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From the Archive: Unpacking the Stage Set

While I was writing about Jack Smith’s sumptuous film, Normal Love (1963–65) as part of the Walker’s Art Expanded exhibition, the show’s curator, Eric Crosby, sent the above image to me as a thoughtful aside. This is a photo of a remake of a re-performance of a performance. To be more precise, this is a photograph of a reconstruction of Ron Vawter’s […]

A photograph of Ron Vawter's stage set for "Jack Smith's Touring Case"

A photograph of Ron Vawter’s stage set for Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1992) in the Walker’s American Tableaux exhibition (2001)

While I was writing about Jack Smith’s sumptuous film, Normal Love (1963–65) as part of the Walker’s Art Expanded exhibition, the show’s curator, Eric Crosby, sent the above image to me as a thoughtful aside. This is a photo of a remake of a re-performance of a performance. To be more precise, this is a photograph of a reconstruction of Ron Vawter’s stage set, designed for his re-performance of a Jack Smith slideshow. If that sounds complicated then maybe I’m getting somewhere.

How one talks about this photograph, how one should title it, and what to describe as its contents—these questions are similarly complex, and relate to the procedure of unpacking or quantifying the function of documentation. Such unpacking may extend to determining the value of performance documentation that is both photographic and video-based; the description of objects and props as artifacts in their own right, and how they are used as stand-ins for the performance that is no longer possible; as well as considering the other residues of performance (sketches, lighting cues, scripts, etc.) as possessing archival worth.

So, some facts: The photograph above depicts stage elements from the “Jack Smith” portion of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, Ron Vawter’s original one-man play, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1990. Vawter was a regular actor in the Wooster Group, and performed on stage, film and television, as well as authoring his own solo projects, of which Roy Cohn/Jack Smith was his last. His final play was a double portrait of the title characters, and he performed both of the consecutive monologues: a speech by the notoriously homophobic yet closeted gay attorney Roy Cohn and a performance by filmmaker and queer artist Jack Smith. Both were extremes living in a New York society in the era of AIDS. And, like Vawter, both were HIV-positive gay men.

The “Jack Smith” portion of the play was based on meticulously reconfigured parts of Smith’s 1981 performance What’s Underground About Marshmallows? To obtain the sluggish pace of Smith’s particular drawl, Vawter used an auto-prompt in the form of concealed headphones playing a cassette recording of the original performance. Vawter’s version was first presented at the Walker’s Jack Smith Revisited evening, November 3, 1990. Initially titled Death of a Penguin, Vawter’s performance was later completed with the “Roy Cohn” section in 1992, and he performed both monologues together later that year at the Performing Garage in New York.

The photo comprises some of the elements the Walker stage that was designed by Vawter, his partner Gregory Mehrten, Clay Shirky, and Marianne Weems, and originally included a chaise lounge, throw cushions, a toilet base, a chandelier, plenty of fabric and costumes, a penguin, stage props, flood lights, step stool, slides, videotapes and audiotapes—although it looks like a few of these items are not visible in this photograph. Originally owned by the Pomodori Foundation (which was founded by Vawter, Gregory Mehrten, and Rosemary Quinn), the stage set was donated to the Walker in 1996, and it was exhibited in Composing a Collection: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions in the same year, alongside Jill Godmilow’s video work that comprises documentation of Vawter’s performance at The Kitchen, New York, 1993.

Filed in the Walker Archives under what would generally be assigned a value of illustration (or perhaps even a guide for future re-installation), this photograph is remarkable for its multiple commemorations, which, listed in reverse chronological order include the exhibition for which it was assembled shortly after it was acquired, the Vawter performance, and Jack Smith’s original event.

This “nested” memorialization is useful to consider in relation to the paradoxes in the material legacy of early cinema pioneer and stage conjurer, Georges Méliès, whose films are in the Ruben/Bentson Collection. Méliès is undoubtedly a very different artist from the likes of Vawter and Smith, but his props, performance ephemera, designs and stage sets are similarly encased in and highly mediated by documentation of his working process.

Star Film Company studio, Montreuil-sous-Bois, Paris, France, c. 1902

Star Film Company studio, Montreuil-sous-Bois, Paris, France, c. 1902

While little contents remains of his glass-walled studio at Montreuil-sous-Bois that was destroyed in World War II, the resurrection of Méliès’s vision and work depends on surviving stage models and set designs, original costumes and personal correspondence, not to mention the re-stagings and reinterpretations of his work by other filmmakers and animators (both during and after his liftetime) who produced work that moves between homage and ripoff. Sifting through these satellite objects for evidence of intention, film scholars have noted that Méliès’s habit of both sandbagging and concealing his methodology leaves the task of attributing value to the artist’s remainders is a particularly hazardous task without conclusion.

In the case of the Vawter stage set photograph, however, the question is less about the intention of Smith’s original work and Vawter’s reconfiguration; it is about the intention of its residue.