing remains evident, it is that Finley desires to speak for marginalized and underrepresented voices. I question her effectiveness — the majority of her act is devoted to calling out the first-worldly problems of her peers. Maybe the issue is that Finley addressed the audience members that share a similar background to her instead of the audience as a whole.

Finley is frustrated about the state of the world. She complains to listeners about the hatred present in America yet hardly makes mention of the communities that are most affected by America’s hatred. Finley wants to target injustice, but her performance lacks a call to action for her audience members. On President Trump, she says, “He’s not us. His hate is not ours.” I would have liked to see Finley elaborate on this note rather than end on it.

“I thought the performance was very well executed, very raw,” said Bethany Woosen, a senior mathematics major. “Really symbolic of the times we’re living in, as well as drawing on the performer’s past experience with the AIDS crisis and whatnot.”

This much is true: Karen Finley gave a raw performance through drawing on her own experiences in America. “How did she write that?” questioned an especially touched audience member at the end of the Q&A session. The artist certainly left her mark.


Photo credit: Karen Finely delivers her performance at the Fine Arts Recital Hall. Photo by Kiara Bell.