If I concentrate — sometimes I don’t even have to try — I can still smell the peanut butter.
On Saturday evening, in an empty lot on Airline Street in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, Brooklyn-based performance artist Anya Liftig climbed over and under a series of barricades covered in peanut butter while blindfolded and partly bound. The performance, dubbed “I’m a Groucho Marxist,” was a commission by Atlanta’s Flux Projects, which sponsors free temporary art pieces and performances around the city.
It was an unusual event for Atlanta. Though the city has a long (if often unrecognized) history of producing and engaging with performance art, it has rarely seen a piece on this scale.
The peanut butter — a thousand pounds of it — was the type used in animal food and to trap deer, and it smelled, not unpleasantly but oddly and unforgettably, of coconut, raisins and industrial oil. The barricade — really more of an elaborate set piece, an obstacle course 120 feet long and in places 12 feet tall — was an assembled sculpture of found objects: chain-link fences, gates, slides, tubes, sandboxes, cages and platforms. (The technical team, led by Keif Schleifer, deserves a shout-out and more for putting it all together.)
The piece contained a number of geographical references and historical resonances: racial barriers in Atlanta, the barricades of the 1968 Paris uprising, peanuts in Georgia, a slogan from the French Situationists. I would classify these more as ”duly considered implications” than as crucial or visible elements. The performance’s primary language was an outward sense of absurdity, given size and heft by the huge set and the three-hour length: it made an interesting contrast with the artist’s surprisingly intense, inscrutable interiority.
Although Liftig was silent throughout and there was no narrative per se, the length, the movement from elaborate set piece to set piece and the focus on a beleaguered female brought opera to mind. There was also a science fiction feeling, with a head-mounted webcam, Liftig’s strange skin-toned tights and the post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” look of the assembled found objects.
With one arm curled and bound to her chest, like a useless wing, she looked like a baby chick or a fetus. As the performance began, her slow rolling in the peanut butter had something of the messiness of birth about it, and the subsequent struggle to move through the barriers had the eventful meaninglessness of an obstacle-filled existence. Like a newborn, she seemed not in full possession of all her faculties, but still found herself compelled to move through the challenges of the material world.
As with much of Liftig’s work, the piece intentionally dived into the ridiculous. Climbing a barricade covered with peanut butter might well be a task attributed to a performance artist in a Woody Allen movie or a TV sitcom, to poke fun at the genre. But there’s an admirable sense of defiance in Liftig, an unwillingness to apologize or amend. “Mais sacre bleu! It’s only a urinal on its side!” was never quite the takedown that it was imagined to be, and, well, here we are: if Liftig dances with a dead fish, it’s a safe bet that the fish will end up in a blender and she’ll drink it.
It was difficult but interesting to imagine what the experience was like for her. Perhaps it was the blindfold, but one felt very removed from her, even though she was right there. Was it a struggle? Was this theatrical?
Promotional material described the piece as “Anya Liftig challenging herself to cross a barricade while blindfolded and partially bound.” Though mostly accurate, that description might lead one to believe that she would be presented with a more genuine physical challenge, that she would be attempting to move from point A to B blocked by C. Though one never questioned her commitment to the work, it occasionally looked more like choreographed movement, as with the slow roll in peanut butter on a flat service at the beginning. Later, it was nice to see Liftig dig through sand to crawl under a gate, but strange knowing that she could just as easily have walked around it.
I took it as a statement about the self-imposed and artificial nature of personal barriers, but I think many in the audience were disappointed. Perhaps it was hard for them to find a point of investment or connection: there seemed to be nothing at stake, and no physical challenge on which the whole piece could turn. Artists often take on the role of trickster (in the folkloric sense of one who disobeys normal rules and behavior to send up conventions), but it’s a role that people are uncomfortable with when they suspect the trickster of treating the audience as a foil.
(Liftig’s incomprehensibility and inaccessibility — the theatricality — did lead to one of the show’s best moments. She looked isolated, confused, weighed down and exhausted; she stopped moving, then took a lick of peanut butter off a chain-link fence and, as if revived, continued on.)
Video images of the performance projected on the wall of a nearby warehouse and broadcast over the Internet were wonderfully lush, singular (you could never mistake them for another performance), dramatic, often beautifully composed, framed and even claustrophobic.
Flux Projects is very generous to bring large-scale events of this nature to Atlanta for free, but there’s something sticking in my craw. All the arts have a presence in Atlanta, but none has the firm foothold it should, one that similar organizations enjoy in cities this size. We have a great opera company that can provide only three operas a year to a city of more than five million people, theaters are struggling and shuttering all over town, opportunities to see great traditional work are rare, and when they do come up, they’re financially out of reach for many. In the absence of easy, inexpensive and widespread access to more traditional forms, is a work such as “I’m a Groucho Marxist” the wisest use of resources if the goal is to improve Atlanta as a place for art and art-making?
None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Liftig’s performance or don’t think it was worthy of this sort of presentation: I did and I do. But in the past, when I was poorer, I would have felt stung if I didn’t have access to “Lucia di Lammermoor” or had never seen a Vermeer but was given absurdist durational performance art for free. The Situationists would have found enough to riot about in that.
Anyway, it was an enjoyable performance. And I can still smell that peanut butter.
(Disclosure: The president of Flux Projects, Louis Corrigan, is the chairman of ArtsATL.com’s board of directors, and his Possible Futures foundation provides some of our funding.)