There is something a little gross about lilies. Double-faced flowers that fawn over a young girl’s coffin one day and preen out of a Mapplethorpe photograph the next. There is a vulgarity to these blooms and for a while I thought this was the type of lily I was going to see on stage at the Arnolfini. As it was, I came home smiling, having seen their very pretty side instead.
The basic narrative of Ivo Dimchev’s Lili Handel is that of the aged starlet writhing in self-pity and denial. So far, so practised. The aged never-quite-has-been and the wannabe superstar are stock characters of literature, yawning and flirting throughout the works of Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams. Seeing this depicted by a naked male actor is potentially pointless. What could be learned from watching a woman turn into a beast on-stage set to music?
We begin with pantomime humour – but a third of the way through, that is completely superseded by something more nuanced. Lili steps into the crowd and commandeers the attention of one little bald man. Perhaps we’re about to witness a banal joke, the joke where the audience laughs at the guy feeling uncomfortable about the naked drag queen who semi-resembles a half-hatched lizard. We even get the obligatory opportunity to scoff at the man’s residence – grimy Essex.
“Would you like to go for a beer with me?” asks Lili. “I am bored of this performance. We could stop watching all of this pretention and just go get a beer together.” Again, this postmodern interjection could be awfully contrived. We are aware that all the paraphernalia that makes up femininity and the stock roles available – little Lolita, mouthy Sally Bowles and the androgynous aged grandmother – are ultimately fake. We know this because we are all, by now, students of social constructivism and Judith Butler.
Yet we also don’t. Or at least, we don’t act like we know this, or why else would the aging woman still be such an obvious source of comedy? It is not just the component parts of being a ‘woman’ that are boringly performance-based and insidiously destructive to those who grow too old to perform them convincingly, but also this very character of the aged woman being eroded by them.
If we accept the offer of a beer and leave the performance with Lili, we reject more than the ideals of femininity – ideals we believe we have already dropped. We go further and lose the idea that these ideals have the power to damage those unable to conform. We reject the idea of the poor old dear who cannot see that she is no longer sexy. Potentially we start being able to honestly believe that Mary Beard doesn’t give a shit what her teeth look like and stop Photoshopping cocks into her mouth.
Lili usurps assumptions again in the promise she extends of blood-letting. When a box of needles emerges my guess is that Lili will do something truly grotesque and I get ready to hide in my scarf. Instead, it is only the equivalent of a self-administered blood test and the contents of a small vial are later flogged to a member of the audience for 50 quid. As with the comments on femininity, Dimchev presents the audience with far more subtlety than objectors to performance art would credit the genre with.
I feel like it is a little answer call to those who imagine performance art to be about nudity, pee and staring at walls. It is the evening entertainment that people who categorize modern art as something seeking to shock in a society that can longer be shocked by anything, should attend. Performance art knows the best jokes about performance art. I know a lot of people who could do with listening to them.