Holly Bass’s Moneymaker
Yesterday I accidentally saw Holly Bass’s performance piece Moneymaker. I say “accidentally” because although I knew it was coming up, I hadn’t actually paid attention to the date. And I had been planning to go to the Corcoran on Friday not Saturday. Here’s the description of Holly’s project:
Wearing a pompadour hairstyle, a polyester jumpsuit, a satin cummerbund embellished with rhinestones spelling out $€X, and “bootyballs”—an oversized sculptural derriere—Bass will dance on a “performance bridge” designed by architect Kashuo Bennett for the doorway of the Corcoran. (Visitors will literally have to walk under Bass to enter the Gallery). The choreography is built from a structured improvisation guided by the playlist, which ranges from hip-hop tracks and classic James Brown recordings to speeches by Malcolm X and clips from a BBC radio documentary on Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, a southern African woman who was displayed in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus.
I haven’t encountered much performance art, and I don’t have a clear memory of what I have seen. I expected to do my usual thing—go visit the 30 Americans exhibit upstairs and transcribe the phrases and sentences they triggered into my Moleskine. But it was all about Holly the minute I got to the Corcoran. Her seven-hour dance marathon (from 10-5) took place in a see-through plastic box built into the airspace above the Corcoran’s entrance. Not only could you see her from across the street from the museum, you literally had to walk under her to enter the museum. And the pulsing soundtrack accompanying her performance—songs from the 20s and 30s up through today—followed you througout the museum’s various galleries like a heartbeat.
It was mesmerizing, and I was unprepared for the rush of emotions her performance took me through. Her jumpsuit was red and reminiscent of James Brown, and 70s soul divas. Somehow she balanced the entire time on platform peeptoes that seemed painted to look like the American flag. Her pompadour called to mind a number of decades and personalities—Gibson Girls, 40s updos, David Bowie. I watched for about 30 minutes when I first got there, had lunch, watched for another 30 minutes, went up to 30 Americans, and then watched from about 3:30 till 5:00 when she climbed down from her perch.
I found myself scribbling various phrases into my notebook: “If you see a glass house, throw as many stones as you can.” “On her feet she wears America. Is it propping her up? Weighting her down? Is she grinding the USA under her feet?” “Dance, shout, shake yourself right out of your body.”
The entire time she performed, I kept thinking of her trapped in that cage and worried sometimes that she couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I found myself dancing along, but mostly I uncomfortably watched. She was dancing not as a source of joy, but as a means of survival. I thought of go-go girls, of Step n Fetchit, of minstrel shows. I thought of prostitution, of black women singers ripped off by their record companies and tricked into soul-crushing contracts. I thought of the Hottentot Venus and how, in many ways, black women have not been taken off the stage since. I thought of the auction block. At times I also wanted to be her, to be able to dance that well, to look that beautiful in her red jumpsuit, to have her stamina.
During some songs Holly would pulse her palms against the sides and top of the box, and I thought of a trapped animal checking its cage for weaknesses. At times her various poses reminded me of Bollywood, of geishas, and I thought of a sisterhood of the trapped. Of being incarcerated in men’s fantasies, in their rules, in their world.
The performance became more intense as the day wore on as you could see how tired she was getting. By the final hours at times all she could do was lean against one of the walls of the plastic box and move her hands. I worried about how she was getting energy, if she needed to go to the bathroom, if she’d have enough strength in her legs to navigate the ladder down from the cage at the end of the performance. This didn’t distract from the performance, but instead increased its poignancy. What was she sacrificing to entertain us?
I should add that the performance did have a sense of humor. At regular intervals she wrapped herself in a gold cape and preened and flexed while one of her assistants played carnival barker and herald. It reminded me of Muhammad Ali before a fight. When “9 to 5” came on, she tied on a kerchief “Mammy-style” and sprayed and cleaned the inside of the box. There was also a moment when one of her assistants collected the bandana and “auctioned” it off to the crowd.
At a few minutes to 5, one of her assistants helped Holly down from the stage. She staggered a bit, then sank to the ground ala James Brown or Koko Taylor. Then she rose triumphant and continued to dance, stubbornly, defiantly on the steps leading up to the main floor of the Corcoran. Several patrons coming in for an evening event had to walk around her, and that only added to the drama. Take that you motherf**kers. You can’t break me. You can’t take me down. I found myself wanting to cry—from relief, from joy, from hope.