Presenting your art to an audience doesn’t make it theater.
Only when Fleur Elise Noble’s puppets have stripped down their setting — the artist’s messy studio — to the blank white walls of a gallery, do they begin to burn the place down. The actual walls of the historic Alexandria Hotel, where Noble’s work is presented, remain intact; the studio, a diorama, is projected on giant backdrops and sculptural elements scattered throughout the ballroom. But Noble’s scorched-earth method of dealing with her creative output might resonate more with an audience if it were in a space similar to the one her creations destroy: a gallery.
There’s certainly no error in including a piece like Noble’s 2 Dimensional Life of Her in the amorphous programming of the contemporary theater festival RADAR L.A., but to call it theater is misleading. Even dubbing it “performance art” is a stretch. Except for a few-minute interval in which the artist is performing at the end, Noble has created a video installation that would have been a better fit for a contemporary art space than a theater festival. However, even in that setting, the artist’s insight into her own creative process would be lacking.
Noble, an Australian artist, uses projections of her animated drawings and larger-than-life marionettes to tell the story of her artistic frustrations. We watch as her creations break free despite her best efforts to contain them: A projected version of Noble (a sculptural element akin to Tony Oursler’s talking heads, but life-size and silent) paints over the drawings or covers them in paper, and they simply force their way through again to cause the mischief that represents her self-doubt. The marionettes nearly defeat her when they set her studio on fire, filling the room with crackles and pops engineered by sound artist Jeremy Neideck.
But Noble prevails, and that’s where her story adheres to a well-worn narrative of the constant destruction and remaking of an artist’s work. It’s a struggle most artists endure, and Noble’s outsized take on it, while stylistically intriguing, is no different from the self-doubt endured by figures great and small throughout history.
Showing Life of Her in a gallery would at least have placed it in the context of what Noble rebels against: As the white walls of her projected gallery burn, the audience would be further immersed in the world of art. Instead, when you glimpse the ornate setting of the Alexandria Hotel’s ballroom out of the corner of your eye, the spell cast by her flickering flames is broken.
That’s not the only way that Noble torpedoes her own art. The artist herself appears in the midst of her installation, shouting at her puppets, jolting us from her fantasy. The Alexandria Hotel setting then becomes even more problematic, as the acoustics make it difficult to hear Noble’s words (though one of her few discernible lines, “Sorry about the fire,” is deadpanned perfectly). The presentation would be strengthened by the artist’s absence; her brief cameo seems to serve only as a justification of the show’s description as a theatrical experience.
Neither creating art before a live, seated audience, nor drawing or painting in front of others, can put a work in the category of performance art – for that, there must be a relationship created between the audience and the performer. Noble’s cameo is so abrupt that it actually severs the connection we have with her animated avatar, who engages our sympathies with her valiant attempts to quell her puppets’ uprising and her drawings’ disintegration. The film installation – for that is what it should be called – blurs the line between art and theater less than the artist thinks it does. Her animations succeed mostly by keeping Noble occupied enough in the second dimension that we are fortunate to see very little of her in the third.
2 Dimensional Life of Her. RADAR L.A. Wed-Sun, June 15-19. 213-237-2800. http://www.redcat.org/radar-la/fleur-elise-noble
For a more anxiety-centered view of the same work, see Rectangular Anger.