I suppose your first thought on walking into a cyclone might be “what the —-?” Or it might be nothing at all. You might be so overwhelmed at trying to orient yourself that your brain snaps into some other mode of consciousness. Spanish artist La Ribot's six-hour performance Laughing Hole performed at LACMA on Saturday evoked this kind of disorientation.
Taking up half of the 3rd floor of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum on LACMA's campus, the piece made you feel vulnerable. Constantly whipping around, following the three performers across their constant zig-zagging, falling down, posing, sign-waving and sign-posting was a task. Their incessant laughter, amplified by speakers placed at the room's perimeter and intermixed with the sound of wind — a cyclone — by a sound engineer completed an uneasy environment.
But for all of the confusion it produced, the performance was compelling. It was mesmerizing. It put you out of your comfort zone and prompted you to participate, to find an empty patch of wall to sit down and watch, or to stand in the center of the room and feel watched yourself.
La Ribot's mixed media of performance art, dance and theater manifests in performances like Saturday's, and in videos and installations shown throughout the world. She has received recognition for her contributions to dance, art, and is a founder of the department for the Live Arts at the Haute Ecole d'Art et de Design in Geneva.
LACMA provided its audience with the following information on the piece:
In Laughing Hole, a large number of cardboard signs carpet the floor of the gallery where three women amble in continuous laughter using the signs to interact with the audience. As the performance unfolds, the laughter turns into an ambiguous sound indistinguishable from weeping, and the walls of the gallery space are covered with language, enveloping audience and performers alike.
A brief descriptor, hinting at the piece's use of language, performance and participation. And while this allows you to enter the work with some clue as to what will be going on, you're left with the question: What does it all mean? Not that you would expect the artist to give it all away — no, you have to fill in some of the blanks yourself. But the lack of information does make the piece somewhat difficult to describe in a casual conversation. It was a piece about… well… women laughing. Or wailing. And taping up seemingly random bits of text. That had to do with war and manhood. And your mom. And getting stuck in the middle of it all.
I could only take an hour of this. It's not that I left because I disliked it, the way you might walk out of a movie you found in bad taste. In fact, in the hour I stayed I noticed only one or two others, besides the performers, who stayed as long as I did. The audience was encouraged to come and go at any time throughout the six-hour performance.
Upon arriving I found the room fairly full. It took me a moment to figure out how the situation worked. I stood near the entrance to the gallery for a good minute before entering the scene, and noticed throughout my hour in the space that this seemed to be the visiting pattern. A crowd would form near the entrance to watch the performers. Visitors would then trickle in to inspect the overturned cardboard, finding random, seemingly ironic sayings such as “YOUR MUM,” “ILLEGAL LAUGHING,” “CLEAN GUANTANAMO” or “IMPOTENTS THERE.” They would snap a photo. Then they would make their way out. Some would wander around the perimeter, sit down to observe for a few moments before exiting. A couple of kids danced around in all the confusion.
I was reminded of The Trojan Women, a Euripides play about women in the aftermath of the sacking of Troy. At a certain point the sound mixer's crescendo of wind created the perfect storm, the sound of a bleak and desolate aftermath. The debris all around us seemed like scattered signs of war — as if the cardboard signs were remnants of a shantytown, of which these women, perhaps, are refugees. Prophets, even — Cassandras of a modern era.
Those of us who stayed became props for the performers, who held signs in our faces or used our shoulders for leg rests. After sitting for quite a while, my leg started to fall asleep and I began counting down the minutes toward the end of an hour. I noticed the sound in the gallery had died down a bit. The wind that had echoed through the speakers was no longer whipping and whistling away, and the room seemed empty. Without so much commotion, the audience petered out as well.
Standing on my only-just-waking legs, I thought about how exhausted the performers must feel. It takes dedication to laugh until you start to cry, to smile until it becomes a grimace. That dedication from the performers created a pervasive unease that I couldn't shake even hours after leaving. That “what the —-?” feeling is still following me around.