Although she was not nude and slathered in honey, as she has appeared in past performances, Karen Finley’s reading of her book ‘George and Martha’ at Labyrinth Books last night was still controversial.
The title of the piece itself is contentious; far from presenting the first presidential couple, as its historical implications of the name would suggest, Finley’s book explores a confrontation between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart.
“What I wanted was to explore various different levels of the comfort-crisis aspect of the nation,” Finley said in a phone interview with scene. “It’s like Greek tragedy; [Bush and Stewart] are feminine and masculine versions of us. There’s humor in it, but I think their transgressions are most important — are their attempts to organize their pathologies: for George, the psychotic, and for Martha, the neurotic.”
An Obie and Guggenheim award-winning performance artist, Finley was last seen in New Haven in January 2000, when her one-woman show ‘Shut Up and Love Me’ opened Yale Rep’s Special Events Series. Her newest work, ‘George and Martha,’ ended its run as a performance piece, with Finley as Martha, in October 2004; her appearance at Labyrinth was in honor of the release of the book, which includes drawings by the author, is now in release.
‘George and Martha’ explores many political issues facing the nation at war, although Finley certainly puts a new spin of them. “George is bringing the country to war,” Finley said. In addition, the death of Bush’s sister Robin from leukemia has made him “overburdened emotionally. That’s fact.”
Yet ‘George and Martha’ goes beyond facts in Finley’s psychoanalysis of Bush and his motives. “I’m suggesting that [Bush] is Saddam Hussein, the evil-doer,” Finley said.
She went on to describe her theory that Hussein’s attacks on George H.W. Bush and the President’s own frustration with his father caused him to identify with Hussein.
“The simplicity of his projections is like Psychology 101. It’s like he’s killing himself. Why is he so intent on Saddam Hussein? It’s this lie, disguising his own urges of patricide. It’s Shakespearean in that way.”
If these ideas seem divisive, it isn’t a surprise from Finley. In 1990, she was one among four performance artists whose grants from National Endowment for the Arts were revoked due to the artists’ provocative subject matter; Senator Jesse Helms also criticized the “indecency” of Finley’s work.
This legal battle, Finley said, complimented her book’s themes. “With Jesse Helms, it was like he was actually projecting his own desire and simultaneous rage toward the black female body — I was covered in honey. [In ‘George and Martha’], I’m looking at transferred rage and seeing what’s behind it.”
Finley’s past works also contributed to ideas in ‘George and Martha.’ “I had just done a work called ‘Make Love,’ about 9/11 and post-9/11 through the eyes of Liza Minnelli,” she said. “Leaving the person — the persona — of Karen Finley and seeing things in new ways informed the work.”
Yet ‘George and Martha’ is also influenced by more mainstream pieces as well; Finley writes in a style reminiscent of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.’
“It’s considered to be American’s first modern drama; we all know that play,” Finley said. “In appropriating it, I’m questioning modernism, the modern theater. It’s a starting point for all of us.” She also commented on the political appropriateness of both works. “It came out right in 1962, with Kennedy. There were so many promises.”
Finley has plenty of ideas for her future works, all relating to major American political players and events. “I think my work is needed in America,” she said, continuing to state that she has no plans to work outside the country.
What’s next for Finley? “I’m working on something about Terri Schiavo, the dreams of Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice — three things,” she said. “I have drawings I’m doing, but eventually there will be performance and installation aspects. Maybe something at Yale, even.”