General 6-27-2005

Cold Comfort: An Oblique Regard

Lightsey Darst writes about the first in Red Eye's Works in Progress and Isolated Acts Series: Karen Sherman’s “Cold Comfort” earlier this month at the Red Eye Theater.

Karen Sherman in Cold Comfort

“Cold Comfort”: One Reading

You’ve come to overwinter in Antarctica. You’re a normal person, you have a love, someone to argue about dish-washing with, you have a house, you have geraniums, taxes, aging parents—the kind of complexity that requires lists, calendars. But the white continent—when you first see it something falls away on the inside. The continual white that might be crushed paper, the cold so deep it feels imagined. Days pass and you don’t get used to it, this predictable but unbelievable landscape. And whatever it was that fell inside you, it keeps falling, like ice into water at the far edge of Antarctica, far from you.

Research; paper and ice pick. The suit you’ve been informed is saving your life (but you can’t quite believe it). You’ve been watching the penguins on off-hours, their decisions about when to go and where, their anonymity (all in the same suits), their androgyny. Sometimes when you’re struggling back to shelter in a steep wind falling off to one side or the other seems more plausible than going on. Not that you want to die, but you’re curious.

Out alone on the ice one day, you start imagining postcards you’d send to your love at home if only there were a postcard stall somewhere around here. That predictability—there will be no postcard stall—is starting to get to you, or rather, you’re starting to get to it, wondering what’s true and what they just say to keep you safest. Your postcards would be comically all white—“two ghosts eating marshmallows in a snowstorm”—with a few crackled lines, a few blue shades, to lend verisimilitude (the world does a good job of looking real). You sign “Love, X” to “Here’s the ice floe where I turn right to get home.” You’ve stumbled. “Here’s where I went wrong.” The clipboard lands about a continent away. “Here’s me waving the flag of surrender in Antarctica,” you sign off.

So cold. You’re blue-lipped. Of course you’ve made a mistake. Rational thought—science—is trying to intervene to save you, set off a flare, hold still or locate. In the real world you wouldn’t need rational science to save you; strange then that you’ve lived by it your whole life. These are not the right thoughts. Penguins slide near, bobbling their heads, following each other, standing facing in various directions and then all in the same direction. While you’re taking off your heavy boots (you lost the ice pick earlier), you realize that the penguins use more than the four or five movements you’ve seen before. One is ice-skating near you, perhaps for you. You watch; you turn on your back. The penguin takes your hand—how doesn’t matter. Soon you are spinning dizzily with the penguins to the Bee Gees, celebrating an easy life, shedding layers of accumulated hurt into the arctic cold.

One of your old fantasies comes to life—a silly fantasy, one you could never quite explain to your home love. A nurse gives you CPR and then the two of you frolic, laughing, her prim white underwear showing under her short dress. You seize each other’s ankles and lick; you don’t worry about where this is going, who’s in control. Why was sex so complicated once? You never meant harm. Politics and sex—all those words for what could be so simple—you haven’t spoken all day.

Nothing they told you was true. The sastrugi—wind-driven ridges in the ice—are not barren, but are growing tomatoes. You devour one and are surprised by how hungry you are, how fleshy and sweet the fruit is. The penguins grow more human than you, and you can’t tell whether they’re imitating you or whether you’re imitating them; one sits beside you and copies your gestures, your sadness. You are sad until the penguin comes; then you’re confused—was it only gestures of sadness, not ever real sadness? what is there to be sad about? the penguin is a genius—and then you’re hot. You throw off your overalls, struggle out of your long johns.

You need ice. You imagine all the equipment you used to wear to protect you from yourself; now you’d like to wear nothing, except ice and yes, a penguin. You’d like to wear a penguin where it counts. Those genitals you’ve been wearing all your life, by which they called you one thing and not another, said you’d like one thing and not another, you’d like to adorn them with a penguin, a sign of transparency and play. You’re never going back now. You dance by yourself and you’re not lonely. You find a block of ice—cool like someone’s sleeping back—and hug it against your breasts. No one will find you. But you’re not lost.


I don’t have much to add to Karen Sherman’s “Cold Comfort.” Sherman does, I think, exactly what she wants to; the piece is complete, clear, entertaining, well-designed. Sherman’s especially adept at gradually expanding the vocabulary of the penguins from their initial life-like twitches to full-fledged dance. Her own dancing also shines—especially in her ability to fill stillness with tension.
One comment. “Cold Comfort” analyzes the life of the body—its need for food, play, sexuality, and warmth. I’m amused, delighted, interested, convinced, I share the critique of our icy social systems, but I’m not moved. Perhaps the performance works so perfectly, every element falling into place, that I find no entrance, no mystery to investigate. Or perhaps it’s just my bias toward the usual romantic themes: love, death, grief, growth. I look forward to Sherman’s next work for illumination.

Works in Progress

I can’t say anything about Works-in-Progress, the first weekend of Red Eye’s month-long series. It’s not that I didn’t like the show (which contained work by five artists or groups of artists), but that I’m not allowed to comment; Works-in-Progress isn’t open to criticism. The pieces are at an early stage, and part of the promise of Works-in-Progress is that the work will not, at performance-time, be subjected to outside judgments.
How have critics gone so wrong that artists’ early work must be protected from us? Before a recent performance began, a performer’s microphone was mistakenly turned on backstage, so that I (and all the audience) heard her say, “Well, I already have two reviews. Screw them.” Since I wasn’t there to review, I can’t say whether this was directed at me or at some other critic lurking in the audience; either way it was hard to understand as a positive comment. If a review is an intelligent interpretation, a continuation of the conversation opened by the work itself, can there ever be enough reviews?
Of course, I’m aware that criticism is often not written or understood as part of a conversation, but rather as an outside verdict, a communication exterior to the world of the work, whose basic purpose is to tell audiences whether they should spend their money or not. Thumbs up, thumbs down. This most reductive form of criticism entirely ignores art’s complexity and pretends that the critic is either the same as or wiser than everyone else, so that everyone else does or should share the critic’s opinion. We must know better by now.

I want you to regard critical writing as the commentary of a friend: a series of guesses, suggestions, interpretations, and reactions, coming from a intelligent, well-meaning, but fallible person. The Red Eye employs a “Critical Core”—a group of artists who watch and comment on the pieces in the Works in Progress series at various points in their development. The Critical Core (I imagine) do not take control or make themselves big at the artists’ expense, but they offer reactions and suggestions intended to improve the art. Can not criticism do the same?
But I’m being deliberately obtuse. Intentions aside, criticism cannot avoid being the public statement of a privileged voice. Critics get quoted, and their words become attached to posters and grant applications, become part of the work’s context for its next viewers. Because Works in Progress is not open to review, the pieces are protected equally from bashes and raves; they are neither softened nor steadied by context. Not only that, but the artists have no fear or hope of the above.
The result? Pieces roam across conventional genre boundaries, as if they did not mean to be named. No one wastes time introducing us to or justifying the work. I sense no worrying about “the last word” (whether the critic or artist will get it), no need to shut the opened door. Apparently the current critical system, though necessary, is not necessarily helpful. How can criticism cease to dampen and solidify creativity, and instead function more like the liberating Critical Core of the Works in Progress series?

“Cold Comfort” features Karen Sherman, Joann Furnans, Hannah Kramer, Morgan Thorson, Kristin Van Loon, and Arwen Wilder.