by Amy Fusselman
Matt Mullican’s two-part performance at The Kitchen this past Friday and Saturday, “That Person and That World,” was a powerhouse production in two major respects: its presentation of an alternate consciousness, i.e., the “he” who inhabits Mullican after hypnosis; and Mullican’s post-performance acknowledgment of how little this alternate consciousness is welcomed in the art (let alone “real”) world. In this respect, the piece deftly underscored the ways in which artists and viewers alike have agreed on the “reality” in which the alternate consciousness of an artist—society’s designated “feeler”—takes place.
On the evening of Part 1, the audience entered the space to find Mullican sitting in the upper left corner of the stage, in a chair with his back to the wall. Though he was cornered, literally, he inhabited the space comfortably, ignoring the audience while flipping through the pages of a book. Audience members trickled in to sit on the floor in front of him as if children at a story hour. Farther back, they could sit in rows of chairs arranged in a V-shape, mirroring the corner. Thus the evening began with the artist cornered and surrounded, and the audience members off-center. This destabilization of the typical, forward-facing performance space was the beginning of our journey into Mullican’s questioning, uncomfortable piece.
Mullican began by reading us his “cosmology,” a text consisting of 64 numbered statements which he has honed over decades. The cosmology contained lines like:
“47. I am in the sphere I am the sphere”
“52. As God I forget my life.”
The reading of it served, Mullican said, as a counterpoint to the narrative he would tell us afterwards, a narrative that, he warned, had some “terrible things” in it.
The Blake-ian poem took only a few minutes to read, and then Mullican began telling us the story. Mullican, 65, is bearded and avuncular; his storytelling is slow and hypnotic, with a lot of emphasis on sensory details and zero emphasis on ten-dollar words. The story, which Mullican told in first-person, was of a nameless hero who went to his female boss’s apartment on the Upper West Side for dinner, and after eating, was seduced by her. The woman’s husband returned home early and found them in bed, and in the tumult of discovering them, stabbed himself in the groin with a knife and bled to death before help arrived. It was a story that took us from the heights of lovemaking to the depths of horror, and in this way mirrored the trajectory of Mullican’s piece itself.
I want to emphasize how good Mullican was as a reader and storyteller. His egoless, back-to-the-wall reading of what is essentially a mystic poem he has worked on for thirty-some years, was a revelation of humility. As for his storytelling, I noted that at 8:34, a full half hour into the performance, we were hearing details about how the dinner’s lemon chicken was made. There was still 45 more minutes of storytelling to go after that, and a lot of that was the seduction. None of it was boring. The seduction description was so sensual, in fact, that I started to get uncomfortable contemplating how it was going to feel, sitting there, if Mullican actually got around to describing the characters’ climax. (He did not, as the lovemaking scene quickly pivoted into the depiction of the husband’s discovery). Mullican’s image-less, word-only performance would have felt more pornographic than watching porn.
As Part 1 was all words, Mullican could have presented himself in a more writerly fashion, standing center stage, say, behind a lectern. That he didn’t do that seems to me to emphasize that the words were not the point. They were means to an end: information-bits, available to everyone, that he used in order to communicate straightforward and easily-understood information–rather than writerly insights–about the fundamental human experiences of eating, drinking, and sex. The accident with the knife was depicted from “That Person’s” perspective, as a barbarity. Nothing about Part 1 was overtly challenging, and perhaps this is why the artist presented himself as cornered in front of his childlike audience: in obediently giving us a story in the anticipated way, Mullican was trapped by the traditional expectations of artist vis-a-vis audience.
Part 2, the next evening, was…different. Audience members found the seating changed to the customary arrangement: rows of chairs facing center stage. On the right side of the stage we saw a table, chairs, bottles of water, and drinking glasses. In the left corner, where Mullican had sat the night before, there was a mat and pillow on the floor. After everyone was settled, Mullican inched onstage with his back to us, feeling the wall. He hummed rhythmically as he went along. This was Mullican in his alternate state: “That Person.”
The next hour was given over to Mullican’s alternate-consciousness portrayal of the story of the night before. Almost entirely wordless, the performance had a soundtrack of Mullican’s rhythmic humming and vocalizing. Mullican’s actions included banging cups and chairs, drinking water, stroking his legs and thighs after rolling up his pants, and finally, at the end, as he represented the husband coming upon the primal scene, using language: “You fucking shit! Get out! You’re embarrassing yourself! Get out!” Mullican said these words in part with his head face-down into a pillow, in the same corner where he had sat reading his poetry the previous evening. Where 24 hours ago he had sat calmly before us, behaving like an “artist,” he was now upside-down, in another feeling/state: showing us his ass, spraying us with foul language.
Several members of the audience did walk out at this point, assuming, perhaps, that the piece was over, or maybe just fed up with it. They should have stayed, though, because after inching off the stage with a pillow over his face, Mullican came back out, sat down in a chair center stage and, returning to his former self, told us a bit about this work.
One of the first things he mentioned was that his friends and gallerists have told him that he should stop doing these pieces because they’re “embarrassing”—a word that he used repeatedly in the piece. He also recounted various challenges in doing these pieces over the years, including one time “That Person” tried and failed to incite the audience to revolt, and another time when a doctor come up to him after a performance to accuse him of stealing the mannerisms of autistic patients. Of the state he was in just moments before, he acknowledged that he went “very deep.” He was onstage now, speaking to us, he said, to try “to soften” it.
Mullican’s work spans practically every medium, and this is only a tiny piece of his output (there is a show of some of his visual work at Peter Freeman on Greene Street through December 17). But for over thirty years, his concerns have included the framework within which artmaking operates. Way back in 1980, Allan McCollum wrote of Mullican’s work in an essay in Reallife Magazine: “To Mullican’s eye, then, the comfortable position of “reality” from which we perform as spectators into the contained arena of symbolic activity we call ‘art’ is itself an unstable, fluid, and precarious world…”
This view still appears to be deeply in play. For this performance, Mullican told us a story in poetry, in prose, and almost-wordlessly. That he can so easily move between media as well as states of consciousness makes him a traveler of another sort, a radical who is not content to simply operate in the world like a good, little feeler. Mullican is a Feeler of the highest order, a fearless diver whose work reveals just how little room there is for diversity of expression even in the supposedly liberal territory of art. And for continuing that work, and doing it in the face of his friends and gallerists’ objections, I have a ten-dollar word: Bravo.
Amy Fusselman is an author and the editor of Ohio Edit.