Pastoral Paradox

Photo by Peter Sterling

Artist Suzanne Bocanegra’s Texan grandparents ran a farm across from the famous Chicken Ranch brothel that inspired the 1978 Broadway musical comedy and subsequent Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds cult movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. This juxtaposition between farming and prostitution provides a loose framework for her reflections and didactic forays into the American pastoral ideal, in Farmhouse/Whorehouse: An Artist Lecture By Suzanne Bocanegra Starring Lili Taylor, which played at BAM as part of the 2017 Next Wave Festival (it closed Dec. 16).

Obsessed with the inherent contradictions in our idealizations of both the land and women’s bodies, Bocanegra’s free-associative lecture links the 1970s back-to-the-land movement, John Wayne’s first film, the Oneida company commune, a hippie-inspired episode of Star Trek, legendary midwife Ina May Gaskin, and Charles Fourier’s decadent fantasy society. This amalgam of research amounts to an aesthetic archaeology of her practice, in other words: why she’s obsessed with pant-suits, pioneers, and aprons.

Lili Taylor delivers the lecture verbatim, via an earpiece, in a slightly girlish sing-song while Bocanegra quietly, but audibly, reads from a lamp-lit desk stage right. Taylor’s auburn hair is gathered in a loose top bun and she’s outfitted, by Bocanegra, in an all-black utilitarian blazer and ruffled peasant-chic skirt over pants. Massive slides and a few short videos accompany the lecture. Taylor dutifully channels Bocanegra’s text, telling us “Lili Taylor is performing as me.”

I didn’t know Bocanegra’s work before this evening, so I wondered how we would be theatrically invited into her seventy-five-minute extensive explanation of its ancestral, experiential, and intellectual origins. I quickly learned that she’s friends with legendary visual and performance artist Joan Jonas, designed the costumes for Anne Carson’s Antigone and Sibyl Kempson’s Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, and is an overall well-connected downtown artist and mother. Her performative play on the artist talk genre feels like something between a Spalding Grey monologue and a Joseph Cornell assemblage, with a feminist twist.

She makes herself a charming character. In one family photo, she hilariously equates her adolescent ballet recital costume to Dolly’s whorehouse attire. She also conjures an image of her young self, standing outside the chicken ranch gates, wagging a little tween finger at the arriving trucks. And Taylor’s even, subtly naïve voicing humorously contrasts with some of Bocanegra’s terse adult observations about the fantasy and labors of farm life, and making life.

The large-scale slides often perform like another character. Bocanegra’s reports of a rough third pregnancy are humorously set against grotesque art historical renderings of childbirth. And her newfound preoccupation with death during that pregnancy is accompanied by a hyperbolic image of skull-lined catacombs. The images offered occasional, laugh-out-loud punch-lines.

Bocanegra’s art, in materials as varied as fabric and food, often renders beauty from ugliness. She recalls when her landlord disconnected the elevator, making her trudge up and down five flights of stairs to her loft with groceries and kids. Game-like, she tapped into her obsession with pioneer-level struggle. Pregnant, she researched an extreme deprivation diet based on four basic foods: wheat, honey, salt and powdered milk. She then bought the hundreds of pounds of these foods required to live for one year, gathered glass jars, and made a sculpture containing what she and her baby would need to survive. This work– a nutritional pieta– offered her a ‘reassuring’ vision that she tells us was at once about fear and scarcity, but looked abundant. When analyzing her teenaged black-and-white aestheticized photographs of her grandparent’s wrinkled, hard-laboring hands, Bocanegra wisely admits: “wretchedness can be beautiful when it’s not your wretchedness.”

Like a whimsical Wikipedia at times, verbally hyperlinking from one association to the next, I learned: “pastoral” refers to the presence of sheep (maybe goats too) in the landscape while “bucolic” necessitates cows; the state of Vermont grew one-third in size during the 1960s and 70s re-invigorations of pastoral living; the prostitutes on the ranch were fed regular protein-rich meals complete with dessert under the fastidious eye of Madame Edna– a capricorn. I also now know that Bocanegra has computer files for her collections of eBay flatware and ‘cake doll’ photos (because they remind her of her grandparent’s crochet toilet paper holder).

Given the many fun-facts, potted histories and insights Bocanegra shared, I was ultimately most moved by a short scene from an old film based on a 1941 book she recommends, Hold Autumn in Your Hand. The title refers to the practice of preserving harvest fruits and vegetables. In the film, a young farm couple copes with their child’s slow death from pellagra, a nutritional-deficiency disease that reached epidemic proportions in areas of the impoverished rural south. The film cuts out as the mother writhes, face down in the dry dirt of the winter farmlands, no longer able to bear her son’s cries.

Taylor’s seamless performance of Bocanegra’s lessons and clever associations rarely wavered. But, I appreciated the few, probably first-night only gaffes. At one point, Taylor gently suggested that Bocanegra “take a sip of water.” Later, she checked in over a word: “armourous, oh – amorous!” and together they distinguished Antigone from Ismene on a slide. These authentic mistakes offered a reminder of the difficulty of verbatim work, and the collaborative intimacies forged when embodying another’s words.

Toward the end, Taylor moved upstage from her static post and shared one final poignant memory of Bocanegra’s about a conversation with her grandmother, who is suffering with dementia. In it she asks about the red roses planted on the farm—rare bursts of unnecessary beauty in a largely bleak, no-frills landscape. Her grandmother offers a characteristically stoic and simple explanation, something like, “those are my roses, I planted those roses.”

Bocanegra then asked Shara Nova, her musician friend, to compose a song with her grandmother’s words as lyrics. The lecture ends with a screening of Nova performing the song, wearing a Bocanegra-designed costume topped with a striking hat of wheat stalks threaded through with red roses.

I patiently waited for Bocanegra’s busy mixture to alchemize into something more transcendent. I wanted a peak in the action, an arc to ride, a problem I could sit with, too. But, instead, much like the flat, beautifully stark landscape of La Grange, Texas, home to her grandparent’s farm and the chicken ranch, I could only see on and on for miles, grateful for the view.

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