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We’ve done so much with bodies and to bodies in New York avant-garde that there now exists a kind of numbness and stagnation,” considers Claude Wampler, a performer and exponent of the visual arts. “In Present Absence, I am starting with the opposite, the absence of a body, which I’m trying hard to make as tangible as the presence of one.” On the edge of the installation and performance, this eccentric New Yorker amuses herself by perverting the distinction between art object and live art, animal and animation, and in a flash brings to mind her classics – and her modern pieces – made in the USA: The Invisible Man, Sunset Boulevard, BOOM!, Warhol’s Beauty, the sculptures of Rube Goldberg, Broadway shows and fashion catwalks. What relationships exist between life, death and loss of fame?
Par/Door/By: Claude Wampler
Dramaturgie/Dramaturgie/Dramaturge: Bruce Hainley
Eclairages/Lichtontwerp/Lighting design: Yves Godin
Compositeur/Componist/Composer: Christof Migone
Accessoires/Rekwisieten/Properties Construction: Harry Binns
Production et présentation/Productie en presentatie/Production and presentation: Kaaitheater, KunstenFESTIVALdesArtsBack to top
“I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania with goats as my best friends,” she smiles. Claude Wampler studied opera at Carnegie Millon, then drama at the University of Columbia. She set off on the usual path actors take, attending auditions and interviews with television producers and casting agents.“
I had to go into a room and be told, ‘Turn round. Your hair’s too curly…’ I was shattered. To me, being an actor was an art!” Disgusted by show business, she stopped wanting to be an actor and singer, working instead with the Doug Elkins Dance Company, Suzan-Lori Parks and Richard Foreman.
She headed off to Tokyo for two intense years, joining the Hokutobo Butoh Company. It was formed in 1974 by Hijikata Tatsumi who then gave the company to Ashikawa Yoko, his principal dancer and muse. Breaking the usual conventions of Modern Dance coming into Japan from Europe in the late 1940s and 50s, Ashikawa Yoko’s Butoh adopted the master’s style of bent knees, creeping close to the floor and being able to change the body chameleon-like to suit its surroundings, identifying with flowers of the cherry tree, chickens, waves and ghosts. Claude Wampler then extended her knowledge of yoga techniques in India. Curious about everything, eclectic and with an allergy against being compartmentalised, she has taken a solo route since 1994, composed of protean artistic expressions that move back the boundaries between performance and visual arts. “Definitions are my enemy!”
‘Trans’ as in transgression, transfer, transmutation, transsexualism, transversality and transition – this artist is passionate about anything concerned with passing from one state to another, confusing boundaries, deviations and transformations. She also believes in reincarnation – a man today could be a woman tomorrow, or even a dog. Obviously, that must change your perception of the world somewhat! In her installation-performances, her humour is more Dadaist, cultivating surrealist escapades. “When I get obsessed with an idea, I begin generating images, movements and objects that are intrinsically linked to the obsession of this idea. My work is not rigorously structured, but when I begin something I go into it thoroughly, knowing full well where I’m going and what I’m saying. I work like a visual artist. I think more in terms of aesthetics than wondering what emotion, feeling or impression is going to emerge from what I’m doing. I hold the public responsible for that kind of interpretation!”
Claude Wampler does not shy away from anything, which is another way of pushing back boundaries. There is nothing that can stop this clever and exuberant eccentric. In 1995, she created five kimonos and five short dances exploring the biological phenomenon of pheromones (the glandular secretion comparable to hormones given off by animals) and the cultural phenomenon of the geisha. She called it Geisha Secretia or Panda’s Glands. In 1996, in Knitease, she spent four hours conscientiously knitting herself a new dress out of the wool of the dress she was wearing to the music of a 45 of Danny Rose’s song, ‘The Stripper’. In 1997, for Muffle, she spent four days and nights in a room of the Gramercy Park Hotel with her lover – a purring motorbike! In Painting, the movie (2000), the public discovered five little boxes suspended in front of a minimalist painting in a gallery. When a viewer moves towards one of the boxes on pedestals, the glass becomes opaque, therefore not allowing the viewer to look closely at the objects inside. When the viewer steps away, it goes back to being transparent. The painting is opaque when the viewer is at a distance and becomes transparent when the viewer moves closer.
Claude Wampler likes amusing herself with transgressions, creating surprise, scandal even, and flouting the boundary between passive onlooker and active performer. Every now and then she uses extras to rage, “This is not art!” She is planning to create a performance-incident (Ambulance) where the audience invited to discover her new multimedia piece witnesses an enormous argument between the technicians and the artist. It degenerates, leading to several breakages in the gallery, and ends up with the arrival of an ambulance required to cart off the hysterical artist and her bloody nose. In Blanket, the surface of her (1999), she offered her body to eight artists whom she admires to use as an instrument in a 10-minute creation, I’m yours and I do anything you tell me to do! “I wanted to see what would happen when you give a person complete freedom to tell someone else what to do. I thought they would have fun and find it stimulating. But most of them were intimidated at being given so much power.” One by one, the sequel without a sequel of these eight sequences got going like the Surrealist game of ‘consequences’.
In Bucket, the working title (1999), presented as Blanket at the Kaaitheater in Brussels, she pulled apart all the elements of an opera – the libretto on screen, the music playing separately on a soundtrack, the story on video, costumes standing like sculptures independent of the bodies. All the audience had to do was put them back together according to their preference. At the Kaai again, she used another installation-performance where she put on the skin of Cake Fur, her inseparable canine accomplice. Imbued with all the questions that transsexuals must ask themselves with their need to change gender, she explored the ground where it is possible to be both, man and dog, for example. What is it that suddenly transforms a pen into an object to be chewed or a revolting piece of excrement in a pile of papers to be read with your nose? It is her way of straddling specificities and seeing what lies on the other side.
In May 2001 in Brussels, she will be going one step further. “We’ve done so much with bodies and to bodies in New York avant-garde that there now exists a kind of numbness and stagnation”, considers Claude Wampler. “In Present Absence, I am starting with the opposite, the absence of a body, which I’m trying hard to make as tangible as the presence of one.” Straddling installation and performance, the eccentric New Yorker has fun corrupting the distinction between art object and live art, animal and animation. She will reference classic and modern pieces made in the USA: The Invisible Man, Sunset Boulevard, BOOM! and Beauty #2 by Andy Warhol, Rupe Goldberg’s sculptures, Broadway shows and fashion runway presentations. What is the relationship between life, death and loss of fame?Back to top