Last Friday, Grace Exhibition Space was overtaken with the infamous, dynamic and always entertaining Non Grata performance group. The Estonian troupe presented a powerful tour de force, not only with their own visually and sensory-filled anarchic, post-apocalyptic world, but through the curation of several other equally impressive acts, from the mystical and stoic Physical Poets, to the Yves Klein inspired body painting of Nestor Topchy, and the epic and often difficult-to-stomach performance of renowned artist Jim Pirtle. In step with a typical night at Grace, the evening was marathon in scope, pushing both its artists and the audience to test their physical and mental limits, beckoning us all further down the rabbit hole as the night went on. While the night experienced highs and lows, lulls and explosive moments, the constant blaring of Non Grata frontman Al Padrok into a megaphone kept us moving forward seamlessly through each new experience.
Just moments after the night started, I rushed into the hushed space into the heart of the performance by the Physical Poets, a group of three artists that is centered around dancer-choreographer-director Mushimaru Fujieda from Japan. As if moving through a highly viscous liquid, the three dancers battled through each step taken, every move made, on a journey through time and the activated space. The hush of the audience was palpable as the dancers performed their halted and effort-filled movements, passing one another without seeing each other. The rarified atmosphere began to dwindle, however, as the performance continued and the audience grew impatient for the bar to reopen, breaking the spell that had been cast.
After the subdued and trance-inducing stylings of the Physical Poets followed a slightly more upbeat performance by Nestor Topchy. Donned in a tux and urging the audience members to give him plenty of room, Topchy surprises us all as he strapped on a pair of goggles, wrapped himself in bubble wrap, and dove head first into a trashcan. Struggling to delve deeper into this seemingly bottomless pit, the can finally toppled over, spilling ultramarine blue paint all over. The performance that followed was a surprisingly graceful pas-de-deux: man and trashcan (complete with blue paint). Drawing to mind Yves Klein’s anthropometries from the 1960s, Topchy’s performance was an unexpectedly updated version of the French master’s, as Topchy dove into his own contrived void – IKB paint and all!
The night hit an unexpected lull with the performance of Sam Penaso. After the energy and intensity of the first two performances, Penaso’s understated display set to an Enya soundtrack and overdramatized Red Cross videos of the typhoon-devastated Philippines was slightly out of step with the rest of the night. This is what I thought – that is until Penaso took his faceless white plaster mask and began violently erasing the features with a high-powered sandblaster. The dichotomic shift from peaceful, serene, and slighlty hokey depiction of a distressed and devastated nation shifted into the violence and destruction that was more on par with what victims of the disaster faced. As the entire space filled with thick billows of plaster smoke, a panic overtook the audience as they tried to escape the discomfort, causing us to feel a sense of chaotic displacement in drastic opposition to the saccharine-laced images of hungry children and collapsed buildings.
The night was far from over when Jim Pirtle took the stage. While Pirtle addresses the way in which we are effected by our early memories and how that follows into adulthood, Pirtle is best known for his vomit-inducing performance in which he consumes massive quantities of mayonnaise, spinach and, in Friday’s case, an entire bottle of Sriracha. In the vein of performance artists such as Chris Burden and Vito Acconci who push themselves and their audience to their physical limit, Pirtle’s performance was nothing short of revolting, as watching anyone eat an entire jar of economy size mayonnaise would be.
By the time Non Grata took the stage, a huge sense of anticipation filled the air. While many nights at Grace follow a similar trajectory or common thread throughout the night, the performances of that night had swung us to one psycho-physical extreme to another. As Al beckoned us over to the center of the space one last time with the megaphone, he became the ringmaster for what would prove to be a fantastical and deranged anarchic circus. Following no preconceived rhyme or reason, each member performed apart, interacting with each other, yet staying removed in their own bizarre alternate reality. Two masked women in stilettos biting an end of a tenderloin as Al, using an industrial blowtorch, attempted to dissect the raw meat in two. Another woman stood on top of a ladder above another underneath an umbrella, sheltered from the first woman as she repeatedly tried to light a piece of lard on fire with a lighter and a can of aerosol spray. A masked man frantically moved around the space attempting to sell cheap toys and gadgets to onlookers, and yet another bikini-clad woman strutted around the space with a oversized boombox on her shoulder.
As I walked around the space, I began to see through the extravagant actions to the underlying meaning. The overstimulating, violent, and chaotic atmosphere was exactly the effect Non Grata was going for in their performance. The very purpose of their display is in this lack of convention and complete disregard for social codes. While many visual artists demonstrate criticism of social order, capitalism, and blatant consumerism, Non Grata doesn’t just show us; they do it, bringing us along for the ride.
We all walked out of Grace that night in a daze, smelling of camphor and cigarette smoke. Still trying to process it all as I walked down Broadway to my apartment, I decided to stop analyzing and simply let the feelings of the night wash over me, basking in the sensory overload that is Non Grata.