I wasn't sure what to expect when headed to see Narcissister for the opening night of OUTsider Festival in Austin.
Narcissister's name is what it sounds like; the complication of our cultural understanding of the narcissist juxtaposed with the idea of sisterhood, and how being a “sister” relates to the identities of women of color in our culture.
Her multi-media performance art is stunning, provocative, and just absolutely amazing. It's like nothing I've ever seen before, and it's unfortunately possible that you just had to be there. I will, however, do my best to do her work justice here.
Through a mix of videos and live performance, Narcissister explores the eroticized female body from behind a doll's mask. She said of her work, “It's sometimes confusing to people and perhaps the art world itself. But it's interesting to do something that's hard to put your finger on or encapsulate.”
The mask provides Narcissister both anonymity and a degree of protection, as well as allowing the character to be portrayed by others than herself. “From the beginning, I knew I wanted to say more than I could have if I used my face,” Narcissister explained. Through use of the mask, Narcissister can create a literal sisterhood of other performers expanding on her work, as well as hinting at a universality in theme which extends beyond her experience as a singular individual.
The use of the mask also allows Narcissister's work to complicate ideas of womanhood and female sexuality. It can be disconcerting to see a woman with a doll's face engaging in graphic and erotic acts like inserting a dildo covered in Vaseline or pulling pantyhose out of her vagina. Yet, the juxtaposition of the active body with the unflinching gaze of a mask's unblinking and unshifting eyes “others” the viewer in a way which disrupts the male gaze, queering the performance.
Narcissister's work could be seen as an exploration of the ways women (quite literally) internalize messages about femininity and female sexuality. But a workout video which shows Narcissister (in legwarmers and heels mind you) on a stationary bicycle complete with a dildo hitting her face, a butt plug on the seat, and set of Mickey Mouse like hands able to grab her breasts, also explores what a queer female sexual agency might look like in the midst of all those patriarchal messages.
The fact that men in Narcissister's work are only represented as a disembodied phallic symbol also contributes to the queerness of her message. Narcissister embraces femininity, including long, red acrylic nails, but it is certainly not the traditional femininity one might expect from a Barbie doll.
Narcissister was on America's Got Talent in 2011, but that is only a glimpse of the G-rated version of the work of an otherwise disturbing yet erotic and decidedly queer performer.
Narcissister said she repeatedly refused America's Got Talent when they asked her to be a part of the show, out of a fear of exploitation. Then, she said, “I realized if I failed it would not be about me. It would be about that character having an experience. It would be about the idea of failure in this competitive show, on television, or in front of a massive audience.”
“I decided to take [being on the show] as an opportunity and a challenge,” Narcissister continued. “A way to give my work a really wide platform.” She went on to admit, however, “There's only so far I can adapt my work to be suitable for that environment.”
In addition to Narcissister's performance and the Q&A afterward, OUTsider Fest's opening night included the unveiling of what they're calling the First Gay Wax Museum. My largest critique of the exhibit is that it isn't a wax museum at all.
What it is, however, is a multi-media, interactive art installation featuring lesser-known figures from queer history. Which is absolutely awesome in its own unique way, but might be disappointing for someone who comes in expecting to see Oscar Wilde or Harvey Milk portrayed in wax.
The installation is held in the lobby of the Salvage Vanguard Theater on Manor Road. It features pieces dedicated to more well-known queer figures like Sappho, Gertrude Stein, and Leslie Feinberg, as well as individuals even I have never heard of, like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Assotto Saint. Since much of queer history can’t be passed down through family narrative like the history of other minority cultures, the work of art projects like this in preserving queer history is of paramount importance.
The installation is open to the public without a badge for a requested $5-10 donation, but no one will be turmed away. See it now through February 22. The open gallery hours are listed on the OUTsider website here. The installation is interactive, so if you stop by, be prepared to take your time. It's well worth it.
Individual tickets are available for OUTsider performances without a badge, though limited seating is available. Head to InGredients an hour before showtime if you want to try to attend any festival events without a badge. The full OUTsider Festival schedule can be found here, and I will be covering more events throughout the weekend so stay tuned!
This article was originally published by The Horn on 2/19/15.