Clockwork oranges and scrambled egg
The tall tales of artist Mike Chavez-Dawson make little sense. But, suggests Jack Mottram, why not play along?
WHO is Mike ChavezDawson? Visitors to this, his first solo outing in Scotland, will have trouble working out where the artist begins and his cast of alter-egos end, and could be forgiven for wondering if Mike Chavez-Dawson is yet another, admittedly thinly veiled, alter-ego of one Mike Dawson, artist.
Chavez-Dawson is the guiding hand behind two characters – the Gallery Guard and Robin NatureBold – and the creator of a third, Deacon Brodie-Morgannwy, a character performed by Glasgowbased artist Jean-Pierre Lapeyre (a name that may or may not be a pseudonym for someone else).
With this confusing cast of personae in place, Chavez-Dawson weaves further fictions. According to an excerpt from the artist’s notebook, the name of Robin Nature-Bold was revealed to him in a waking dream, which featured Andy Kauffman,Andy Warhol and Peter Sellers engaged in a rather unsavoury sex ritual. Nature-Bold’s performance piece – WhateverYou See Are Your Own Demons, They’re Not Coming From Me! – is apparently based on the unlikely tale of one Deacon Brodie, a squatter in Anthony Burgess’s attic who lived on a diet of egg whites and played his Casio keyboard incessantly, disrupting already tense negotiations between the author and Stanley Kubrick over the filming of A Clockwork Orange.
With this unlikely anecdote in mind, and having procured a Casiotone keyboard from a later tenant of Burgess’s lodgings, Nature-Bold enacted a ritualistic performance intended to “invoke the frequency of Brodie”. This took the form of Nature-Bold, dressed in white, bashing out improvised keyboard melodies to a tune based on a scene from the 1932 film adaptation of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde. As he performed, candles were lit and egg whites scrambled. The detritus of this pseudomagickal event remains in the gallery, the keyboard bound up in white fun fur. Nature-Bold’s white pinstripe jacket and leather gloves, “Love” and “Hate” painted on the knuckles, are suspended on lines of wire, stretched out to form the Christ-like pose of a triumphant musician leaving the stage.
The Gallery Guard, meanwhile, carried a gaudy gilt frame around Edinburgh, stopping off at galleries, where he offered staff the chance to sign the frame and inscribe it with the name of their favourite work of art. Silent throughout his journey, negotiations were handled by Deacon BrodieMorgannwy, and the frame now hangs on the Embassy’s wall, enclosing a video projection of the journey-performance.
Of all the pop-culture icons, seminal texts, artistic practices and invented rituals that ChavezDawson folds together, one name leaps out: Andy Kauffman. The late comedian’s outre cast of alteregos – the foul-mouthed club comic Tony Clifton, Kauffman the misogynist inter-gender wrestler and Kauffman the naif, feeding his audience milk and cookies – are not precise matches for ChavezDawson’s merry band, but the presentation of suspect facts and fleshed-out fictions as two sides of the same coin, true or false according to the inclinations of the audience, is Kauffman to a tee. And, like Kauffman, you’ll either find Chavez-Dawson very funny or deeply infuriating. Infuriating because his work shrugs off questions that it is almost always worth asking of art: what does it mean? Is it any good?
It is impossible to tell whether Chavez-Dawson is serious, or even half-serious, in his bid to link the art venues of Edinburgh by taking a psychogeographic tour of them; or if, in hiding behind the Gallery Guard persona, he is taking the mick out of the sort of artist who makes this type of work. The more ritualistic, and more obviously hokey, efforts of Nature-Bold are similarly evasive. The audience, caught up in the serious business of Nature-Bold summoning the spirit of a fiction, can easily be forgiven for taking the unfolding events at face value – stifling giggles, perhaps, but engaged nonetheless. This might be the response ChavezDawson is aiming for, flagging up the willingness of the modern art cognoscenti to leave any skeptical tendencies at the gallery door. Or he might be engaging in an “honest” investigation of the effects of adopting a persona, or using that persona to bind together disparate cultural tropes. Or he might just be having enormous fun at his own, and our expense.
This uncertainty, the impossibility of settling on one interpretation of Chavez-Dawson’s multi-layered working method, let alone the work he makes, is likely to split gallery-goers into two camps. Some will be put off by his permanently raised eyebrow, while others will be willing to join in and enjoy the joke. I’m keeping a foot in both camps: Chavez-Dawson, if that is his real name, is amusing, confusing and infuriating, all at the same time. Whether or not this is a good thing remains open to question. The Remarkable Apperception (The Market Place requires Hekyll & Jybe) is at the Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh, until February 10.