In his performance art career Joseph Ravens has humped raw hamburger, recorded men pissing in a public restroom, and danced inside a giant plastic bubble on the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art. But the subject of his latest work–the tulip–may, in its simplicity, be his strangest yet.

The Alchemy of Tulips, which opens this weekend at Storefront Theater, was inspired by the tulip frenzy that swept Holland in the early 17th century, when Dutch citizens furiously bought and sold futures in the flowers, making poor men rich overnight and ultimately decimating the country’s economy. “After learning about ‘Tulipmania,’ one of the things I couldn’t get out of my head was the idea of ‘breaking,'” says Ravens. Causing unpredictable streaks of vivid color, breaking occurred in two or three out of a hundred flowers. There was no telling which tulips would mutate, and they couldn’t be bred to do so. “It was a freak of nature that commanded the most extreme prices,” he says. “It was discovered later that the mutations were caused by a virus–one that I like to think of as the trickster in the tulip bed.”

Ravens, a Wisconsin native, got a degree in theater from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1990 and a year later headed for Milwaukee, where he had a four-year run as a member of the film and video ensemble Joyfarm. “That’s where I went through my meat phase,” he says, laughing. “There were other performances dealing with AIDS, gay rights, being bound, etcetera, but finally I realized that the shock-value thing wasn’t working for me anymore, because I was using metaphors without understanding where they were coming from or where they were going.”

He moved to Chicago in 1996 to enroll in an MFA program at the School of the Art Institute, and ditched the meat in favor of props like the plastic bubble. He shaved his head, painted his body, and performed in flesh-colored underwear so that he “had this mannequinlike neutrality.” Later he got into butoh, which he incorporated two years ago in his master’s thesis, Ravenous, an introspective solo piece. Since then he’s performed internationally and created work for Collaboraction’s Summer Sketchbook and his own Ravenous Productions.

His latest piece, though tamer than his early experiments, is still a departure for Storefront, which hasn’t presented an unscripted work before. The 90-minute piece, set both in the 1600s and the present, features 11 performers whose movements are tracked by a camera above the stage and fed into a computer to generate multiple, simultaneous video projections. The result is dreamlike and surreal–in one scene, topless women clad in white pants move with slow, controlled, contorted gestures as they bite the heads off tulips; in another, a terminally ill girl identifies with a broken tulip, because “in the olden days it was the sick tulips that people loved the most of all.”

“One of the objectives is to truly entertain, but also to hopefully combine art and information to shift the audience’s perception of such a common object,” says Ravens. “I’ve always known I, too, was a freak in my own way, and to think that something ‘broken’ was prized above all others, well, that can shed a whole new light on life.”

The Alchemy of Tulips runs April 30 through May 15 at Storefront Theater, Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 66 E. Randolph, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 3. Tickets are $15; call 312-742-8497.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.