A quickie: We’re already women—do we have to be on fire? Lara Salmon’s “Ice and Fire”

I wanted to start by describing the performance, but I’m getting stuck on it. What should be narratable as a single event that took place at an allotted time in a specific location feels much more like a dream: the hazy pinkish air lighting the barren, low-slung industrial street; the patch of stubbly parking lot backgrounded by a high chain-link fence, all turned gray scale and shadowy in the smoggy chemical moonlight; the mute audience, our collective mood as ominous as a cloud; and the artist herself—as distinct and out-of-place as the towering tripod across from her, a flash affixed to its head, the green standby light cycling on and off—a visual metronome reminding us that time had not, in fact, stood still. I want to get across that this artwork had an aura, as much as it had a spectacle—that Lara would eventually set herself on fire, and, after silently writhing inside a bathtub of water, would rise, like a corpse coming back from the dead, take off her wet, murky clothes and redress herself in nude leggings—well, that all happened, but in a way, it wasn’t consequential.

The flowerless version is something like this: you show up somewhat late at night (9:15pm) on an off night (a Tuesday). The crowd is a decent size—Sarah and I arrive close to 9:00pm and already there are probably 20 people milling around, a little chitchat, some nerves (we brought a fire extinguisher at the artist’s request). There is a surprising amount of equipment dedicated to capturing this special moment—flashes, light meters, a photographer in a black hoodie with a second tripod—if this is Los Angeles, which it is—then Lara has created a set. She’s standing in what has transformed into her stage, talking with people, I think—I don’t look closely at her, but I notice her hair is different—I think it’s crimped, looser, and she’s a tall, absurd thing towering in a pair of figure skates and a skating costume—a leotard, and maybe a little skirt—the white, tightly laced skates fitted with blade guards. We are all waiting around in the street, forming a sort of crescent—no one is getting too close; we know the performance is imminent, and we know to expect something scary, or wild, or at least painful, and hopefully naked. I know Lara is frequently naked in her performances, and I was looking forward to that—to see her body, yes, but to see it in public, see it used as a thing, see her inhabit it as a tool; it’s a thought I am profoundly jealous of while I am seduced by it; I don’t know if I want it, or I want to be it; and already the thought of her project has made me feel simultaneously thrilled and ashamed. I hang my head a little.

As we wait, half-scattered into the street, Lara’s assistants, if that’s what they are, hand out two sealed bottles of Havana Club rum. Standing at the front of the audience crest, I get the first, fresh swig—it burns my stomach and makes me feel drunk nearly instantly—almost as instantly, I am transported back in time—to Boston, to boarding school, to dirty roofs and pretty, skinny girls, and waiting, hopelessly, for something to begin—then the sting of the drink wears off, and I feel like grown-up Georgia again.

I don’t remember exactly how it starts, but Lara greets the crowd. Now there are a lot of us, and it’s very, very quiet. It’s kind of dark. We can see her, and we can see the bathtub, and the rest of it is just fence and pink sky. Lara thanks everyone for coming. She tells us this is her most personal performance—she’s suffered from pain in her legs for half of her life. Right away there is something absurd about this introduction—the immediate breaking of the fourth wall, the story of the legs, her legs, made longer and lithe-er vessels for pain through the narrow and impenetrable ice skates. From the moment she opens her mouth, she breaks the spell—but I’ve come to believe that’s a subject of this work after all.

Next, Lara steps back into her stage and re-enters a theatrical position—we seem to disappear to her. I don’t remember if she takes her skates off herself, but I do remember that an assistant undresses her, taking off Lara’s skating clothes and dressing her back up in what looks like two layered pairs of pants and a short, loose t-shirt. This is a long, limp process.

Now re-dressed, Lara uses a spray can of something flammable to spray her clothes, just a little bit at a time—and after each iteration of spray, another assistant ducks onto the stage and lights Lara on fire. Each time, the fire burns, and Lara does a little spin, a little twirl, maybe like something you would do on those bright, clunky skates still on stage, leaning against the bathtub—an unlikely prop leaning on an unlikely prop, in an unlikely performance on an unlikely Tuesday night—definitely night time, not evening.

After a few rounds of this spraying, lighting, and dancing, the spraying jumps to an extreme—Lara sprays the front and back of her pants, up and down the whole length of her legs, covering every painful, beautiful bit—ass, thighs, shins, calves, crotch. She approaches the bathtub, looks around, then backward-straddles her body over it, holding herself up in an awkward and hellish crab walk—then she’s set on fire. Instantly she’s ablaze, the flames are maybe a foot in the air, and she lets it burn for a moment; the moment passes and she dunks herself into the tub—it’s an awkward, stiff, silent dunk—but she’s still on fire, and we watch her pump her arms and hips, her arms waving a little, but she’s quiet, and then finally, fish-like, she flops onto her stomach. The fire goes out, and everything stops; this moment is the end of one pain—and I’m certain—the beginning of a new one.

Now Lara rises, slow and steady, like a swamp thing—she’s wet now, it’s cold out, she was just on fire—she takes her clothes off, soggy and methodical, we can even hear them smack the ground—and sits down on the edge of the tub, facing us. Gradually she puts on fresh clothes—leggings it seems, perhaps a version of the skating outfit. I half-expected her to do it all again, but she stands, looks out at us with a little smile, says something like “that’s it,” and then announces we can all get in line to break her weed piñata, meaning, a piñata filled with weed.

I know what you’re thinking. Is it beautiful, like an epiphany, like a poem, or a pillow, or a soft rain? Is it crass, like a crab walk, or an ass, or thrusting hips, or a weed piñata? Is it profound, like driving by a burning semi, or seeing your neighbor’s house raided by police, or watching someone in pain and being unable to help them? Is it a dark kind of desire, like a beautiful naked woman on a dark empty street? Is it stupidity, a crowd of artists so jaded and ready for a show that they can watch her burn without throwing up all over the sidewalk? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

 

I thought that maybe by describing the show, I could describe how it made me feel. Not even close. So I’m going to take a break from feeling, and try to think.

My first thought after walking away from the performance was that it was the ultimate anti-climax. She burns, yes, but only briefly; there is no mystery; no back stage or offstage, or really any theatrics to speak of, other than the flame itself. As performances go, the work was totally choreographed—nearly every opportunity for deliberateness seemed missed, and I found myself wondering why Lara should do a costume change and spin and do a dance-y thing with her leg on fire and then employ two seemingly random, replaceable performers to disrobe her and light her on fire. Unless, in a way, they were meant to disappear—the stage hands that run on and off to do something practical and necessary that isn’t doable by machine. If this is so, we’ve got Lara on the stage, which is really a street-side parking lot, and she gets a costume change—certainly we’re meant to see her as a doll or a puppet, without agency, dressed and undressed, quite literally, by other women—who set her on fire. That can’t be right. It’s Lara who chooses to make herself flammable, so to speak, by spraying herself with the flammable material—so as a character, as a Lara-in-pain, she sprays, and she twirls, but she doesn’t dress or undress. And then after the ultimate burn, she puts out her own fire, undresses and dresses her own damn self, and leaves her skates where they lie. They never go back on her feet.

I feel really not good about sussing this performance out as a metaphor for ice-skating and pain and the pain of femininity in relationship to ice-skating. Watching her burn, I was unable to take any metaphorical value from it—instead, I saw a community, myself included, that assumed Lara hurting herself could be a valuable work of art instead of a work of ghastly self-inflicted pain, too abject and raw to transcend physicality and become a metaphor. Real fear and danger is not ubiquitous in art, and in a way, that’s what creates the unspeakability of this performance; I just don’t have the language to talk about it. That being said, I see her burning and I think of punishment, and fear, and how as an expression, lighting oneself on fire seems almost to mock those living in war-torn places, crossing borders, trying to go to school, whatever. You know what I mean.

On the flip side, I am completely engaged in her nakedness, which is brief but profound. Forgive me, I try to be honest but honest thoughts are so scary—seeing a naked woman, even a topless woman, in a context outside of sex, is rare, and it is a meaningful proposition. I dare you to say it isn’t. Even on the car ride home, Sarah and I talked about Lara’s body. Sarah thought that its look might represent the ideal female; I didn’t think so. For me she looks too strong to be a kind of idealized female form—I had never seen a woman so skinny look so strong. I was thinking of a recent screening of Martine Sym’s video titled Incense Sweaters & Ice (2017). There’s a “getting ready” scene where the main character, a woman, gets completely naked to get ready to go out—specifically, she’s putting on lotion. During the post-screening Q&A, Martine shared that at an earlier screening of that film, she was criticized for her character’s nudity. In response to that criticism, Martine basically said her character was nude because she was getting ready to go out—how else would it be? The crazy thing is that after that Q&A, I made it a point to be fully naked when putting lotion on my body. Why am I sharing this? Because I am an adult woman with access to any version of femininity I want to be or be with, and I am STILL learning about what I should or could do with my naked body. It fucking blows my mind.

Anyways, I feel very conscious and self-conscious about writing about Lara’s body—about her knowing how much I thought about it, when I was supposed to be writing about her art. But this is the thing. You took your shirt off, it was a part of your artwork, it was a semi-unnecessary intermediary step in the process of setting yourself on fire. In your performance last night, you were both naked and on fire—I can think of nothing more extreme, and I feel I could think and write endlessly about the gesture of your nakedness—but I am struck dumb by your fire. I am struck by the courageousness of your nakedness in front of your peers, knowing full-well the myriad of ways in which you will be judged, or at least considered— your breasts, your arrogance, your skinniness, your exhibitionism, your performativity, your underwear, your credibility, not just as an artist, but as an object, and on and on and on and on. We are already women—for god’s sake, do we have to be on fire?

I don’t know. This is a hard work to write about. It was scary, and emotional, and I was implicated, and I should never have allowed it to happen, but also I’m not the boss of you. I think all of this is precisely the point. In the same moment that we are exposed to the seductive possibility of her body, we are faced with its self-imposed destruction. I think this is a really strange artwork, with the ice skates, and the weed piñata, and the rum swigging, and the direct address. In a way, if I put some of those oddities aside, it’s a good artwork, but it’s not an artwork I feel good about. Maybe that’s the lesson here. Nothing gets resolved. We don’t get to go home unscathed. We were there, and for that, there will be consequences. We can only assume the extent of her pain—she was quiet as she burned, and so were we.

Ice and Fire was a performance that took place in a parking lot next to 3055 E 12th St in Los Angeles, CA on May 22, 2018. For more information on Lara Salmon, please visit her website: https://www.larasalmon.net/

The featured image at the top of this post is Ice and Fire (2018), performance by Lara Salmon. Photo by Julius Tanag.

Georgia is an artist and writer in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net