Immediately upon seeing Jana Whatley's bear at the Houston International Performance Art Biennale, before I learned the title, I came up with my own titles:
- Relationship from a woman's viewpoint
- Labor relations
- Mule of the World (after Nanny's observation in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God)
The performance started simply enough. Whatley bent at the waist and a man of relatively equal proportions climbed on her back.
She stood there. The audience waited. She stood there some more, bearing his weight for a minute, then 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 20, then 25, until she could no longer stand.
Then she collapsed to the floor. The man remained on her back until
she gathered her strength and rose to her feet, again,
with the man on her back. Then fini.
During this performance, Whatley didn't say anything. She didn't make eye contact with audience members. She breathed. She sweated. She struggled. She bore her burden until she couldn't bear it anymore. It was exhausting to watch. (You can watch a portion of her performance here.)
The tension/the conflict/the essence of this piece seems to be primarily woman against herself. It's all about the artist. The man-burden Whatley carries, the audience are irrelevant. Of course, there is the more obvious symbolism of gender-politics embodied by the two participants, but it's unadorned with much additional theatricality. The man-burden isn't wearing a suit and tie or track suit or cowboy boots and hat or skinny jeans and a shirt two sizes too small or normicore. Whatley is wearing a flowery print dress, which might be a clumsy gesture to reinforce her femininity, but it's unnecessary. Her feminity and her power are obvious, and the piece derives its power from her straightforward struggle.
My fellow audience members brought their own interpretations to this standard endurance piece as I did mine. Together, we watched, walked away, interacted with other performances occuring simultaneously, but ultimatley we returned. I suspect that this was because regardless of how one chose to interpret the performance, it plainly compelled enduring.