My Barbarian is a collective that is composed of Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade. The Los Angeles based art group makes work that addresses social and political issues, but with their own unique collaborative form that places an emphasis on collective authorship. Their work is primarily performance but often includes installation or video as ways of “activating” spaces or documenting their performances. Although the trio discusses serious topics, they do so in a playful, humorous, and charming manner that audiences can enjoy. Their latest exhibit, Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety, Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse, opened this past Saturday at Susanne Vielmetter Projects.
The main component of their current exhibition was the group’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1932 play The Mother. In the play, we see the story of Mrs. Vlassova, a working class mother who becomes radicalized by her son and his friends during the Bolshevik revolution. Initially, she is suspicious of their actions as they print leaflets in her home. Although she cannot read what is on the leaflets, she wants to help her son and ends up helping pass them out. The more that she learns about her son’s ideals, the more supportive she becomes of the cause. Eventually she becomes as committed as he is to the revolution. She learns to read and write and helps educate others and gets factory workers to strike because of unfair working conditions and low pay. As the government becomes more oppressive towards the working class, the revolution heats up, and in the climax we see Mrs. Vlassova marching with a red flag. At the conclusion of the story we see that despite having lost her son, our heroine is no less deterred in her mission and she refuses to compromise her beliefs for the social acceptance of her neighbors. Throughout the story the idea of doing what is “necessary” is made a key point of the plot, and the main character goes through great lengths to make sure she carries through. The mother does what is necessary both for her son and for her fellow workers.
It was a very minimalist production with only the stage, their bodies, and a handful of hand-made masks used as props. But what was most intriguing was their unconventional way of playing the characters. No character was played by a single actor, every scene the trio would rotate the character they were playing. This means that the titular character Mrs. Vlasova comes to life through different performances, and also turns her into more of a metaphor for working mothers in general. With the mother as more of a “concept” than a character, the audience too is able to place themselves in her shoes, and the viewer experiences a similar journey to hers throughout the play. Another interesting technique used by the group was the involvement of the audience. At several points throughout the play, the audience was invited to sing along, chant along, or in some cases go up to the stage and perform as one of the characters. For some scenes, this allowed for the mob of workers to come to life, while also having the viewer be more involved and really driving home the point about collectivism that was key to the play. This play does not belong to Brecht or to My Barbarian, it belongs to all those involved during its performance.
For the remainder of the exhibition’s run, the stage will remain in the main room. Visitors will have a chance to see many of the masks that were used for the play. The theatrical masks made of paper mache were created using Soviet magazines, and in many cases there is visible text on the surface of the objects. Also on display are oil-stick paintings on paper which were
converted into projections to be used as backgrounds during the performance. Some of them are abstracted representations of actual locations, like a factory or an empty room, and others show text such as “I Have A Son Who Is Needed” or “Your Son Has Been Shot” which came up during key moments in the story.
The second portion of the exhibition is a room in the gallery which has been converted to a black box (or more of a grey box if you want to get technical) that will be displaying a series of videos that follow the same theme of motherhood. These works bring in many more collaborators such as Eleanor Antin and Mary Kelly and the trio’s mothers.
The show is on view at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects until August 24.
Words and images by Noé Gaytán.