Monday, September 25, 2006

Jeff Harms' Response to Deva Eveland's "3 attempts to convince the audience of something really important"

Deva Eveland performed for the last three Saturdays down at the mn Gallery in the Bridgeport neighborhood here is Chicago. You missed out if you missed "3 attempts to convince the audience of something really important" but luckily Jeff Harms has writted up a response.

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PS. You can hear a talk I did with Deva in the Dialogues section of this site.

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[From Jeff Harms, 9/25/06]

I think Agnes Martin said once that an individual either loves humanity, and therefore is a Romantic, or turns their back on humanity and becomes a Classicist. Deva Eveland is the former in my opinion. And what is more, I feel in his work one can often feel that humanity has turned its back on him (or his characters), turning them into archetypal figures of innocence, abandonment, collective anxiety, or the grotesque.

In the case of Eveland’s September performances at Mn Gallery, this was very clear. Green tinsel, shredded paper, streamers, and portions of fake Christmas trees litter the floor of the gallery. Somehow the jumble of party supplies resembles a dense natural underbrush. It is noisy underfoot, and the audience comfortably gravitates to sitting in it, toying with the fake leaves and the grass-like paper.

Deva appears in character as an early ancestor of man, grunting and yelling at the audience. His ears stick out, and he has something in his mouth that makes his jaw protrude. You can see the white of a cumbersome prosthetic in his mouth and it makes him drool. You can see threads of hot-glue behind his ears where he has wedged something in to hold them out. And he has made a “grass” pair of shorts from party streamers and green duct tape. It would be simply an amusing costume if his presence wasn’t so passionately convincing. He has really become an ape man. And it is clear he is very disturbed and desperately wants to communicate something too us. He holds a stack of green silo cups in the air as though he were challenging us, finally throwing them in our direction. The desperation and the attention to detail is what makes it hilarious. He is offering us wine and food, and I remember, “Oh, yeah. This is a gallery opening.”

Deva is an amazing performer who becomes so enmeshed with his characters that he channels a real energy that is palpable and spell-binding. I know few other performers who display as deep a mental and physical commitment to their work. Deva embodies his ideas until they are completely inseperable from him self. Within the richness of the worlds he creates, a lesser artist would simply coast through performances or adopt an ironic distance, but Deva lives the performances every time. And every performance seems to push the boundaries of himself and his understanding of the world. In the true spirit of performance, his work becomes a liminal experience, or a rite of passage in a way. People remember his performances as things they experienced, and after which they were not the same. Certainly I do in regard to the three shows at Mn Gallery.

Each evening, this ape man appears. And each night there is something he wants us to do. The first night we each receive a chicken nugget, not too eat, but to care for. The second night we eat KFC and try to reassemble a broken Hallmark store skeleton with the leftover bones. The third night paper skeletons are magically born in a shower of green glitter and we are each given our own to nurture. Each night the rules are very simple. And as he presents them with such emotion, the tasks get elevated to a state of real urgency. It is though we have become involved in the make-believe world of a child, but then a child who’s intelligence and earnestness begins to tread into some very forboding and disturbing subject-matter:

Night one. The chicken nuggets get blended into some fluid (strawberry soda) in preparation for being “incubated” in our bodies. The concoction of familiar lunch time snacks suddenly smells like death. He pushes himself to a point of visible nausea as he tries to "save" the remaining orphaned nuggets.

Night two. The failure to adhere real bone to the paper skeleton prompts Deva to call the KFC hotline. He thanks them for creating a communal chicken bucket, and offers the idea that hunting and killing animals, and subsequently violence, is the very thing which allowed humans to evolve and which holds our society together. He suggests that KFC might use this in one of their ad campaigns or something.

Night three. We are trying to generate a list of rules to help us raise our skeletons. At one point he asks what the KFC bucket smells like. We say chicken, but he corrects us with the answer: It smells like humans first, chicken second. The implication being that man’s intervention, the process of cooking and the smell of the paper bucket itself are all more apparent than the smell of an actual chicken. At this moment, for me, adding up Deva’s artificial “landscape”, the “idea” of a “pure” early ancestor of man, the use of a magic KFC bucket to raise our children, I begin to percieve an inherent riddle and an inherent sadness in the work. For me it seems to involve a dissconnect between the comfortable life-support system of the developed world and the desire to live a meaningful life, as a healthy human being. It is not the nature of any other species to doubt their living conditions, their origins or their destiny, but this is what Deva seems to be doing. When we cannot predict what the future has in store for our skeleton children on the last evening, Deva decides to use a “magic white rock” hidden in the brush, and telephones a phone sex operator. She talks him through a sexual fantasy involving the two of them as primitive humans mating on the savannah (“…and everyone is watching?” Deva asks. “Yes, everyone is watching.” She assures him.”) And just when Deva suggests that he “mount” her and copulate, he hesitates and suggests that maybe they shouldn’t. He sweats through a premonition that she will get pregnant from the phone sex and they will raise a race of humans that will pollute and otherwise complicate and disrupt the pure relationship they have with their environment. It may seem silly to describe here and in this way, but having played along with the simple fun of the evening, the intimate phone call is extremely jarring and strange. And his subsequent change of heart and his concern for his "unborn children" is oddly heart-wrenching. Hanging up the phone, he then, as simply as he did on the previous two evenings, becomes himself for a moment, says, “thankyou,” and exits.

I am reminded of Phillip Guston who described his figurative paintings as “going back to see if I didn’t miss something.” Deva’s work has a similar effect on me. By looking closely at himself in a kind of first-person anthropological research, it seems he has become aware of a strange personal connection to society’s accepted rituals and beliefs. By wielding it with a careful awkward innocence, he and Guston both make society’s vocabulary double-back on itself. I believe that both Eveland and Guston are in that place where, because of their honesty, their specific personal questions quickly begin to reference something much larger and universal.

http://www.jeffharms.net

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