Tantric Madness

Sunday night: 125 people crowd into a loft across the street from Moe Bar on 10th Ave. It’s already dark out, wet and gross. They scurry in. Inside is womblike, illuminated by a warm, red light produced by candlesticks jammed into the mouths of wine bottles. The occasion is a fundraiser hosted by Saint Genet and Trench Art Records for Saint Genet’s upcoming performance, Paradisiacal Rites, which opens next month at the Donau Festival in Austria and then at On the Boards in Seattle.

This being a Saint Genet event, I expect no ordinary fundraiser. Anything can happen! Downstairs there are a few dozen chairs set up around a performance area. A bar upstairs serves whiskey and Rainier. It turns out I’d arrived too promptly, because the hours tick by and patrons are left to their own devices. I began to feel annoyed—mostly because I was still nursing last night’s hangover and wasn’t in the mood to drink.

Sometimes I’m afraid I don’t have the patience for these kinds of performances.

I sit in my chair, front and center, and stare at the thing right in front of me on the floor. There’s no denying it’s wonderful. It’s a kinetic sculpture by Casey Curran and it looks like a raft of undulating gold pyramids. It’s approximately man-sized, at least six feet long, 2.5 feet wide. “During Paradisiacal Rites, one of the performers will be buried alive next to this sculpture for five hours,” is the only thing Ryan Mitchell, founder and director of Saint Genet, says to me all night.

Eventually, an hour and a half in, musicians take to the stage and something loosely performative begins. Musicians Jeff Huston, Salo, Garek Jon Druss and Brian Lawlor move between guitars, loopers, synths, etc, alternating feverish drone with a saccarine-sometimes-soporific lullaby. Then a grand entrance: Mitchell and NKO walk down the center aisle, carrying nitrous cartridges and balloons in their hands. Between them stumbles a barefoot man dressed in a blue onesie unbuttoned to his stomach.

(Photos by Dan Hawkins)

This creature reminds me of an incarnation of Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter. But instead of uncombed hair and untrimmed nails, his head is covered with a “veil” made of gold points thrusting outward and his hands are caked in gold leaf that flakes off and flutters to the ground. Standing at his side, Mitchell and NKO methodically begin filling balloons with nitrous and inhaling. Between them, the blind guy, probably also intoxicated, undulates slowly, his hips and chest thrust forward, his arms gesturing beatifically. After what must have been at least thirty minutes of continuous, contorted movement, a glistening thread of drool quivers from the invisible mouth.

(The view from my seat.)

Toward the end of the performance, four other dancers join him. They’re wearing gauze over their faces, or fencing masks, chests wrapped suffocatingly in cellophane. They’re merely a footnote at this point, though. A short Saint Genet doc made recently by Wes Hurley plays momentarily in the background. Dancers exit. Pause. A buzz from an amp drones on. Is it over? Applause.

I vividly remember my first time watching a Saint Genet performance (Transports of Delirium, ACT I: First Conversion) at Lawrimore Project in 2011. I’d met some journalists beforehand at Bush Garden for gin and tonics. Everyone excited. I babbled about the Vienna Actionists (NSFW). I imagined I was in for something like Hermann Nitsch’s Orgiastic Mystery Theater: beautiful slaughter and shock. Eventually we got to the gallery, where we received programs spattered with drops of dry wax and fat. We seated ourselves on a crowded concrete floor.

But it was less like an orgy, more like a mind-bending ballet. The three hour performance drudged on with maddening tension and maddening stasis. For the duration, performers moved in a trance, fueled by continuous, rhythmic inhalations from nitrous-filled balloons. They dripped with flaking gold leaf, honey, lace, flower petals. Mitchell’s voice droned instructions over a microphone, commanding his congregation to move in such-and-such a way, sometimes taunting them, sometimes soliciting liturgical responses. I didn’t stay till the very end (I got real close). I squirmed and sighed as a male performer burned another man’s pubic hair with the lit end of a cigarette. His movements were suspended, syrupy, slow, for ten dreamlike minutes or more. I lost track of time. I wanted something violent to happen finally. Or curtains. Credits.

Unable to stand it any longer, I got up and crossed the room, skirting the edge of the stage, thinking to exit inconspicuously through the back. (I didn’t want the journalists and artists I’d come with to see me give up, frankly.) I was intercepted by Dk Pan, who handed me a balloon full of nitrous. I inhaled. I’d never even tried whippets before. It didn’t feel like much. Maybe that was because my pulse was already racing with frustration. I looked for an exit. I found a door that led outside, exited through it—but found myself trapped in a fenced-off patio. On the other side of my prison, some friends were getting into a car. They were headed back up to Capitol Hill.

“Wait for me,” I begged. “I’m gonna climb this fence and come with you if you’ll give me a lift.”

But halfway up, I found the chain link laced with barbed wire, and there was no way I’d get over without getting cut. My rescuers said they’d wait for me at the front entrance for five minutes if I could make my way out. So I did. On the way to the front door, I passed by one performer fondling a sac of honey and suet that had been strapped, phallus-like, to the groin of another. He was simulating a sexual act. I reached the door and slipped out into the cold, fresh air.

In hindsight, I tried to justify my frustration, or at least understand the root of it. I might've been a little jealous. How can Mitchell effortlessly orchestrate such monstrous operas, harnessing the psychic and physical manpower of dozens of other artists? Or was I just annoyed that I of all people, who relishes in the absurd and in the splendor and terror of the informe, had been nonplussed by something that touched too lingeringly on that tender nerve?

“People expect to get everything at once in a performance,” Mitchell said to me once, “but there will be no release, no completing the performance. What’s being explored is personal intimacy, trust, voyeuristic impulses and vulnerability.”

Like blue balls. They massage that aforementioned nerve ad nauseam, ad absurdum, till the art viewing experience folds in on performed experience, folds in on normative experience. What is real and what is spectacle is confused. The viewer also eventually subjected to and altered by a host of weird intoxications, not least of which is the exhaustion of duration. It can be restorative in the right frame of mind. Because if the perpetual state of anticlimax mirrors the boring stuff of life—its drugeries and disappointments, its metronomic passage of time—the ecstasies induced by Saint Genet’s extreme meditations remind us that they, too might be unearthed in the everyday as well. Even without the aid of nitrous.

PS. If you want to support the production of Paradisiacal Rites, donate here.


This Friday, Anna Telcs’ performance The Dowsing at Henry Art Museum. Free tickets here.

This Saturday, Seth Damm’s NEON ZINN rope jewelry pop up shop at LxWxH in Georgetown. Also on view at LxWxH is Catch and Release, an exhibit featuring “uncomfortable, impractical, or impossible to wear” jewelry by artists Jana Brevic, Dorothy Cheng, Kimber Leblicq and Tara Brannigan.

And this Saturday, The Hideout turns 8! Will be a bonkers party for sure.

This Monday, March 25: APRIL (Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature) Lit Fest kicks off with THE APRIL BENEDICTION at Chop Suey, 8 pm. Readers include Matthew Dickman, Rebecca Brown and Summer Robinson + miusical guests.

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