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Karen Finley brings 'The Jackie Look' to Hallwalls


Karen Finley, the respected artist, performer, writer and provocateur who last performed at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center two years ago, returns on Wednesday to deliver a brand-new piece of experimental theater. Finley last performed in Buffalo in June, 2008, when she workshopped a piece called "Impulse to Suck," about the tribulations of the Eliot and Silda Wall Spitzer in the wake of the former governor's resignation. (Read a preview and review of that performance.)

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Finley explained, she has been fascinated with public grief and the figures who embody it. Hence her current project, "The Jackie Look," in which Finley adopts the persona of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- perhaps the most enduring example of the grieving American celebrity -- as a jumping-off point into a performance that has been variously described as "Roland Barthes in designer drag" and "a horror movie about women living public lives."

I called Finley far too late on Monday evening before she boarded her train to Buffalo this morning. She was kind enough not to hang up on me. Read our conversation below, and look for a review of "The Jackie Look" in Friday's Gusto.

Buffalo News: You had your first show here.

Karen Finley: That’s right, and Hallwalls was the first place to publish my work as well.

What did they publish?

It was a section from a performance, “Constant State of Desire."... I had written it by hand and then they just published the actual text as if it was a drawing.

Your last performance here was kind of a workshop, though it seemed pretty complete when I saw it. Is this work that you’re performing, “The Jackie Look,” complete? I imagine it grew out of what you were doing when you were here a couple years ago, which was focused on the Spitzers.

This is a different piece, but I guess it did grow out of it because there was a line in that performance that says  -- I was playing Silda, the wife – and I said, “I haven’t seen grief like this since Jackie.” So then that got me very interested in grief or thinking about Jackie performing grief.

I was invited to create a work or to give a keynote at a conference for educators in higher education for photography, and it was in Dallas. So it came to me -- the idea of Jackie Kennedy looking at her own pictures or looking at her images and giving a talk or giving a lecture... about her process of looking at her images. That’s how it came about.

So the idea of grief is important. Where did that come from, that fascination, at first? Is public grief something you’ve had an interest in for a while or is it something that came to you relatively recently?

I have been, in my earlier work, actually performing grief, showing what people wouldn’t be normally seeing in public. But in this work, I think I go another step, where it’s the idea of going past that grief or trying to see how you work through it. It’s not just the performing of the grief, but it’s the understanding or the working through the trauma. I think that’s what this work is about.

I think that I’ve been interested in this especially since 9/11. I think I have events in my personal life that I’ve had where I’ve had to deal with trauma. But I think that since 9/11 I’ve been interested in this work.

A lot of people familiar with your with your work might expect an ad lib kind of thing, at least those who remember you from the '80s. How much of this new work is scripted and how much is improvised?

I’d say 99 percent of it is focused and that there might be an occasional event or something. It’s premeditated.

Would you call it theater?

I would say this work is theater because I think that I am performing the illusion, within a character.

Does it really matter what you call it?

No, but I think I’m definitely using the structure of theater. I’m playing with the idea of character. I think what’s experimental about the work is my appreciation or presentation of character goes against the traditional way of presenting character. In traditional theater, you’re going to want to have the character seem to be as real as possible because it’s based on realism. I have found that I think that audiences feel more comfortable with the illusion, so I’m playing off of the illusion.

I think that [in] my last work, I wasn’t doing that, and I think that that was sometimes difficult for people because I was playing all three characters at once, and so that was the psychosis of it. But this is simpler in its presentation and so it’ll be easier for the audience because I’m giving an illusion but I’m not trying to be doing it, like Tina Fey does with Sarah Palin. It isn’t a parody in that way.

In a sense, the image of this person on TV or whatever, is not really them. It’s just this construction of what we see, and you’re just kind of riffing on that? Is that accurate to say?

That could be. I think what I’m doing is maybe thinking in terms of painting. It’s an impression. It’s an illusion. I haven’t gone to a coach where I am going ot be speaking like Jackie. I’m doing some things that are like an homage. My jacket is an Oleg Cassini. I am doing some theatrical nuances. I work with a person who’s from Broadway who works on wigs, so that the style that we’re doing is a specific time, because I felt like dealing with 1963, looking exactly like that... I’m trying to kind of have an illusion, as if I was here within my body. I think that it’s more of a haunting.

Are there things about Jackie that you discovered that were really surprising to you in terms of when you were researching the piece and that you incorporated into the performance, that might be surprising to audience members?

I wasn’t aware that she was that thoughtful.

In what way?

She really would think about the extent that she prepared for the funeral. The way that it was designed to be like Lincoln’s funeral. She was a writer, she was an artist. She was trained as an artist. I knew that a little bit. I knew that she had done some photography, but I didn’t realize that she really was trained in the arts.

I think that just speaks to the treatment of public figures like this as one-dimensional. We like to know certain things about them, but to a point. We don’t really care to learn everything about their personalities, we just maybe prefer to see them as these weeping figures on TV. It seems like your work is an attempt to get behind that a little bit.

I’m using Jackie as a metaphor or as an archetype for our society, of getting past this certain trauma, of the ‘60s. I think that it’s been difficult for younger generations because there’s a pedestalization of that – having on a pedestal, that era, as if no one had suffered... It’s a great burden for younger generations, or for society. I think this piece is using Jackie or that time to be saying, "It’s time to put that aside."

For my generation, I used to always hear from my grandparents about the depression. You know, you have to walk three miles barefoot and then you’d try to look for a little piece of coal to get to school. And we would take our old rags and make ‘em into rugs, and all these things that people would talk about. I feel that from my colleagues and people that are my age, where I feel that my generation or actually a generation a little bit older than myself carry the ‘60s around their back or on their face as if it’s this badge of honor.

There’s a always a tendency to romanticize the past. It seems like you’re maybe doing the job of a historian a little bit, to say hey: let’s keep it real, there was some suffering there, too.

I don’t think it was that wonderful either. That’s something that interests me too. You use the term romanticizing -- that’s what happens.... You’re going to disappoint people no matter what. There’s no way you can bring the past to here and now. You can’t make it alive. That’s what I’m talking about. I use the Kennedys or Jackie sort of as a point of departure.

Do you think you’re finally getting out from the whole image of covering yourself with chocolate? Every article I read mentions that, and yams, and et cetera.

I feel that if it was important or something to be doing I would do that work now, but it doesn’t have the same resonance. That’s the reason why I don’t do the piece. I don’t think that I ever did what people think that I might have done, so that’s what’s funny too.

In a sense, they’re romanticizing your work.

Many times, in terms of access, I haven’t been able to have access to major institutions because of my work or my legal problems, and now there is this romanticization of wanting that and I can’t do it anyway. There’s legal reasons I can’t. Then the romanticizing of this time and wanting to do it. I’m not that person anymore. I’m 50 years old. I wish I could.

I think that some situations have gotten better for women. There’s two women on the Supreme Court now and it looks like there’s going to be three. In terms of when I heard Mel Gibson[‘s recent violent and abusive phone message]... There’s still problems with violence towards women. So I think what the issue is that I am fascinated with the public or the human need to romanticize the past. And I will always disappoint you. There’s no way that I can ever satisfy the wishes of those wanting back to the good old days.

I don’t even want those good old days.

Who would want to relive their past? That’s why I think it’s interesting that the great majority of what’s written about you centers on that time, which must be so frustrating for you.

I think that’s another phenomenon that doesn’t even have to do with my work. I think it has to do with some psychological, public phenomenon of collectively, society, or people as a collective group, yearning [for] the past at this time. And it’s unattainable.

--Colin Dabkowski





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