Karen Finley at REDCAT
Taking on the (Art) World
Karen Finley’s The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery unfolds similarly to a dream that makes complete logical sense when experiencing it, but is difficult to piece together the linear structure upon waking. The one-woman show lasts for an hour and a half (no intermission) and I was impressed by the endurance and vitality of the sometimes-panting, sometimes-yelling, always passionate Finley.
The performance is divided into four parts where the artist embodies four different identities, each preceded by a video except for the last section.
The first video explicitly made fun of the art world and the lack of empirical evidence of art history. The video was definitely subtle ‘art humor’ that the audience was in hysterics over. The following act, part one, was the unicorn—a visual metaphor for complacent white supremacy wrapped up in the individualism, uniqueness and self-centeredness of the art world. While there are props and costumes on stage, most of this act, and the entirety of the performance centered around poetic spoken word.
The next act was the embodiment of Hilary Clinton, and was what I found to be the strongest part of the performance. Finley sharply observed the BDSM dynamics of the public wanting to ‘punish’ Clinton and have her admit that she was a very bad girl. Finley doesn’t stop there, as she muses over power dynamics, Bill and Hillary’s romantic relationship, and Hillary’s misguided resilience and ‘gratitude’, something that she seems to regard as Hillary’s downfall. During this section of the performance, the audience is enveloped in blue fabric that symbolizes Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress that had Bill Clinton’s semen on. The climax of the section is a literal one, with Finley draped in blue dresses covered in fake semen.
In the next part, Finley embodies Donald Trump. Since the president is so easily mocked, I was curious as to how the artist could come up with a new way to analyze him. Finley concluded that Trump is the stereotypical dumb blonde that he seems so keen to objectify, and accompanies this fact with a hilarious slideshow of Trump’s face photoshopped onto the bodies and faces Ivanka, Melania, Marilyn Monroe and other famous women.
Finally Finley appears in the last section as herself, and reads a poem on war, police brutality and other political grievances. This section was the most raw and poetic of the performance. The poem begins in an absurdist story of a woman (possibly Clinton) who gets off on war, and enjoys having sex with veteran amputees’ ‘stumps’ and ends on musings on death and dying. Finley ended the performance with an American Flag around her shoulders while taking a knee—an obvious nod to the NFL controversy. By confronting the sometimes-ridiculousness of the art world, combined with the explicitly political content of the performance, Finley is using her platform as a performance artist to possibly make change within the art world.