Pure Hell battles male-based society with a revisionist view of history and fantasy – and wins.
The performance art piece by Tanya Mars focuses on three icons and archetypes of female power. Elizabeth I, Mae West and Alice in Wonderland represent power in the political, sexual and imaginative realms, though each has to fight for that power in a world where males claim supremacy.
Their three stores are blended into a spectacle of imagery i which figures move from one world to another with lightning speed. Elizabeth I (Mars) has to deal with her power-hungry lover Essex, while Alice (Ferne Downey) must learn to reject the opinions of Freud and Jung.
Mae West (Kim Renders), seen here as a Lilith figure, saunters through the performance with a clear sense of of her own sexual power over every male from Adam to Stanley Kowalski.
“This is muy most narrative piece, not the series of tableaux that have often defined my performance art,” says Mars. The show rewords three earlier pieces, all of which featured Mars as the central character – Pure Virtue (1984), Pure Sin (1986) and Pure Nonsense (1987).
“I’ve taken the power that men traditionally have had and given it to these women. I’m sometimes accused of beating the same feminist drum long after such a concert was necessary, but I feel that if I don’t do it, there will no longer be a drum to beat. I see the results as feminist uplift rather than pap.”
“When male artists paint the same subjects again and again, they’re praised for the focus and depth of their works. Women artists who discuss feminism in art and life are criticized for handling something that’s no longer an issue. They’re called bitter when they do so.”
“I’m not bitter. I’m just not equal. And I have a right to pursue the same subject in several works of art, just as male artists do.”
The show, part gallery installation and part live performance, is a rarity for Harbourfront’s contemporary art gallery, the Power Plant. The public performances which being tonight have been preceded by several weeks of a gallery display, which includes the set design, elaborate props, rich costumes and even a dressing room open for viewer inspection.
“I love the idea of doing it in a big white box instead of a theatre’s black space,” says Mars. “I need a clean lok for my shows, not the black boxes that theatres usually are. I use a lot of projections as well, and the white container of the Power Plant suits my needs.”
The content of her works are “on the edge” – they’re not traditional in the literary or the production sense, dealing as they do with imagery more so than with text. Since the shows aren’t guaranteed box office, she adds, it’s unlikely that most theatres would mount them.
“I also want to combine my work as a performer and a visual artist. I like to lead people into one expectation of my work and then flip it around. Why should you always get what you expect in a gallery?”
Trained as a visual artist, Mars also believes that the sort of work she produces differs from traditional theatre in the care she puts into the objects used in her performances.
“I’m into careful crafting of what the audience sees. I want the viewers to be able to investigate all the aspects of this show and see that detail. A globe we’ve made, for instance, contains a mixed-up version of where countries actually are. All these objects are works of art – maybe not high art, but the key ones are more than just props.”
That concern with detail grew out of Mars’ earlier performance art works, especially the show 1981 Picnic in the Drift.
“I wanted to find a way to approach spectacle as a non-theatre person with no resources. The only way I could afford it was by investing in modules – creating one aspect of a performance at time, like the costumes. That way I could think not only about the materials I was creating but the concept of the entire project.”
As each of the three Pure pieces grew, Mars did voluminous research to give the physical production a strong intellectual support. Her readings ranged from feminism to contemporary psychobabble, from goddess material to accounts of Mae West for Pure Sin.
“It wasn’t hard to see Mae West as the quintessential goddess, the representation of the Lilith figure who in an apocryphal version of the bible’s creation story tempts Adam to sin. What was a stretch was figuring out how a fat, old, mouth, blasphemous 40-year-old woman went to Hollywood and became a success when everything about her suggested failure.”
Mars’ earlier show on Elizabeth I grew out of the image of a fire-breathing Elizabeth and came at a time when mars was disillusioned with the progress of feminism.
“I had trouble with the relationship of strong women to men; the women found they could either be loved or respected but not both. What a drag to give up something important if you become the controller of our own fate. It looked like there hadn’t been any progress since 1588.”
The Alice work developed from neo-feminist analyses of the theories of Freud and Jung, combined with a campy look at the 60s sensibility. In Mars’ piece, Alice goes down the rabbit hole searching for the penis/phallus that the two male analysts tell her she’s lost.
“In the current show, all three women are shuffled together and reveal both female bonding and hysteria – while the men revert o male bonding and hysteria. The males recapitulate their theories and are finally overthrown by the women, who become the subjects and authors of their own stories.”
Dealing with such complex issues as female desire and the subject/object representation of the female body has turned other writers into lecturers rather than entertainers – but not Mars.
“Entertainment and humour are something we can reclaim as women artists. We no longer have to be tied down by being anti-entertainment. Meaning doesn’t have to be divorced from a good, enjoyable laugh.” jeux de casinos