Lynn Book

Randolph Street Gallery

December 8 and 9

Lynn Book is one terrific performer. Her presence onstage is utterly captivating. From the moment that I walked into the gallery, discovering Book onstage methodically arranging flowers in a large ceramic vase, she commanded my attention. Her gestures were short, efficient, restrained, like those of a classically trained dancer. Her expression was severe, her gaze penetrating. She seemed perfectly in control of the finely tuned instrument that was her body.

Book exploits this instrument with great success in her new solo performance piece, Physical Vision. This seductive, hypnotic, and highly personal work (developed from the artist’s journals, according to a program note), while somewhat lacking in scope, challenges us with a singularly unusual image: a woman sensually engaged with her own body. Unusual simply because this is an image whose validity is categorically denied in our male-dominated culture. The female body, particularly in artistic representation, is normatively portrayed as the object/fulfillment of male fantasy. Women in our culture are encouraged to view their bodies as objects which must be re-created and selectively eroticized for male appreciation, through makeup, clothing, dieting, and reconstructive surgery. A woman who chooses to enjoy herself for herself arguably makes a defiant gesture.

This gesture gives much strength to Physical Vision. Book celebrates her physical self: decorates it, caresses it, exposes it, uses it the way a poet wields a pencil. Her body and the various desires–both hers and those of imaginary others–that whirl around it become the foundation on which she builds her piece.

Physical Vision begins with Book seated at a table covered with a flowered tablecloth, “writing” on a yellow piece of paper with the blade of a knife, humming a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding chant. Then she folds up the paper and tucks it into the front of her shirt, smiling as her hand slides over her breast. This gesture is not forced or embarrassed. Book paradoxically displays great modesty, genuinely enjoying the sensation rather than “performing” that enjoyment for her audience. The moment comes and goes quickly, yet the emotional fullness present in this initial gesture gives it great theatrical weight.

Book goes on to tell us, in an oddly detached, dreamy voice, that she is thinking about “the impossibility.” There is something she needs to finish writing. There is something that she needs to understand and/or communicate. Writing correctly is always impossible, she tells us, efficiently pruning leaves off her flower arrangement, in effect “rewriting” the flowers themselves. Finally she buries her head entirely in the flowers. The flowers, like her body, are not there to be doctored up, but rather to be experienced.

The piece can be read as a series of unveilings–both literal and figurative–that reveal not deeper levels of meaning but rather different ways of experiencing. At one point Book lies on the table and the lights black out. Then, as she goes through a series of poses, a bright white light pierces the darkness at certain moments, revealing a thigh, a breast, a shoulder. Throughout she whispers seductively yet unintelligibly, hinting that her body harbors some secret that might be revealed if only we could hear.

Later, in the most beautiful moment in the piece, she asks, “What is being uncovered here in this particular place?” Then she slowly opens two red curtains hung on the back wall to reveal, of course, the wall. Slowly, red leaves are projected on the wall, appearing everywhere except between the curtains. Then Book herself stands between the curtains, and the leaves appear on her. What is being uncovered, then, is what is already present, which becomes Book herself, decorated in yet another way.

The moment this image is established, Book steps aside and a film appears projected on the wall between the two curtains, providing another answer to her initial question. The black-and-white film by Sharon Couzin shows two women filmed in tight, nearly abstract close-ups, repeatedly undressing each other. As the film plays, Book steps behind a translucent screen, lit by a single low-hanging lamp, and slowly undresses. This intricate scene presents two uncoverings, both of which are only partially revealed to us.

Everything in Physical Vision remains only partially revealed, most intriguingly, Book herself. Throughout the 50-minute performance, she never allows us to pin her down as a character or even as a persona. She provides numerous hints and suggestions as to who she might be or how we might best understand her, but she remains fundamentally mysterious. Yet her performance is consistent and thorough, as she sustains the mystery through the entire evening.

Strangely enough, the main element that works against this mystery is Book’s text. She speaks throughout most of the piece, either lyrically or casually. Her text is not only cluttered and perhaps too writerly, but it pales next to the “writing” done with her body. Often, too, the text unfortunately literalizes the poetic images onstage. In one section, for example, Book performs a brisk, expertly controlled dance based on skipping stones. As the dance winds down, she begins to smile, as if she might go on forever, or as if she is finally experiencing the joy of dancing. As she continues, however, she repeatedly states, “I can’t stop dancing.” Not only is this revelation somewhat cheap, it deflates an otherwise expansive image.

Jill Daly’s direction, while giving the piece a lovely pace, often ignores significant moments. At one point Book lies on the table and knocks the vase of flowers to the floor. The vase shatters, throwing water, stones, and shards of pottery all over the front of the stage. Not only is this potentially weighty moment difficult to see, staged within two feet of the first row of the audience, but it is given no time to resonate. Book immediately launches into a monologue, giving us no time to reflect on the significance of what has just happened.

Were Physical Vision streamlined a little, and its unnecessary complexity reduced, it would become commensurate with Book’s skill as a performer. Her underlying impulse–to focus on the body as a source of pleasure for the self, and the consequences that arise from that–not only provided great food for thought but gave Book her most successful and complex stage images.