Death Panel Discussion

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

My Barbarian, "The Night Epi$ode Two: Yoga Matt / Veronika Phoenix," video still, 2009. Courtesy the artists.

“There are no easy happy endings anymore,” said writer David Levithan when interviewed about The Lover’s Dictionary, a novel told entirely through “definitions” of words like “aberrant” and “quixotic.” But there are no easy sad endings anymore, either–even though the romance the book dissects is doomed from the start, Levithan indulges in moments of hopefulness, cleverness, sometimes even barely-tainted glee. The eras in which Jacques-Louise David’s epic executions and Tolstoy’s train trampled heroines came off as poignant are over, as is the far-more recent era of cut pieces and under-floorboard masturbation; blatant tragedy and brazen exposure just don’t seem that compelling right now. Which is why, Wednesday night, when members of the performance trio My Barbarian all ended up dead, sprawled across a conference table on the stage of the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater, it looked like they might have tamped what, up to that point, had been a weird, spilling-over of sincere elitism and campy farce.

Luckily, the melodramatic death scene was only a teaser–a more luxurious, less legible ending was still on the way.

May Barbarian, "Death Panel Discussion." Courtesy Hammer Museum.

My Barbarian, primarily made up of L.A. artists Alex Segade, Malik Gaines and Jade Gordon (they often collaborate with others), has been together since 2000, and the group works more in the realm of institutional confusion than institutional critique. Their first solo museum show, The Night Epi$ode (2010), is currently on view in the Hammer Museum‘s video lounge and it includes a series of absurd but timely videos (there’s quite a bit about health care and economics woven into commentaries on curatorial practice, witchcraft and eccentric artistry). My Barbarian’s Wednesday night performance, titled Death Panel Discussion, was certainly the show’s centerpiece.

The “Death Panel” part of the title doesn’t explicitly refer to healthcare bill fears, but the three artists each played curators whose liberal privilege fits the exact profile of those supposed socialist-sympathizers who wouldn’t have batted an eye at a universal plan. And, as each had an express interest in the spirit world,  death, who deserves to die, and whether anything of worth art can come from beyond the grave were all topics of discussion. Death was treated as an abstract idea, one the curators–all of whom work in the realm of abstraction to begin with–find particularly, morbidly fascinating.

The self-importance, air of elitism and exaggerated accents of the performers became stifling (they were supposed to) as the night progressed. So when the curators all dropped dead after drinking from a poisoned water bottle to quench the thirst their monologues had left them with, it felt like good riddance. But it was also way too smooth–death doesn’t work that way, stomping out what should be gone anyway, so why should performance art enjoy that kind of easy end?

My Barbarian, "Death Panel Discussion," at Participant Inc., 2009. Photo: Rosalie Knox. Via MyBarbarian.com.

When the dead reawakened, changed into Obama-care pajamas and performed a pro-socialism dance number with an African folk music troupe, the performance transitioned from bitingly exhausting to pitch-perfect. My Barbarian infected their audience with the sort of full-on theatrical high that makes you feel thrills even if the subject matter (socialism? death? culture wars? art worlds?) is largely depressing.

Whether or not there are, or should be, any easy happy endings, My Barbarian sang and danced their way out of dead-end despair for theirs, and it felt well-earned.

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