at Link’s Hall, February 3-4

Chicago’s Atlas/Axis is part of a phenomenon that might be called–after a Los Angeles performance group who named themselves, with tongues deeply in cheek, Pomo Afro Homos–the pomo-homo movement. It combines postmodernism with a gay sensibility to create an approach that has had, to be honest, mixed results. Atlas/Axis’s particular gift is bringing a sunny, unpredictable sense of humor to the pomo-homo style.

Postmodernism comes in many flavors, but one hallmark is rough-and-ready appropriation of the techniques of one kind of art for making a different kind of art. Atlas/Axis appropriates the structural forms of classical and modern dance, such as theme and variation and ABA form; dance in turn borrowed these forms from classical music. The overall structure of Rollover, which Atlas/Axis (Ames Hall and Ken Thompson) performed at Link’s Hall, is ABA: an idea introduced in the beginning returns at the end with a greater depth of meaning. In the opening, stage lights come up on a man (Hall) typing furiously at a computer, while a hand holding a sheaf of papers emerges from a dark corner and passes over his head. The man holding the sheaf of papers (Thompson) then takes stacks of books from a closet and hurls them into the other corner of the stage. These mysterious moments seem to establish the theme of computers versus books.

Much of the middle section of Rollover is organized as repeating movement and vocal phrases–the classical theme-and-variation form. At least three times Hall and Thompson dance a courtly minuet to music from The Sound of Music, until one man crumples into the other man’s arms. They dash out a side entrance four times. They repeatedly give statistics on the casualties in the Kobe earthquake, crawl on the floor, and pull back the skin around their eyes with their thumbs as they advance on the audience saying, “What’s that insidious hum?” They quote liberally and often from old Hollywood movies. In fact Hall and Thompson’s form might be better described as theme and repetition ad infinitum. The classical theme-and-variation approach requires an interesting theme and a canny sense for when enough is enough. An audience wants to see or hear a good theme often, but an artist must be able to sense when an audience is satisfied. Pomo-homo artists, including Atlas/Axis, seem to repeat banal themes until the audience is ready to scream.

This has something to do with the postmodern theory of subversion–of undermining, even acting against an audience’s expectations in order to free observers from their conditioning by mass media and traditional art forms. Pomo-homo artists don’t respect traditional forms like theme and variation, but I think this sort of stance is both didactic and hostile–the artist telling the audience what they should like while showing disgust at their Neanderthal taste. It’s a stance tailor-made to both create and justify alienation–the cool of an outsider who won’t join the game of making art. It’s the School of the Art Institute’s version of James Dean cool.

As gay men, pomo-homo artists can reasonably claim that they have been alienated and that they are outsiders. The foolishness of conforming to social rules–wearing suits and becoming computer-literate–are enduring pomo-homo themes. In Rollover Thompson and Hall wear ties and white dress shirts with holes torn in them. In the relentless dashing back and forth of the middle section, they don suit coat after suit coat until they’re wearing about a dozen of them. Later they spread the coats on the floor like graves in a graveyard.

Vast destruction is another recurring theme, as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic; it recurs so often it’s become pretty much a cliche. Rollover has its share of vast destruction–Thompson quotes the death count from the Kobe earthquake and reads a text about the first syphilis epidemic–but the message is not too heavy-handed. Hall and Thompson’s gift for humor prevents that. While Hall tells about Darwin’s death–his ideas kept him awake so often that he died of insomnia and exhaustion–Thompson asks people in the audience questions: Do they want Coke or Pepsi? Chicken or lasagna? Burial or cremation? Thompson captures the grinning mask of a flight attendant perfectly. Many of their seemingly serious actions have a comic edge: dashing out of the room, they yell loudly but unconvincingly, like queens trying to be marines. Many of their actions seem self-mocking, as if they were saying, “Look, we’re not really performance artists–we’re really a couple of fun-loving queens trapped in another campy role.”

Hall and Thompson love campy roles and the divas who play them. After the theme-and-repetition section has played itself out, each man in turn strips the dozen coats off the other man; the newly freed man has a moment of clarity that, as it turns out, is a campy, diva-esque moment. For Thompson, it’s Shelley Winters’s death scene in The Poseidon Adventure; for Hall, it’s Lassie rescuing her master Timmy–told from Lassie’s point of view. Both moments are over the top emotionally, but so domestic and TV-tamed that they’re wonderfully tacky.

But I’m a classicist; for me, the best moment was the end, when the computers-versus-books theme returns. Thompson dons an overcoat to which hundreds of sheets of paper have been glued; he stares at the audience as he rips pages from a copy of Airport. Hall wears his Macintosh computer on his head, in an ingenious contraption by Scott Gillette. They dance the minuet from The Sound of Music, and Hall crumples. I suddenly see two men who love each other: one likes computers, television, and hot media, and the other likes the cool media of print; they worry that they may not be compatible. It’s an image of gay love, with the emphasis on love.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/K. Thompson.