The Buffalo News

Date: Friday, May 10, 2002

Section: GUSTO
Edition: FINAL
Page: G16

By: BY BRUCE ADAMS – News Contributing Reviewer

Correction: Patrick Robideau collaborated with Kurt Von Voetsch in the installation “Happy’s Nightmare.” His name was incorrect in some editions of Gusto. [5-11-02]
Illustration: Kurt Von Voetsch adds fat to the suit he will wear later in the performance.


It’s not enough to call Kurt Von Voetsch’s three-hour performance at the opening of “Happy’s Nightmare” in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery an act of endurance. An intense act of public repentance might better describe it.

For most of this autobiographical performance, Von Voetsch laboriously performed a single repetitive task as the audience peered through two large windows, one on each floor, into an elaborate architectural structure imitating a Victorian parlor and cavelike basement. The structure, designed in collaboration with sculptor Patrick Robideau, completely filled the three-story-high Lightwell Gallery.

The bearded, long-haired Von Voetsch — looking every bit the primal hunter-gatherer in loincloth and leather sack — repeatedly climbed upward from this lower room, through concealed passages, entering the parlor at the second floor level through a hole in the floor.

Once in this dim, brown-hued room, he poked through breaks in the wallpaper and methodically removed congealed fat hidden within the walls, packing it into his satchel and exiting again to the cave below.

There, Von Voetsch transferred the orange greasy matter (reportedly movie popcorn oil) into numerous pod-shaped fiberglass pouches attached to a macabre costume hanging center stage from an iron armature. The presence of this strap-on canvas suit, with its organic pods and grommet-adorned hood, charged the scene with sadomasochistic undertones.

The ambiguity of Von Voetsch’s actions was enhanced by a video projection at the entrance to the installation of a man reading at a desk to the accompaniment of ambient electronic sound. Later, from vantage points in a tight pathway along the sides of the lower level of the installation, the man himself is discovered, half-visible in a space just below the parlor floor.

The event underscored the distinction between performance art and conventional theater by the demand that the audience move between the two levels of the darkened gallery to see the action. The constant movement prompted a relaxed social atmosphere in which the audience mingled, freely exchanging observations.

With the artist isolated behind glass, the audience seemed to sometimes respond as if it were viewing an insentient sculpture. Someone openly admired Von Voetsch’s biceps, another his codpiece. One man spontaneously sang the theme song from “The Flintstones,” while his female companion elbowed his side. When word spread that a picture of an overweight youth above the fireplace was the artist himself, the fat suit began to take on allusions of self-flagellation.

Despite the artists’ written statements about loneliness and isolation, the focus was more on penance, atonement and the sting of public scrutiny. Behind the installation an inconspicuously placed ant farm kit supplied the essential metaphor. Like insects toiling within their transparent container, Von Voetsch traversed his enclosure seemingly oblivious to the watching public. It seemed a cathartic ritual designed to exorcise personal demons.

As the ending time approached, audience anticipation mounted and a crowd gathered on the lower floor. The reading man appeared in shirt and tie and gas mask to strap Von Voetsch into the fat-laden suit. When the artist began tunneling through a pile of loose soil in front of a small plexiglass enclosure that cut through one side of the structure, much of the audience crammed into the narrow corridor and waited. Von Voetsch emerged slowly into this showcase box and stood, slightly bent — a museum exhibit.

Eventually — perhaps out of compassion for a hunched man wearing a 150-pound-plus suit — someone clapped, ending the performance with widespread applause.
WHAT: First, Kurt Von Voetsch’s performance for a collaborative project with sculptor Patrick Robideau. Second review is of the Robideau-Von Voetsch installation.
WHEN: Opening performance was earlier this month, with a closing performance 7 to 10 p.m. Sept. 27. Installation also runs through Sept. 27.
WHERE: University at Buffalo Art Gallery, Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst
INFO: 645-6912

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