Wearing a vintage, sparkly bathing costume while jogging on a treadmill and holding a chain saw above her head, Kristien De Proost looks like a pageant queen running a marathon smashing the patriarchy. And she’s smiling. Women can do it all. Her performance piece On Track involves her relentlessly analyzing herself while barely stepping off the treadmill for an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s far too easy to watch De Proost dissect herself in ways that women and performers are often scrutinized. The performance and the piece are mesmerizing but our casual acceptance of this behavior is the real message.
After a lifetime of society’s unrealistic expectations of beauty and the entrenched misogyny of everyday life, women can get very good at tearing themselves apart. De Proost makes herself a specimen in a collection and she conducts her own vivisection. But her analysis goes beyond the corporeal. She examines every aspect of her existence. “I don’t like being the center of attention. It’s annoying.” “I hate limits. I hate happy endings.” She explores her hopes, wants, ambitions, and fantasies. She picks away at her own shame and refuses to engage in false modesty by admitting to her own intelligence and attractiveness.
One could feel self-conscious about adding to this deconstruction as a critic of performance but that seems to be her point as well. She is not just a woman. She’s also a female performer who is subject to this kind of attention all of the time. So for our amusement she never stops tap dancing as fast as she can. Well, she does not literally tap dance, but she does nearly everything else. She lip-syncs, dances, models, and changes costume all while never leaving the treadmill.
De Proost plays with transformation and identity throughout and adopts guises of powerful male archetypes: a business suit, a cardinal’s mitre, a Native American chief’s head-dress (the use of Native American objects was a bit of a head-scratcher for this American). De Proost seems to be having fun with these images of masculinity but it’s De Proost’s endurance that has the greatest impact on the piece.
How far does she have to run for us? And we sit and watch and wait and judge (On Track makes for an interesting companion to Sleepwalk Collective’s Actress also playing at Summerhall this week which makes a display out of a female performer with a darker lens). Are we waiting for her to succeed or fail? What do we want from her? How easily do we fall into rhythm with her until she begins to turn this back on us.
The work becomes most effective and most unsettling when she’s no longer the object in the exhibition but reclaims control (though I did wish the shift happened a bit sooner). It’s a delicate sleight of hand and her ability to upend expectations as we’ve become inured to her process makes for a welcome surprise.