07 October 2014

Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse: My Barbarian at Gallery 400

Motherhood and the anxieties associated with it are the core themes of Universal Declaration of Infantile Anxiety Situations Reflected in the Creative Impulse at Gallery 400. The exhibition highlights the work of My Barbarian, a collective comprised of Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alex Segade. The works in the show were accompanied by two live performances of an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s 1932 play, The Mother, in which a radicalized depiction of motherhood is explored.

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From the moment I entered the industrial space of Gallery 400, I was confronted by the sharp triangular stage – a wooden construction jutting a sharp pointed angle directly at the entrance. This introduction to the show is arresting, the downward pointing triangular shape of the stage recalling the symbol of femininity and womanhood. This object is central to a show intent on understanding motherhood and redefining gender roles in the modern era.

Though the exhibition doesn’t have many works in it, it feels complete. Flanking the stage are works that directly relate to the performance. On the left are drawings made of oil stick on brown paper crudely depicting masks, set designs, and violent statements like “YOUR SON HAS BEEN SHOT.” Each drawing is clearly handmade. There is nothing mechanical about the art, though some of the drawings depict factories and laborers – giving humanity to the labor movement, a theme that is later called out in the performance of The Mother.

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The opposing wall holds thirteen papier mâché masks used in My Barbarian’s performances. The masks are sculptural, evoking classical Greek theatre, each depicting a character performed by members of My Barbarian. Upon closer viewing, the papers used to plaster the masks are reproductions of 1930’s Russian newspapers, a reference to the era in which Brecht composed The Mother, a play framed by the Bolshevik Revolution.

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In two smaller galleries are video installations, one of which plays My Barbarian’s performance of The Mother in a continuous loop. This video acts as a proxy for the actors throughout the show’s run, although two performances occurred mid-September. The performances rounded out the exhibition in its ability to activate the objects in the space and personified the themes of motherhood, revolution, labor, and artistic practice that each iteration of My Barbarian’s work explores.

The Mother takes place in 1917 Russia, and portrays a mother, Mrs. Vlassova, in relationship to her rebel son Pavel. The action of the play occurs on the triangular stage and the masks become physical aids in storytelling. Gaines, Gordon, and Segado wear neutral off-white work clothes including coveralls, caps, and work boots. Though they appear to match, each of their costumes is distinct - their individuality is highlighted. The story takes place in a series of locations including the kitchen of Mrs. Vlassova, the factory where Pavel works, a prison, a teacher’s home, and sites of protest outside of the factory. The drawings are activated during the performance, projected onto the wall behind the stage to set the scene for each location.

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The performance was punctuated by songs from the original play set to musical arrangements by Gaines. Employing theatrical tactics, My Barbarian exploits musical styles, dance, and inflections in the actors’ voices and bodies to tell the story of Mrs. Vlassova’s place in the revolution. Tied solely to the domestic space of her home, she is introduced to the revolution through her son Pavel who works in a factory. Pavel’s desire to fight for better wages involves his mother giving both her emotional and physical support. She aids the revolution through her words and her actions, eventually leaving her home to complete covert operations for the revolutionary effort, visit her son in prison, and even join in the violent protest marches.

The success of the performance lies in the liberties My Barbarian took with their interpretation of the original. The performers play multiple characters in the story. Each takes a turn at playing the mother. Even the audience has a chance to perform the mother through call and response at the end of the performance. In this way My Barbarian suggests that all people have a “maternal instinct” and the place a mother may have in stirring revolution. Revolutions don’t emerge from thin air – they are birthed, weaned, and grown. Through neutralizing costumes, the use of masks, and simplistic use of set design, My Barbarian is able to tell the story of revolution while simultaneously remarking upon the importance of the mother in nurturing social justice.

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