The Wild, Wild West: An Interview with Marianne Vitale


Whether she is barking instructions and fantastical aphorisms at her viewers in the video Patron (2009) or elevating the charred remnants of a wooden bridge she has built and promptly set ablaze in the sculpture Bridge Burn (2012), Marianne Vitale’s work is simultaneously cathartic and provocative, dripping with acerbic humor.

Vitale is opening her Long Island City studio for the public to witness her surreal version of an American frontier saloon, complete with cowboys, burlesque dancers, snake charmers and tap-dancing astrologers in the Performa commission The Missing Book of Spurs (Nov. 20-23). “There’s a wonderful humor to her, as well as a sense of space, adventure and storytelling,” said RoseLee Goldberg, founder and curator of Performa. “You don’t just look at [her work] as sculpture, you’re looking at it in the context of a history of the American West.”

Vitale spoke with A.i.A. via e-mail about her take on the American West.

GAEBE For this piece, you have enlisted other performers to help create the characters and scenes found in your surreal frontier. What is it like working with other people to help adapt your ideas? Are you performing in the piece as well?

VITALE I have a cast of about 24. Poets, artists, musicians, freaks. I’ve been performing in the piece 24 hours a day for the past month.

GAEBE What might a viewer coming to see The Missing Book of Spurs see, smell or hear?

VITALE They’ll see snappy whores, smell baked beans and sea horses, watch a rattlesnake-bitten cowboy fall in love with a black cat. There is fighting, crying, hallucination and the brilliant musical compositions of Mike Stroud [half of the Brooklyn musical duo Ratatat], which at times make you feel like you’re floating amongst the collision of an underground aquarium, underwater amusement park and a western beef symphony.

GAEBE Performance often manifests the unexpected. How do you find a balance between controlling the outcome and letting a piece live on its own?

VITALE It’s like that chef show when they wheel in a pantry full of Twizzlers, shark meat and aloe and give [the contestants] four minutes to make a five-course meal.

GAEBE Performa13 is the fourth time you’ve participated in the performance biennial-what have you learned from your recurring involvement?

VITALE I still don’t understand what performance art is.