Thursday, May 17, 2007

Faking Authenticity

If you teach an actor to farm, and you give him two acres and tell him to work the land, is he acting or farming? Is it performance art or food production? For artist David Levine, this is a riddle for which all answers are correct.

Writing at Worldchanging, Sarah Rich reports on Levine’s project in "Bauerntheater and Biorama Projekt: Farming, Acting and Critical Art":

Levine trained an American actor in farm technique for one month in New York, as any director would rehearse a show, then flew the actor to Brandenburg for the debut. Bauerntheater will run continuously for one month, during which time the actor-turned-farmer will cultivate two acres of potatoes, "in character," for fourteen hours per day.
Levine characterizes it as an exploration of the interplay and conflict between tradition, performance, labor and art:
Bauerntheater is concerned with global labor markets, with the performance of cultural tradition, with the representation of labor, with representation as labor, and with the troubled relationship of Endurance and Land Art to questions of "authenticity."

Rich asked Levine why he chose to have an actor play a farmer, rather than having an actual farmer. He responded:

a) Both America and Germany locate their...what should we call it…"cultural authenticity" in the figure of the farmer. It's silly, and it's a cliché, but that's what we do. So then the question is, can it be faked? And what happens if you fake it by using an actor, the epitome of everything urban, rootless, inauthentic? And yet, wasn't the image of the farmer highly aestheticized in the first place?
b) As an American artist—i.e., one whose work earns very little — I'm interested in the idea of representation as hardship; or representation as labor (even though art is often construed as being the opposite of work). So, I wanted to create a situation where the labor of farming became indistinguishable from the labor of acting.
c) Eco-Tourism, at least out here, turns agricultural work into a tourist attraction. Out here, for instance, tourism makes a much larger contribution to the economy than agriculture, even though agriculture is what the tourists come to see performed. What does it mean when your work becomes a kind of performance?

I got to thinking about Levine’s comment:
"cultural authenticity" in the figure of the farmer. It's silly, and it's a cliché, but that's what we do.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic comes to mind. And I’m not alone in seeing the American Gothic couple as a farmer and his wife, when the painting was meant to portray an older small town man and his daughter.

On the NPR series Present at the Creation, Melissa Gray explains that Grant Wood had his younger sister, Nan, model as the woman, with local dentist Dr. B. H. McKeeby holding the famous pitchfork.

Here’s the best news of all. Whether it’s your younger sister, or your dentist, or an actor portraying a farmer, or a farmer portraying an actor…you can pose them in front of the home that inspired American Gothic.

From the Iowa Historical Society, we learn that the house still stands in Eldon, Iowa:
The home, built in the 1880s, has been restored by the State Historical Society of Iowa, which also owns and maintains the site for visitors. The Historical Society restored the property to its 1930 appearance so that it serves as a backdrop for visitors wanting to replicate the famous couple in the American Gothic painting.

Next time I’m within, oh, a hundred miles of Eldon, Iowa, I’ll be sure to visit!

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