When Bruce Nauman debuted his now infamous Clown Torture in 1987, a postmodern notion of the once generally beloved circus performer had already begun to set in, somewhere between camp and creepy. His repetitive, four-channel sequence was meant as something of an artistic self-reflection, but was also intended to elicit discomfort in the viewer – which it did, and still does.
New York artist Ondine Viñao wasn’t even born when it was produced. But for her latest video work Holy Fools, she used it as a reference point – changing the characters from male to female, to reflect an entirely new set of concerns. Indeed, each actress involved revealed a childhood trauma that would specifically inform one part of the finished whole.
“I was drawn to Clown Torture because it seemed like an analogy to the art-making process,” Viñao explains. “Arduous and masochistic. The idea of self-inflicted torture resonated with me most.”
Holy Fools opened this week at the RUBBER FACTORY gallery on New York’s Lower East Side – and will run through February 3. In the midst of preparations, we slowed the assiduous artist down long enough for a chat about what it all means.
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Can you describe yourself as an artist?
My practice is focused on the idea of control – both wanting to impose it, and losing it. Trauma is a recurring theme, which in its purest form is an event that infringes upon someone’s sense of control. In terms of the actual production of my work, I’m very detail-oriented and like to be involved in every aspect of the project. I work quite slowly in comparison to a lot of other artists; in certain aspects, I mimic the practice of a traditional filmmaker more than a fine artist. I’m not constantly producing new pieces – I take my time, tend to focus on research-heavy projects, and make what some would perhaps call “ambitious” work considering the point I’m at in my career. I employ a lot of “uncanny” elements, using tools such as animation, SFX makeup or some form of post-production manipulation. I’m interested in that not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but also because of how it relates to our capacity to understand or deal with traumatic events. Pain can distort our perception of reality just as the tools I use in my projects can move us out of a “real” world and into a more phantasmagoric one.
What drew you to Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture?
Initially, it was a joke. My friend Will Farrel – who curated my show in Dallas two summers ago – and I would text each other Youtube clips of Clown Torture. We would also share tweets from a Twitter account (@Clown_Torture) that only posted lines from a never-ending riddle one of the clowns recites in Nauman’s piece. At some point, Will suggested in jest that I should make my own version. I jumped on the idea pretty quickly. The two of us – along with another colleague, Song-I Saba – travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago to visit the archives. There, I was able to watch all of the DVDs, study Nauman’s negatives, and read all the available paperwork.
I was drawn to Clown Torture because it seemed like an analogy to the art-making process – arduous and masochistic. The idea of self-inflicted torture resonated with me most. I thought the basis of his project would be a good starting point to explore issues relevant to my own practice. I never wanted to regurgitate what Nauman already said in Clown Torture – I wanted to use his formula and make it into something new.
His original work seemed to be a self-reflection or self-parody. But with Holy Fools, you seem to be directing the commentary outwards?
I’d argue that self-reflection is a large part of my project as well.
My hope is that Holy Fools serves two purposes; first, that my performers were able to experience some sort of cathartic release. Their scenes were all abstracted versions of traumatic childhood stories they shared with me, so by forcing them to repeat and relive these memories for the camera, I was not only “torturing” them but also providing them with a kind of exposure therapy.
The second purpose would be for the viewer to experience, as a silent participant, discomfort or “schadenfreude” watching someone go through a painful episode over and over. I wanted Holy Fools to be a communal experience of “rubbernecking.” My aim was to facilitate a perverse voyeuristic phenomena most of us experience when we know that something bad is happening but are unable to look away, feeling simultaneously curious and guilty about wanting to watch. We have an innate morbid curiosity and are paradoxically drawn towards terrible things; I was interested in making the viewer aware of this tendency in themselves.
Why was it important for your clowns to be female?
Clown Torture is a seminal work of art made by a man, starring a man. As a female artist responding to this piece, I had to consider the ways in which I would contextualize Clown Torture through my own narrative. That being said, anytime a female artist makes work, it’s automatically read through a specific lens. Holy Fools was not designed to be explicitly “gendered,” nor is it work about gender identity. But as I’ve only ever experienced life as a woman, my work is going to inevitably reflect that.
I wanted to use performers I had close working and non-working relationships with, since it was essential they would not only do a good job as actors, but feel comfortable enough with me to share a painful memory. As I predominately have female friends – the majority of whom are very talented in front of the camera – and I myself am female, it wound up being that all four performers were women. Through our collective journaling, a lot of issues specific to female juvenescence came up, which led the project even more-so in that direction.
Clowns inspire laughter, yet also elicit fear. What are your clowns attempting to provoke?
Ideally both. Along with discomfort. There are two “types” of clowns in my project; the Auguste clown (played by Eileen Kelly and Rachel Fox), and the Pierrot clown (played by Jessie-Ann Kohlman and myself). The Auguste clown is a bit more light-hearted and the Pierrot more melancholic. I wanted my clowns to display a range of personalities while addressing similar content. If I had made all the clowns too morose, or too foolish, the piece would lack a certain element of complexity, a certain richness. We all process suffering or “torture” differently, and I wanted the project to reflect that.
Your Papageno looks…introspective?
All 9 channels in Holy Fools are highly introspective. The project materialized through retrospection by all four performers, “diary entries” of sorts. These entries were used as my jumping off point for scene building.
“Joel Osteen” comes off as fittingly sinister. What inspired his…”inclusion”?
A few reasons. Our first shoot day was at an incredible church estate in Dyker Heights – from the start I wanted to utilize the sanctuary, so having some sort of preacher-like character seemed fitting. Jessie (the performer) is also a professionally trained actor, so I knew she’d be able to handle adding a further layer to her character. But most importantly, the monologue in the “Joel Osteen (Jessie Pierrot)” scenes is more explicitly personal and despondent than the others, so having an extra layer gave Jessie another shield of protection. This additional character work allowed her to explore our writing in a way she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. I really loved the idea of preaching, of sermonizing one’s childhood, and Joel Osteen – this quintessential pastor, televangelist of our times – seemed like a great character to do this through. Jessie did a fantastic job studying him, memorizing the “formula” he uses when delivering sermons and applying it to the monologue.
Should we look for contemporary metaphors in Holy Fools?
Holy Fools abstracts and reduces real-life stories into actions that can be repeated for the camera. Some of them appear seemingly unrelated, and other’s reflect the stories they’re based on more literally. The idea of the holy fool came from the yurodivy in Eastern Orthodox asceticism; these “Fools for Christ” would employ shocking and unconventional behavior to challenge accepted norms. I was interested in the idea of feigning madness in order to reveal the absurdity of the world – particularly right now. By turning my actors into clowns, they could address difficult materials in a way that was easier for both themselves and viewers to digest. In that way, the concept of the clown, or a costume more generally, acts as a metaphor for the distortion of self-perception experienced in the aftermath of trauma, particularly from childhood. There is also the unavoidable metaphor of how Holy Fools reflects on the role of a “modern” woman.
What else are you currently working on?
I’ve been mainly focused on writing the next project I want to make, another multi-channel video work. My new project is primarily concerned with the issues that have arisen post-Industrial Revolution, explored through different characters from literature/mythology/history. After Holy Fools closes at the Rubber Factory, I’m going to devote all my time to finalizing pre-production.