Jess Dobkin, a performance artist with a unique sense of humor


TORONTO – How do you describe a performance by Jess Dobkin? The Toronto artist vomited tiny clowns out of her vagina, turned her breasts into puppets, and made bubbles with her ass. Her unique approach to creation is much like Marina Abramović on The puppet show; she provides an entry point for difficult topics like mental illness and sexual violence by enveloping them in the mellow comforts of comedy.

“Humor has been such an important strategy in my work,” Dobkin told me during a break from setting up his exhibit at the York University Art Gallery. “It brings an element of connection and a way we can all relate to each other. When I deal with a more sensitive subject, humor can make it more accessible. It creates an invitation to something unusual or transgressive by putting people at ease.

Her mix of clown, puppet, and stand-up comedy may be part of the reason why, although she considers herself a performance artist, her work appears much more often in theaters and bars than in galleries or bars. museums.

Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at York University Art Gallery

“Part of identifying as a performance artist was wanting to think outside conventional institutional structures,” Dobkin said. “When I was invited to play, it was often in queer spaces, which led me to the theater. I have used theatrical conventions for a long time to talk about performance art. So now it’s interesting to think of performance art in a gallery space.

Originally from Scarsdale, New York, Dobkin received a BA in Women’s Studies from Oberlin College and an MA in Fine Arts from Rutgers University before moving to Toronto in 2002. She gained public attention early on. local and critics with his original and sometimes self-deprecating works. , which was often centered on the lesbian identity. In 2006, she experienced international infamy with “The Lactation Station,” a performance first presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where she offered samples of breast milk to the public. (She had given birth to her child the previous year.) Since then, she has continued to gain recognition in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, with a mix of plays, cabaret performances and community art projects.

Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at York University Art Gallery

At 51, Dobkin is perfectly positioned for a career retrospective given her place in the field and the volume of work she has produced over the past 25 years. As she worked primarily in a fleeting medium, the question was open as to how to approach her legacy in the form of an exhibition.

“The art of performance is a live encounter. So what does it mean to do a retrospective of work that is not present? Dobkin said. “In performance, time is one of the materials we work with. When remains of past works enter the gallery, what do they say now? It’s like bending time so that we can be anytime at the same time.

Simply putting together the documentation of past parts would have been the obvious choice. Instead, Dobkin used his past works as food for thought to create something entirely new. The pink portable toilets (alternatively called “Porta-Janes” and “Latrine Vitrines”) serve as original showcases for photos, props and puppets of past works, interspersed with new materials. An iPad app gives viewers an augmented reality experience as they sift through the boxes that make up their personal archives. Disco and circus music is played over tiny speakers throughout the space. A vulva disco ball illuminates the room.

Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at York University Art Gallery

“Her flair for performativity really made it a gallery staging process,” said curator Emelie Chhangur. “It is not necessarily an exhibition about the criticism of the gallery or the exhibition-making processes. But it makes us deeply aware of what they are. Each space ends up performing a different methodology of its work.

Nicknamed the Wetrospective, the show pays homage to the many elements of Dobkin’s practice. “Wet” refers to both her use of bodily fluids (as in “The Lactation Station”) and the direct presence of queer sex in her practice. With “Being Green” (2009), she became a human puppet, lip-syncing with the well-known Kermit the Frog lament while being fisted by a Jim Henson lookalike. References to past works haunt the show like friendly ghosts: a lactic self-portrait in one of the portable toilets while an exhausted Kermit passes out on top of another.

The title also captures a second, less obvious reference: the “us” denotes a career based on collaboration and community building. In 2012, Dobkin co-created “The Artists’ Soup Kitchen” with Catherine Clarke and Stephanie Springgay, which offered free lunches for creative types, providing a site to refuel both physically and creatively. In 2015, she launched “The Artist Run Newsstand,” a year-long project with several dozen creators occupying an empty retail space in the Toronto subway, offering original works and multiples for sale, as well as snacks and occasional performances. (In the exhibit, the soup kitchen’s dishes are rearranged like a William Sonoma retail display, and the newsstand leftovers become a comedic diorama.)

Collaboration is also at the heart of the exhibition design. Although presented as a solo exhibition, the program features contributions from many other artists. This includes a sound bath by Andrew Zealley and the collaborative project “How many performance artists does it take to change a light bulb (for Martha Wilson)” (2015), which brings together documentation (video, photographs, drawings, recordings audio and other formats) of a play by Dobkin, created by 100 other artists, including Zeesy Powers, Milada Kovacova and Adrienne Crossman.

Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at York University Art Gallery

“Organizing the show this way was not a conscious decision as much as a product of the work,” said Dobkin. “If this were to be a retrospective of my practice, it should include all the people I have worked and learned with and who have supported me.

In moving from performance to exhibition, Dobkin had to contend with the fact that she wouldn’t be around all the time. To compensate, she introduced a group of creatures she dubbed the Gremlins. Based on a self-portrait created for her first performance “High Tide” (1991), the characters (more anarchist prostitutes than folk scum) appear everywhere, interfering with the works, spilling things and indulging in a general fuck. .

“Bringing back the poster image has become a kind of anchor while disrupting the conventions of a retrospective,” Dobkin said. “The character becomes a sort of rogue guide and performer, poking fun at the formality attached to an artist’s first big show while having fun, turning things upside down and causing chaos.”

Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at York University Art Gallery
Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at York University Art Gallery
Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective at York University Art Gallery

Wetrospective by Jess Dobkin continues at the Art Gallery of York University (8 Accolade East Building, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto) until September 26. The exhibition is curated by Emelie Chhangur.

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