Gallery Piece?: ‘2 Dimensional Life of Her’

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.

For a more anxiety-centered view of the same work, see Rectangular Anger.

Maura Judkis

Formerly of and soon to join the Washington Post, Maura Judkis once embedded with a troupe of street-performance clowns for a story.

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  1. The reviewer seems most interested in finding the proper pidgeon hole for the work and rejection those it doesn’t fit. Evidently the reviewer feels if something is difficult to categorize then it must not be any good. May I suggest the revival of time-worn Broadway shows may be a more comfortable fit.

    WHO CARES what you call it. Was it interesting? Did it amaze you? Did it make you think? Did it remind you anything else you’ve seen? Was it worth the price of admission? Was it a new direction? Did it break new ground in a new way? Does the artist show promise?

    THEATER-SCHMEATER. What does the reviewer cover mostly, sports?

  2. Yipes! Please fix typos. Thanks

  3. Bill, relax. The fellows are here to learn, not to know everything already. Did you get a good idea from this review what the piece was about? I did. Mission accomplished!

    I too would have nixed the speculative discussion on whether or not it’s theater. It is. But we’re used to seeing multimedia theater presentations here in LA, especially on this side of town. That’s just a matter of experience.

    The reviewer did exhibit some courage in calling the narrative “well-worn” and in some other instances. I thought the bottom two-thirds of the post were well done. First things about performances I’ve seen at the site!

    • Joseph – thanks for your view, which I appreciate. I believe part of my frustration was because I couldn’t see the show, only the trailer, which is compelling. And not to come down too hard on the reviewer, but I think she brought a cat to a dogfight and wasn’t mentally open to a performance with so much dimension. I believe she closed up and went defensive, which wasn’t her job.

  4. Thanks Bill and Joseph – I’m glad for your comments. Fleur Elise Noble is a visual artist, as you can see on her website above, so considering her work through the lens of a fine art review is certainly fair game. While the questions that Bill asks above are important for *anyone* who wants to have a thoughtful theater experience, critics have to go a step further to consider what an artist’s place might be in history, so questions of categorization are a part of that thought process. But as you’ve read above, classification ultimately didn’t matter to this work, because I felt that whatever category the work may or may not have fallen into – fine art, theater, none of the above – it still wasn’t engaging me. And this had nothing to do with its lack of Broadway musical plot, Bill, but had everything to do with Noble’s message. But hey – a critic is only one opinion. And part of the beauty of Engine 28 is that we have the luxury of sending multiple reporters to review the same show – so you can check out my coworker Grace Suh’s more positive take on the piece, linked above.

  5. Ms. Judkis – please pardon my tone, I get cranky before I’ve had my dinner. And didn’t mean to impune your judgement, but the trailer was something I found amazing – the stuff of dreams and Weimar fantasy.