In a 2012 episode of the British sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous, Edina, hoping to impress an American actor, suggests that she and her aging scenester friend Patsy take him to clubs to see Narcissister: “She’s a kind of crazy disco performance artist; she pulls things out of her pussy on a rotating platform singing ‘I’m Every Woman.’” Cue laugh-track. I love Ab Fab—and while you can see a clip of this exchange on Narcissister’s website—don’t be mislead by its reductive description.
Narcissister’s Narcissistic Advance, which showed at TBA:16 over the weekend, is performance art that draws heavily on burlesque, but includes performance techniques from modern dance to video art to puppetry. Be it live-action or short film, each segment features Narcissister, the persona created by Brooklyn performance artist Isabelle, who wears a plastic wig-form mask and a merkin throughout. Narcissister’s creator is an Alvin Ailey-trained dancer, and the artist’s study of movement is evident throughout the performance in the well-organized use of performance space, and a sophistication that belies the clumsiness of the mask, the many props, and the fact that the whole array must be handled with plastic fingers and acrylic nails.
Narcissistic Advance opens with a short film. We hear rain and see a green landscape around a house, a deck, a poinsettia fallen out of its pot, a pool; then a well-decorated modern home with baby toys. The camera finds a cradle, tilted up oddly with a lumpy bed-skirt all around it, a doll inside. There is movement, a sudden throwing of a black cloak, and in an impressive feat of choreographed transformation and puppetry, the doll becomes an older doll, toddling about; then we see Narcissister as a young woman in pigtails and plastic mask. The song, “Forever Young” plays, and the transformations continue. Now she wears a graduation gown, now a pink wedding dress, and now she’s pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding, and so on until death. As she ages, she dons gray hair, boxy chiffon jacket-dress, braids pulled from her backside, and another mask birthed from her vagina.
Other things that are pulled from her orifices include earrings during a Marilyn Monroe-inspired strip-tease, various masks that change Narcissister from black to white, young to old, as well as items of clothing that she puts on, inverting the classic strip-tease. While these erotic spectacles are interesting, what is particularly riveting and fascinating about this edgy performance is the strange connection you begin to feel with a person who never speaks and whose surface is constantly changing, a face that is an array of masks.
The masks Narcissister wears are familiar: They are a series of plastic wig forms designed by Vera Doran, who created them in the 1960s for her company Plasti-Personalities. (She probably never imagined them reappropriated in this way.) The faces come in three different colors and harken back to a mid-century aesthetic standard for feminine beauty: pointy nose, wide eyes, high cheekbones, and pink lips. The mask both conceals Narcissister and also makes her someone we can project ourselves onto, compounding and complicating the themes of self-love and narcissism that show up in her performances. “Narcissister” (as the punning elision of “narcissist” and “sister” suggests) is a slippery persona.
Can this character’s slippery surface identity create a mirror in which we see and love ourselves? In several of the short films, the point of view is Narcissister’s. In one, she looks through a porn magazine called Black Tail: we see her hands in fingerless gloves, acrylic nails brushing over the pages of the ass-focused porn. She examines her own face in the mirror, comparing it to the masked woman posed erotically in the magazine. Later, after failed sex with a rocker dude, she discovers the same magazine and reaches climax by masturbating to it. In another short, she is in a cramped convenience store, looking at generic Barbie dolls, and we follow her into a fantasy world where she is Burka Barbie, dancing to the Clash's “Rock the Casbah.” In the same way the merkin covers her genitals even as she pulls objects out of that part of her body for us to see, we are at once shut out of her consciousness all while seeing what emanates from it.
I can’t say I’ve fully processed it all yet.
The work is as layered as the costumes which Narcissister changes into and out of, identities emerging like Russian dolls. It's very funny, too. The audience seemed thoroughly tickled, potentially titillated. There was no need for a laugh-track.