Performance art, once a frontier for the avant-garde, has become institutionalized. But that doesn't mean it isn't still lively.
Meet Phillip Torqueflite Greeden, student performance artist.
At UC Irvine, back in the early '70s, art students helped pioneer the growth of performance in defiance of their teachers' more traditional, more materialistic art forms. These days, performance is a credit subject at UCI, and Greeden's teachers say he's a star pupil.
Well, they don't exactly put it that way. "Phil's on a level of his own," said Linda Frye Burnham, one of Greeden's two teachers in the current performance class.
"I'm going to try and give Phil an 'A' in my course," added Burnham, founder and former editor of High Performance magazine, a Los Angeles publication that chronicles the performance movement. "My only problem is that there was some foul-up or something, and he hasn't managed to get registered yet. That's Phil."
Greeden is a young man with several days' blond facial growth and the supple physique of a young walrus. He favors Hawaiian shirts and crosses the campus with the good-natured momentum of a ward heeler, with a smile that feeds on yells of "Hey, Phil" from his peers. His best-known performance to date was a collaboration with Dan Goodsell, another of the 11 registered performance students. And what creation won the team of Greeden and Goodsell its accolades?
It was a 'Truman for President' rally, countered by some pro-Dewey forces, in front of the campus Administration Building last month. The Harry Truman group consisted of the performance class and several passers-by; the Thomas Dewey forces included seven Greeden cohorts who belong to a student poets group named Tired of Waiting For Godot/Shaman Garden.
For the bewildered, some background:
Burnham and Steve Durland, her teaching partner and editor of High Performance, had assigned the class to come up with pieces that would take them outside and would engage members of the public.
Greeden's work was inspired by an old record he owns of presidential inauguration speeches. "It also struck me that Harry Truman was the only president who really had the total professional experience of being President," Greeden said. "He pushed the button!"
Greeden, a senior (give or take a few credits), is an engineering-turned-English-major who says he is torn between wanting to be an artist, a writer, a film maker or ("if I'm an utter failure at everything else") an English teacher at a community college. Goodsell, also a senior, is a studio art major, a very serious young man with nervous brown eyes and a determination to make art his life.
"Phil was the idea man and I did most of the visuals," said Goodsell, who made masks from photographs of Truman's face and posters that featured a photo collage of Truman and the familiar nuclear mushroom. The posters said "Harry Was a Good Man," "Harry Was a Wise Man" and "Harry Was a Far-Rangin' Man," and Goodsell and Greeden flooded the campus with them a few days before the event.
For 20 minutes on Feb. 19, the performance class stood in front of the Administration Building chanting "Back From the Dead to Fix Up Your Head." The piece ended when an administrator emerged to complain about the noise.
Other pieces produced by the class have included one in which a student named Joseph Choi performed a soulful ballet in front of two moody paintings of chairs, and one in which Vadim Erent, a UCI student from the Soviet Union, recited a poem titled "Giraffes" that had been written by the early 20th-Century Russian poet Nikolay Gumilyov. Before delivering the poem in Russian, Erent described it in heavily accented English. "It's very cold, and not cheerful," he told his classmates, without taking off his purple-rimmed sunglasses. "It is St. Petersburg and it is winter. The man reads a woman this poem about Africa. He tells her: 'There are unthinkable grasses in Africa, but you will not know them. You are here. All you will know is the rain.' "
The class seemed spellbound. The muted drama of Erent's reading wove them into his culture. Then, Greeden was back with an unvarnished dose of their own culture, his latest piece, "Our Friend the Carburetor." Greeden and a co-performer, wearing masks cut from Xeroxed diagrams of a carburetor, danced about the room medicine man-style while waving wrenches. As a friend beat an oil drum, Greeden squirted beer from a hypodermic syringe.
"I was sort of trying to connect the elements of car repair and ritual worship," Greeden said.
Burnham wasn't convinced. She said it wasn't quite up to the high standard Greeden set for himself with the Truman rally. But she clearly was taken with his energy.
"You have to understand Phil," she said. "He's very, very non-linear."