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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 283-284
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Emerging performance artist Jeff Huckleberry staged an event of raw power and physicality at the Aidekman Arts Center Gallery in Boston. A piece about the labor behind the making of art, it troubled the already nervous nexus where performance art, the theatre, and the art gallery intersect. Huckleberry is part of Boston's small but dedicated alternative performance community. A contributor to the well-known Mobius Artists Group, he also performs with two alternative "performance/rock bands," Magic Chopping Hummingbird and Human Shield.
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| Figure 1 |
Jeff Huckleberry in performance. Photo: Marcia Ferguson.
The audience for the event settled into folding chairs in a white-walled gallery space that has probably seen more wine and cheese receptions than performance art. These surroundings, coded with the conventions of high culture, were basically an uncomfortable fit for the six-foot four-inch performance artist, whose work has little or nothing to do with such conventions. A large, twelve-by-fourteen-foot piece of plywood lying on top of the floor demarcated the playing area. Leaning against the back wall were two saw horses, several clearly marked fifty-pound bags of sand, and another large piece of plywood. Fully exposed sound equipment produced a low electrical humming punctuated by various pops in frequency. The artist got ready for the performance in full view of (indeed, even at times within) the audience.
There was no change in lighting or sound to indicate the start of the performance. In a later conversation, Huckleberry stated that audiences start his performances, and it is true that at a certain point, seemingly arbitrarily, conversations stilled and attention focused on Huckleberry. He constructed a table out of the sawhorses and plywood and attached a microphone to the underside of the table.
The performer began walking around the table and then stepped easily out of his clothes. Once naked, he broke into a run. Bald-headed and with a solid physique, Huckleberry was at ease with his nudity, which was more about the elemental power of the body to expend energy than about its capacity for titillation. The microphone picked up reverberations that grew in intensity and volume as Huckleberry's bare feet slapped the plywood floor and picked up speed. The audience became more alert to his increasingly exhausted physical state, not only because of their access to the contours and movements of his body, but because his quickening respiration became an audible dramatic code. At the peak of audience anticipation, Huckleberry stopped and climbed on the table. He lay quite still, catching his breath, his stomach rising and falling visibly. The audience breathed with him. He traced himself on the plywood tabletop in red pencil. Then he stood and dressed, making eye contact with audience members.
The rhythm and tone of the piece shifted as Huckleberry changed from a classical (nude) state to a body imprinted with specific cultural expectations. He wore jeans, workboots, and a sleeveless cut-off shirt. At an overflowing toolbox stage right, Huckleberry strapped on three large leather utility belts and filled them with an endless supply of workmen's paraphernalia: sanders, hammers, [End Page 283] wrenches, scissors, pliers, and more. As he added them, the artist muttered: "this'll come in handy," and "can't be caught without one of these." The ludicrousness of this relentless girding-on suddenly struck the audience as hilarious, and they laughed loudly.
Back at the table, he turned on a table saw, producing a buzzing that reverberated through the microphone, and then cut out the figure made in red pencil. The greatly interested audience craned their necks to see how the figure was developing as he cut out its head, legs, arms, hands, and feet. The sawdust and noise were both disturbing and compelling.
Once completed, the effigy became distinctively performative, lying amid the debris generated by its creation. The artist then filled a fur-covered sack with five fifty-pound bags of sand. At one point the sack ripped, and Huckleberry dragged...