Taylor Mac

New York

at New York Live Arts

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Here is an endurance-art accomplishment for you: wearing falsies for 24 hours straight. We’re not talking boobs—so 20th-century drag—but eyelashes. 

The person training for this feat is the outré performance star Taylor Mac. On Jan. 25, Mac unblinkingly (sorry) took on a six-hour installment of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (2012-), a revue of tunes spanning 1776 to 2016 that is meant to offer a darkly humorous queer corrective to various accepted American narratives, and that will be completed and performed as a marathon next year. Each installment covers six decades. For January’s, which dealt with the 1900s through the 1950s, Mac was backed by a fine musical ensemble and costumed with deconstructed DIY flair by Machine Dazzle, a member of the performance group the Dazzle Dancers. Bring on the fabulousness—and the sore audience behinds.  

“I was told not to call it a concert because that would stop the performance-art people from donating,” announced Mac, whose gender pronoun is “judy” (Garland, one imagines). And I spent a good deal of the ensuing hours trying to decide whether the truth in advertising was entirely in the disclaimer. 

Judy spent a fair amount of time in praise of discomfort and ambiguity. Yet this campy cabaret spectacle wasn’t pushing envelopes so much as building a community, one inculcated with a sense of queer agency. Mac’s politics remained unambiguous throughout, and the (nonphysical) discomfort largely involved cringe- and cheer-inducing audience participation of a predictable sort: a straight man was made to play the nervous object of Mac’s affections, for example, and two charming blond boys were outfitted with sparkling Nazi armbands and ordered to cuddle up to Mac for a rendition of  “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top. And in what seemed a rather cheap shot, three mild-looking, trying-to-be-game members of “the patriarchy” were lined up to be gently shamed. 

As these examples underline, the evening often felt like an event for and about men—they’re both the targets and the target audience—and one that tended to sift people into categories. (Bull dykes, for example, were lauded by Mac because “there’s nothing more revolutionary than a masculine female,” while later in the show there was a fairly traditional burlesque strip-show number.) This is fair enough, but not as interesting as the in-betweenness Mac lauds. As the show wore on, I found myself wishing for more strangeness and surprise in both the content and the structure. Two very different performance artists who excel at such shape-shifting came to mind: the South African Steven Cohen, whose site-specific historical interventions aren’t so safely viewer- or artist-friendly, and Iceland’s Ragnar Kjartansson, who uses durational repetition of music to transform the ways in which we relate to time.    

Of course, Mac is judy’s own artist—the ramifications of that pronoun are divine, no?—and the performance had its funny and arresting moments. Mac’s reading from the final pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses to conclude the 1920s was my favorite. It offered both a bracing critique of that so-called swinging decade and a beautifully oblique tribute to less neatly definable possibilities for human experience. Mac read slowly and steadily, and the room went electric—a still, charged center that acted as a true alternative to the mainstream judy seeks to shift.