Crowned and Raddled: A Commentary on Individual Identity

by Meredith Sherrill

Presented at the Parks Trades Center as part of the May 5, 2012 Kalamazoo Art Hop, Crowned and Raddled is a performance piece by artist Tom Rice that deals with themes of discontent and loss of identity. During the roughly fifteen minute performance, Rice stands in a hospital gown and latex gloves while he tells the audience of a series of recent dreams. While he recounts the dreams, Rice attaches wooden clothespins all over his face and head until his features are completely obscured. At the same time images, including sawing through a piece of wood, digging up of dirt with a shovel, and hammering in a series of nails, are projected onto Rice’s white hospital gown. At the end of the performance, Rice removes all the clothespins and walks out of sight before sitting down with his back to the audience.

Tom Rice, Crowned and Raddled performance still, 2012.

Throughout the performance Rice speaks with an exaggerated accent, which initially suggests that he is performing as a character. However the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred as the performance continues. Rice’s character describes a dream at which he is at a party with other parents who never say hello to him. From the party he moves to a shopping mall where all the stores are on the right side and all the foot traffic moves in one direction. Throughout this part of the performance it appears that Rice is in character. However, he then goes on to describe leaving the Park Trades Center and passing a man who is standing on a platform and unsuccessfully trying to hit a golf ball with a paintbrush. This reference to the real Park Trades Center makes it unclear what other parts of the dream narratives might be based on fact. This reference to the real also suggests that Rice’s character might be an extension of the artist himself.

Despite the perhaps intentional ambiguity regarding Rice’s persona, the dream narrative creates a sense that the character presented has lost a sense of purpose and is searching for a kind of individual meaning or identity. As Rice’s character mentions the other parents who don’t acknowledge him and describes the shopping mall, it first appears that there is something about society, possibly an expectation of conformity, which is responsible for this individual’s loss of purpose and identity. However, when describing the shopping mall, in which the stores are all on one side and the people all move in one direction, Rice’s character does not appear to be questioning these observations, just reporting them. It is in the final dream, an interaction with a doctor in which Rice’s character learns that he needs to undergo a medical procedure, that suggest that perhaps it is not society or other people who are holding this character back, but rather the character himself. Rather than make the effort to find a new doctor, Rice’s character recognizes that he is not going to take any action, but is going to remain passive and have a potentially unnecessary or dangerous medical procedure. The character’s loss of self then appears to be a consequence of his own lack of action and his tolerance of social constrictions.

As he is narrating this series of dreams, Rice is attaching clothespins all over his face and neck. The German artist Helge Meyer comments in his article “Pain and Performance Art” that “pain is not only a biological or chemical problem but also the experience of a search for interpretation.” [1] Meyer cites examples of religious followers who use the self-infliction of physical pain as an act of devotion and a search for meaning. Meyer himself has attached clothespins all over his face in various performances. However, unlike Meyer, who seems to use the clothespins as a source of physical pain from which to seek meaning, Rice seems to use the infliction of physical discomfort to reflect an emotional pain. While Meyer’s performances such Focus: Bodytime-Timebody 2 and Wann…When? center around the tolerance physical pain, Rice does not actually appear in pain at any point when attaching the clothespins. Rice’s lack of reaction suggests that the clothespins are not used as part of a commentary on physical pain. As Meyer also notes within “Pain and Performance,” “the problem of pain is in the possibility to communicate pain.” [2] While Meyer is again referring to physical pain, emotional pain is equally, if not more, difficult to communicate through performance. It seems that through his application of the clothespins, Rice inflicts a physical pain that is visible and recognizable to the audience as a way to reflect his character’s inner pain.

Rice’s act of covering his face and head with clothespins also creates a striking visual image. The clothespins hide the artist’s features, creating a form that the audience recognizes as a person, but one whose identity is unknown. This obscuring of the face reflects the loss of identity expressed in Rice’s dreams. Like the actions of the man who is trying to hit golf balls with a paintbrush, and Rice’s ideas about seeking a second medical opinion, the act of Rice covering his face with clothespins seems futile. Just as Rice’s dreams end without any indication that action will be taken, Rice concludes by removing the clothespins. This conclusion brings the artist back to his original state. The clothespins have left marks, but no lasting change has occurred. This lack of physical change mirrors how Rice’s character’s discontent has not led him to take any action.

With this conclusion, in which Rice does not appear to depict either physical or emotional change, the whole performance seems to become an exploration of futility. While loss of identity, dehumanization, and discontent are explored during the performance, these emotions are presented in a way that they do not force any permanent change on the artist himself. Like the clothespins, they are simply tolerated. While identity loss and social discontent are common themes in contemporary art, work that explores these themes often does so through a critique of modern society as a whole, such as in the work of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer. Crowned and Raddled addresses the role of the individual in social discontent. As Anthony Giddens states, “The self is not a passive entity, determined by external forces…individuals contribute to and directly promote social influences….” [3] Rice’s performance reminds the viewer of his or her individual ability to enact change and reminds us that our identities are not solely defined by external forces.

Notes:

[1] Helge Meyer, “Pain and Performance Art,” Performance Art Research/Helge Meyer, www.performance-art-research.de/text/pain_and_performance_art.html. Accessed May 13, 2012.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 2.

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