The Week in Arts

Mystery plays for the godless

I saw Ryan Mitchell get shot this weekend.

Already it’s a point of contention amongst both Mitchell’s lovers and detractors. “Unethical! Outrageous! Pointless!” Mitchell’s private performance was a reenactment of Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot, in which an assistant shot Burden in his left arm with a .22 caliber rifle from a distance of five meters. Burden’s Shoot took place at a gallery. Mitchell’s in a wooded park at dawn.

I’d heard some rumblings that something like this might happen. He sent an email out Wednesday night before the first Paradisiacal Rties performance stating that insurance companies weren’t willing to cover certain images and actions Saint Genet wanted to do, so those “satellite” performances would take place under the radar, unaffiliated with the On the Boards program. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it might be a gimmick. I also knew he’d been talking to lawyers about the legality of some actions he wanted to do.

Mitchell told me to make sure to attend the Sunday morning performance. Saturday night I received an email with a phone number to call for directions. I was to arrive at Carkeek Park by 5 am.

Instead of sleeping for a few hours, I decided to just stay up all night. By the time 4 am rolled around, I was buzzing on diet Rock Stars and starting to feel a little spaced out, which may or may not have been the perfect half-blotto state in which to witness whatever it was we were gathering to see. When we arrived at Carkeek, it was still dark. There were only four of us. We followed a trail till we arrived at a large, old tree and a wooden bench. We were told to stop. We waited. Waited. Eventually Mitchell arrived on foot, followed by a small procession of six or so members of Saint Genet. One was carrying a rifle case. They stopped at the tree. Everyone lined up along the path facing Mitchell, who stood in front of us unbuttoning his shirt. He turned his back.

Since the action was scheduled for dawn, we waited in silence—the most interminable, edgy silence—for close to twenty minutes. During that time, Mitchell would intermittently turn around and face us. The assistant with the rifle would edge forward and take aim, speak a few words (inaudible to me at the time), then would hesitate and back down. He did this, I think, four times.

There was only one other journalist there, and he was completely on edge. At one point he took cover in the bushes. All of us kept glancing up the trail, expecting a zealous runner to burst in on the bizarre scene at any moment. Finally at 5:27 am (dawn), the assistant raised the barrel of his gun, took aim and fired. Mitchell staggered back and blood spurted from his right shoulder. The shooter packed up his rifle in one impossibly rapid, practiced movement and vanished into the trees. Two attendants silently dressed the wound and Mitchell put on his shirt back on. Taking a deep breath, he turned and began walking up the trail, out of the park. All followed, still in silence. In that moment I had the distinct impression: this is definitely the most culty thing I’ve done in all my life. We reached the Carkeek parking lot and stopped at our cars. We looked around at each other uneasily, unsure what to do next. Mitchell kept walking, followed by a cameraman and an attendant. He would be walking ten miles to Pioneer Square to perform in NORD Alley; from there he would walk to On the Boards for the last performance of Paradisiacal Rties. I thought about Saint Sebastian, tied to a tree, his voluptuous torso shot through “as full of arrows as an urchin.” 

I was too tired to tag along with him. It wasn’t my journey anyway, I thought. I went home and fell asleep for six hours.

I talked to Mitchell on the phone the next afternoon to confirm the details: the .22 caliber rifle was exactly the same as used by Burden—in fact, manufactured the same year. The armed assistant was standing the exact same distance from Mitchell. The spare dialogue that passed between the two was a repeat of what passed between Burden and his assistant: “Are you ready to go?” “Yes, I’m ready.” Even Mitchell’s press release inviting us to the performance was almost a word-for-word replica of Burden’s 1971 press release, including the final line: “I hope to have some good photos.”

I can understand the viewpoint of people who criticize Mitchell for this. Yet I felt the performance held. Mitchell didn’t grow up making art. He grew up in a rough family in Reno, Nevada. He was beat up a lot. He was working casinos by age 15. He never had artistic aspirations till he moved with a friend to Seattle in 2000 and, on a whim, applied to Cornish College of the Arts. I find Mitchell nothing if not ingenuous when it comes to his practice, which is complicated, infuriating and never half-assed.

“I haven’t seen this many people need to process something since 9/11,” a friend commented yesterday about Paradisiacal Rites.

It’s 7:10 pm Sunday night at On the Boards and Mitchell is seated on a wicker chair, front and center stage. Behind him, an artificial field of wheat sways. Stuffed pheasants hang from the ceiling on motorized wires, spinning. Mitchell’s fingers limply clutch a glass of red wine. I’m sitting almost directly in front of him, and though his bloodshot eyes lock on mine sometimes, I’m pretty sure he can’t see me. His shirt sleeves are rolled up and two engorged leeches dangle from his right arm. Rivulets of blood run down his fingertips onto the floor. “Fuuuuuck!” he moans, after forcing down mouthful after mouthful of red wine. Saliva dangles from his lips. He spits. His eyes roll back. He gets up, turns around, pulls down his pants and pisses into an empty wine bottle, filling it almost half full.

It’s a repeat for me. I saw Rites on opening night and I wanted to return on Sunday to see if things had unwound very much. If the performers were more exhausted, sloppier. But both performances were surprisingly similar; despite the massive amounts of intoxication happening across the stage, performers carried out movements and monologues with relative precision. This is best demonstrated by Mitchell, who after all the leeching, walking, drinking and a bullet, is able to dance for the majority of the first act. It’s almost unbelievable.

(Above: shots from my seat on Thursday night)

After a while, other dancers are brought onstage. One by one, they approach Mitchell, kiss him all over the face affectionately, drink a mouthful of wine from a bottle and transfer it to Mitchell with a kiss. Mitchell leans back and spews the wine back in their faces, covering them in a fine, red spray that runs down their clothes, hair, breasts. The dancers cringe. Some cry. It’s a gross, sadistic baptism, painful to watch. In the second act, Darren Dewse, dressed in a wine-stained ruff like a clown from commedia, recites a monologue about Suddenly, Last Summer and then rips off decades’ worth of nominees for the Academy Awards—trivia he’s memorized by heart. Meanwhile, performers behind Dewse intone a nitrous-fueled chorus of chatter, repeating each of his lines at cartoon pitch.

Eventually mantras begin to take shape. “Divine is dead, divine is dead!” is one declaration, repeated over and over. Ok. So in the absence of the divine, how to achieve transports of delirium? How to approach paradise? Intoxication, it would seem, is the answer. I’d brought a flask full of gin and I’d drunk so much I got the spins for a minute. (If I don’t provide a very cohesive or thorough description of all three acts, it’s because I, along with much of the audience, was reaching fever pitches of intoxication along the way, in step with the performers.) There’s a modicum of relief at one point in the show when the stage is flooded by strobe lights, hip hop music and frenzied games of Double Dutch. There’s a gold-leafed asshole. There’s so much, it’s hard to keep track. Hard to digest.

In the third act, dancer Alan Sutherland claws his way out from a mountain of soil under which he’s been buried for around five hours. Many in the audience have no idea he was there in the first place. He’s sobbing and dirty. He laps up the water Mitchell offers him. Then the wine. He wails about frail ghosts, death, love. In the final throes, while Kate Ryan belts an operatic hymn amidst climactic chaos, three nooses are lowered from the rafters and Sutherland and dancers Calie Swedberg and Jessie Smith are hoisted up, ropes around their neck. But death won’t come, and they’re finally released.

“Every one is always repeating the whole of them. Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one even though each one always is repeating the whole of them they will not learn the completed history of them, they will not know the being really in them.” —Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

One notable thing about Rites is all the spinning. So much is spinning: the dancers, their arms outstretched, the pheasants on a wire, their wings splayed. It occurs to me that everything on the set is a timepiece, crudely marking out a dizzying rotation. Everything a whirling dervish or a clock. Time not linear, but cyclical. I think of Nietzsche’s eternal return.

But during the second act, a performer chides (as though reading my mind): “YOU STUPID LITTLE GIRL! There are no eternal returns.“ He says it as he singes another’s performer’s pubic hair with a lit cigarette. The pubic immolation is an action I remember from the very first Transports of Delirium. So many of the Rites are regurgitations of the old Saint Genet/Implied Violence imagery, though now more condensed, perfected, arguably more potent. Everything is a return, with the slightest variation. Shoot is a return, with the slightest variation.

A French-born soldier fighting for the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. A Christian. A Captain in the army. When Maximian began his persecution of Christians and discovered Sebastian was of the faith, the emperor sentenced him to death. Sebastian is a beauty. His body ripples with muscles. His torso is always depicted a bit elongated in paintings. Better to take the arrows. Curved at the hips, nipped at the waist like a woman’s. Washboard abs. Skin glows like a luminescent peach. Maximian shot this pretty peach full of arrows and left him for dead. But he didn’t die there. A widow found him and nursed him back to health. Eventually Maximian caught up with him again and had Sebastian clubbed to death. Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes because of his physical endurance. In Suddenly, Last Summer, Sebastian is a poet and an artist, a martyr, his flesh torn to shreds and devoured by a pack of ravenous urchins. In previous performances by Implied Violence or Saint Genet, Sebastian is a translucent block of cold lard, shot through “as full of arrows as an urchin.”

My upbringing could hardly have been more different from Mitchell’s. I’m a pastor’s kid. My super-attentive mother home schooled me and my sister. Instead of violence, there was smothering spirituality and passive aggressive behavior. My mother ended up killing herself in 2009, by which time I’d developed an intense hatred for Christianity and all the suffering I thought it contributed to the world.

That hatred eventually diffused, not in small part due to attending a lecture given by Alain De Botton, who had just published Religion for Atheists. At the lecture, de Botton described the inherent crudeness and immaturity of atheism as an ideology (it’s such a recent development, after all). He envisioned a future iteration of it that would retain some of the community-based rituals of religion, which all humans crave in some form or other.

That lecture got me out of my funk and warmed me up to the idea of ritual as valuable apart from any spiritual content or message. And maybe it’s just because I’m attuned to it now, but I see a surge amongst Seattle artists who are exploring or emphasizing ritualized performance. We see it ostentatiously in Saint Genet/Implied Violence, more quietly in New Mystics‘ interventions in urban spaces or in Anna Telcs’ fusion of fashion and ceremonial performance. A lot of these artists are interconnected, some are not. It feels like a real zeitgeist.

I’m not sure if it’s particular to Seattle or if it’s global, but I like to think of this movement as the aesthetic maturation of an entrenched, regional secularism. And I think the reenactment of Shoot embodies this. It’s religious gesture reduced to naked ritual. It’s also theater reduced to ritual and (art) history reduced to ritual. Sure, remaking Shoot is a hysterical gesture. It’s unnecessary spectacle. But ritual packaged as consumable spectacle is hardly new to art. We’re lying if we say we believe contemporary art and the exhibits erected around it transcends the insatiability of our “experience economy.” Who knows how better to tap into the psychology of compulsive experience than a Reno-born and bred artist whose upbringing straddled both razzle-dazzle glamour and its violent, impoverished, depressing underbelly?


Sunday night, I was bent over in my chair sobbing for most of the third act. Watching Sutherland climb out of his burial mound and recite a monologue about frail ghosts and desiring death-that-would-not-come was exhausting. Also, pure frisson. That frisson is what I want from art. Or from church or from a lover, for that matter. Saint Genet is kind of all those things at once.

My roommate disagreed. She came back from the Saturday night performance less drenched in salt water. I described how it resonated with me.

“The fact that you used the word resonate makes me want to kiss you on the mouth to make you shut up,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Saint Genet is too glamorous. It doesn’t attempt to answer any line of questioning.” That’s Saint Genet for you. People really like it or really don’t.

The thing about Saint Genet is, everyone’s talking about it. Maybe the processing will take years, and I, at least, am ok with that. Maybe Shoot and Paradisiacal Rites are just one link in a larger series of gestures that will unfold, over time, as an exhaustive series of cycles and signs laying the ground for new mythologies and mysteries. Or if not for something new, at least they exist as glamorous elaborations of the old, eternal mysteries. We can never get enough of that.


All photos, except for cell phone shots, courtesy of Saint Genet.

Top image: Guido Reni, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, 1616.