Ivo Dimchev: Fest
Abrons Art Center
January 8-January 11
Social capital is the fuel of the art world. Attending art openings, dance performances, and biennials is seen as glamorous and sexy. Studio visits feel like exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the artist. Actually financing the lifestyle, though, requires a lot of soul-killing administration: constant emailing, negotiation, and usually a bit of flattery.
Most of us hate it. A lot of us try to avoid it. And then there’s Ivo Dimchev, who uses his distaste for administration as inspiration for his disturbing three-person performance, Fest, at the Abrons Arts Center. The piece tells the story of Ivo Dimchev’s negotiations with a festival director and staff in Copenhagen, all of which devolve into power plays driven by sexual desire. It is an absurd and abject comedy that sits somewhere between total chronophobia and complete brilliance.
Art jabs fly from the outset. Speaking with slowed-down speech, Dimchev introduces himself to the festival director, Hilda; instantly, they are discussing ways to get him to Denmark. “Why me?” asks Dimchev, noting that he’s performed all over Europe but never in Copenhagen. “You have a big range of audience,” Helda says. “So, you mean my work is very commercial?” The audience roars with laughter, (and it wouldn’t be for the first time—the play is hilarious). Anyone who was at all familiar with Dimchev’s work, which has included drawing his own blood into a vial and auctioned it off to the highest bidder, knows this isn’t the case. I knew nothing of his background, and still found it funny—though listening to two people chat at half the speed of regular folk isn’t the most populist approach to theatre.
That was the tamest joke uttered that evening. As soon as the two got to negotiating pay for the performance, it was pants off. “Can I see your vagina?” Dimchev asks, as if this had anything to do with setting the price. “Of course.” Hilda removes her panties and the next thing you know he’s eaten her out and has three fingers inside her. She draws the line at four fingers, which causes Dimchev to conclude that the price for performance should be 3,000 Euro, 1,000 for every finger.
That kind of negotiation seems based on the real world equivalent of having to kiss ass for for
arbitrary “fair” pay rates, though it’s also a distortion of the art-world model where artists get paid whatever rate the institution dictates. Here, Dimchev sets his own rate. When Dimchev later asks for Hilda’s two children to help determine the number of nights he will perform, she is suspicious and asks him what he wants to do with them. “I will ask them about the future,” he says, noting his fear of the future. The observation is left dangling, though, and we don’t learn more about it until the end of the performance.
If Dimchev holds most of the power in the first half of the play, he loses all of it by the second. Dimchev has arrived by plane, but many hours late, so he has to scramble to put his performance together. The entire cast shakes while orchestrating the logistics, a perfect physical representation of the stress involved in launching a show suffering from logistical issues.
The more dire the circumstance, the more abject Dimchev gets. When he needs help putting the show together, he must negotiate with Ryan, the technician. Ryan says he’s a gay submissive and he won’t work until he is humiliated so Dimchev must piss in his mouth. Of course, holding a performance hostage until you receive sexual favors isn’t quite how submission works, but Dimchev doesn’t seem to notice. He demands Hilda fire the technician, but the terms of negotiation are in constant flux. Soon, they have forgotten pissing and are on to dick sucking; Dimchev decides he wants to suck Ryan’s cock, a request the technician obliges with only one caveat, “I never wash my dick.” Ultimately this doesn’t prove a sufficient deterrent and the second oral sex scene begins.
The message here is simple: artists will do pretty much anything to put a show on once they’ve agreed to do it. And it’s not always in the best interests of the artist to do that. (This point comes up in more than one performance at the Abrons, and clearly it’s an issue for performers. Cynthia Hopkins’s Living Documentary includes a scene in which she arrives at a venue and can’t afford to eat because they claim they can’t afford to pay her. She doesn’t want to threaten not to do the performance, so she suffers until she finally gives the ultimatum.) After Ryan has been sucked off and agrees to help him launch the exhibition, Dimchev learns he is missing a wall essential to the performance with no way to get one. Acrimony ensues, and Dimchev does his performance anyway, without the wall.
Dimchev suffers the most from this fallout in the third segment of the performance, as he is sent to perform an unfinished piece, only to have it interrupted by a young critic who hates his work so much she rushes to the stage and stabs him to death. He lays sprawled out on floor, blood running down his face, but comes to life again upon the call of the curators, who want a Q&A. He is now an artist zombie.
Nothing good had come of Dimchev’s dick sucking and everyone on stage knew it. “Maybe it’s time for you to start thinking of yourself as nothing,” the critic told him during the Q&A, which oddly seemed about right given his position. “Performance should not be controlled by the artist but the performance itself.”
In reality, the unpredictability of artistic life determines production, a point that’s illustrated through the overall narrative arch. Dimchev’s fall, from total control to getting stabbed in the eye, resembles many artist’s careers, which are precarious at best. No set future exists.
It’s telling, then, that when an audience plant asks the last question of the evening, we return to the subject of chronophobia: “Earlier this evening you said you were afraid of the future…Now that you are dead are you still afraid?”
Dimchev’s answer, and closing to the performance, follows that of an artist forced to live a life of instability. “Every fear is based on the future,” he tells us gravely. “Every future is based on fear.”