In England, where for the first six months of the millennium I lived and ostensibly studied but largely smoked hash and enjoyed an unprecedented and never-to-be repeated dominance in intramural basketball, all the swans are the property of the Queen. Arcane British laws make it illegal to kill, eat, stuff and even transport the remains of any swan anywhere within the British Isles. Nevertheless, my flatmate Kirsten’s mother bravely brought a taxidermied swan from Edinburgh to Oxford for Kirsten to use in the final group show.
Kirsten was the first performance artist I’d ever met. Throughout the semester I was at Oxford she told me a bit about the work of her idol, Marina Abramovic, and her own past performances, which included a misunderstood attempt at re-enacting a young Jewish girl’s flight from the Nazis. She’d shaved her head and lived in the woods somewhere in Poland for a few weeks, then caught a lot of flack for it from indignant types who were more upset about genocide being re-enacted as art than they were about its actuality in many corners of the globe.
Still, nothing could quite prepare me for the spectacle of her final work with the swan. While everyone else’s paintings and installations sat quietly in the whitewashed galleries, Kirsten proceeded to mourn her swan in one of the upstairs rooms of the art building, topless. It was a deeply moving, well-planned and well-executed work that has stayed with me to this day.
For many hours, Kirsten alternately cradled the swan in her arms and prostrated herself before it, dragging herself slowly across the floor, keening. In the process, the dead swan’s limp neck and rubbery black beak slumped and tumbled against her bare breasts. In what I then thought was English restraint but I now realize was a form of proto-hipster detachment, the spectators at the art show took this in stride. As you entered the room, the people you passed on their way out would mildly comment, “There’s a bird in there, and she’s got her tits out, and she’s holding a dead bird.” “Bird” in England is a slang term for a girl, like “chick” in the U.S. There was, in fact, a girl at the college where I studied at Oxford who everyone referred to as “Tits-Out Jess,” and when I asked why, they said, “Because she always gets her tits out.” The matter-of-factness of the language superimposed with the lewdness of the situation has always encapsulated everything about England that simultaneously endears and eludes me about that rainy nation.
Following this faintly bemused but nonplussed description of the bird with her tits out holding a dead bird, you’d enter the room to find my flatmate crawling half-naked across the floor as people milled around (or rather, in England, milled about), engaged in a tender wrestling match with a snowy white dead swan and a vast and terrible grief.
Kirsten really was a terrific performance artist. Not that I put much stake in the artistic assessments of academics, but the examiners at Oxford awarded her a rare first-class degree. (In British universities you receive no grades that matter until a massive final exam–or in the case of art students, degree project–that gets a grade of first, second or third class, and this grade is cruelly and reductively applied to your entire degree.) For the examination performance, if I recall correctly, Kirsten stripped entirely naked, burned all of her previous works of art, smeared the ash on the walls and then on her own naked body, and then lit a chandelier full of sambuca aflame. I did not see this performance as it was closed to the public, but I would pay good money to see the three Oxford art examiners squinting over their spectacles at the sight of my flatmate smearing her naked body with ash under a flaming chandelier.
The first performance I saw Kirtsten do involved her sewing herself into a burlap sack and then blindly climbing a tree in the graveyard of one of Oxford’s many impressively medieval colleges. She crawled around the tree for a while, then climbed down and went inside one of the tombs, where she lay on the floor and peed on herself. I didn’t actually know until later that she’d peed on herself. At the wine and cheese reception afterwards Kirsten graciously received her guests as if she had just shown a slideshow of an archeological dig or maybe given a talk on some rare disease, not climbed a tree while sewn into a burlap sack and then peed on herself in a medieval tomb. She led a few of us over to where she’d been lying and said, “Oh, dear, there’s really not much of a puddle there at all, is there? Next time I’ll have to remember drink more beforehand.”
It was a rare moment of insight into the mind of a performance artist, and I have never forgotten it, or her.