"I'm an alligator, I'm a mama-papa coming for you
I'm the space invader, I'll be a rock 'n' rollin' bitch for you"
These opening lines of David Bowies psychedelic anthem "Moonage Daydream" proffer the artist as shapeshifter paradigm, something that Bowie himself expertly illustrated throughout his career. Bowie created (or at least milked) a world in which a star was no longer just a star, s/he could become an alien, a superhero, a hermaphrodite, or a fascist dictator at will. This, after all, was the era in which Carlos Castenada ingested datura and became a crow (before anyone knew that he never actually left his desk); LSD had long since been slipped into the metaphoric water supply, and the world was ripe for weirdness. As a kid listening to "Moonage Daydream", the part where Bowie squealed "Make me jump into the air!" reminded me of the Spiderman and X-Men comics my step-father read. There was something sexual about it - superhumanly sexual. Those men and women with their perfectly cross-hatched pectorals and breasts, they were always jumping into the air. In the dim dawn of my pre-teen grasp of sexuality, I suspected that these superheroes were capable of having really good sex! So was David Bowie - I could tell by the way he squealed.
Jennifer Moon is a superhero and she has a lot of sex, according to the lyrics of some of her songs, though the quality thereof gets debated in her recent CD 50 Weeks. "I was fucking three men, again and again / I was living life and loving expansively / I became obsessed, they became possessed / My need and dependency made me depressed / My sex caused wrecks" (from "On Love (reprise)"). This CD is the latest vehicle for the Moon project. Soon to follow: a feature length video which will flesh out the soundtrack with images (like Bollywood the songs came first), not to mention a book, called, in fetchingly monomaniacal tones, The Sure Path to Glory.
When I returned to LA near the end of 2000 I found Moon de-installing The Facility at China Art Objects Galleries. The Facility had been her studio at Art Center College of Design, ostensibly open 24 hours to anyone who felt the midnight urge to scale a climbing wall or jump on a net, watch a martial arts video or ponder a philosophical tome. At China Art Objects, The Facility was in deluxe mode, with three floors of action: holes-in-walls-and-floors-a-go-go. Moon launched the entire event with a performance by a superhero / rockstar personality called Mimesis who sang "We could be in Utopia", while being winched on a crane above a cheering crowd. But by the time I got there, Moon was packing up her climbing rope for Cincinatti, where The Facility was to become part of the group show An Active Life. So I had to make do with video reconstructions and an interview at the "Psychobabble" café. Heres what I found out:
The artist as star was something that Moon never thought about until she went to UCLA, where she completed an undergraduate degree before switching to Art Center for her Masters. At UCLA she was introduced to artists such as Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy, and Chris Burden, who seemed to possess an almost Warholian star-stature in a world where personality equated with art. Moon was repelled but fascinated. She too wanted to become a public figure, if only as the concomitant side-effect of global altruism. Achieving fame via saving the world had to be the coolest way to be a star, right? Moon decided to figure out a step-by-step plan to achieve this selfless brand of apotheosis. It had to be able to be systematized!
Moons interest in comic book culture gave her some clues about where to start. No pussyfooting around with an artistic oeuvre that ostensibly addressed issues other than self-advancement, Moon made her own personal perfection the subject of her work. Her first step was to devise a regimen, which combined physical fitness with mental agility -- exercises and readings that would sculpt her body and sharpen her mind until she had the looks of the X-Mens Mystique, if not the blue-skinned metamorphs evil intentions. The concept behind Mimesis mirrors (so to speak) Mystiques superpower ability to transmogrify into any one or any thing in her vicinity. As far as Moon is concerned, this comic-book fantasy is an apt metaphor for shifting your identity in order to become at one with your surroundings. "The Environment is the Third Communal Entity" is one of Moons more poetic, if obscure aphorisms, and this "3CE" poses a challenge to every good superhero, who needs must examine the way identities and environments are constructed in order to be able to shift and blur them, if not rupture, change, or destroy them altogether.
Moons regimen was really just a to-do list that became a work in itself, as she harnessed others into a system that included daily reminder phone calls and pep talks. Moons life became everyone elses responsibility and interest, whether they liked it or not.3 Her art school crits centered on the failure or success of her regimen, with footage and comments from the crits getting recycled into artworks (woe betide the person that once called her a fascist; its become the subject of a whole song on 50 Weeks). Since graduating, Moons continuing struggle to become a superhero remains a work-in-progress; she is, you could say, in a constant state of becoming super.
Moon charts her battle with procrastination, until the P word becomes its own artform. "It doesnt help that I smoke weed until Im burnt / And there has never been a person who procrastinates as shamelessly as I / though I know before I die / that the efforts in my mind / will resound throughout all time!" (Im always Fighting Me, Song and Video, 1999). Moon showed me her regimen diaries, and one of the most common entries was "smoked pot." Initially a spokeswoman for the redemptive power of psychotropic drugs, Moon now wishes she was less reliant on them, though when we meet for the interview shes got marijuana leaves painted on her nails. The time before that, she was off to Disneyland with a stash of magic mushrooms (this seems to be a favourite passtime for L.A. art slackers). Somehow drugs relate to her concept of expansive (unpossessive) love. "Drugs allow me to de-obsess about relationships and this can be liberating." Moon admits, though, that it can be difficult to pull off expansive love because other people dont think its possible and because her own jealousy and possessiveness get in the way. "We are taught about ownership, property and power since pre-school, and this affects the way we interact in our personal relationships." Pokemon is a recent sad twist on the superhero ethic - in this case special powers are harnessed by the capitalistic yoke of ownership. "Gotta catch em all" teaches kids that the only special power worth developing is purchasing power.
I wonder if the notion of superheroes (or any sort of hero for that matter) is ineffably patriarchal? I mean, what about that feminist plea to curb unbridled testosterone "We dont need another hero" (as spouted variously by Barbara Kruger and Tina Turner in the 1980s)? Moon presents a post-feminist answer to this problem, announcing herself as the hero we do need. Moon calls it "feminist issues with male tactics."
Moons oeuvre has evolved considerably since her UCLA days. Initially, the superhero project manifested itself in the multiple-personality dress-up photo-opportunities that we tend to associate with Cindy Sherman or Mariko Mori. But while Sherman is critiquing the cache of visual culture, and Mori doesnt seem to be critiquing anything at all, least of all herself4, Moons make-believe followed a complex script, mimicking the character maps of the comic-book world. There was white-wigged Deedra Swan, who believed in world salvation via corporate domination; Electra, with multiple personalities, a superhero who was brainwashed by Deedra; Jennifer the cosmic, astral plane-loving rave chick; and Red Nurse, the assassin. Dont ask me how they all interrelated, but Moon has held seminars about it. She even sold shares for Deedra Swans company.
Though Moon has ditched dress-ups for action, citing Superbario as one of her biggest influences5, her lust for merchandising makes me think there is still a little bit of Deedra lurking in her psyche. Shares, t-shirts, CDs, videos, posters, books; though Moon encourages a critique of capitalism she also encourages us to buy her wares. Im Always Fighting Me (Robots Liberate the Workforce) is a peppy number composed by Malik Gaines (who is also responsible for the majority of the CDs catchy tunes). The video is a compression of Moons abiding themes; love and drugs get in the way of world-saving, while the evil chimeras that lurk in the recesses of the subconscious (played by various Art Center buddies) turn out to be friends whose energy can be utilized. In fact, Moons decided her own super power is her ability to organise other people, if not herself, (the video trailer for 50 Weeks opens with an extremely long list of credits that Moon reads out to the camera in person - you start to get an idea of the massive scale of her project).
Moon took singing lessons before the soundtrack to 50 Weeks was recorded, and it shows in the insistently bell-like, super-high pitch that she prefers. I spend ages trying to pin down who Moons singing persona comes the closest to: Debbie Harry? Yoko Ono? Kate Bush? Theres even a touch of the wacky workout humour of Richard Simmons and his Reach! album in I dont want to be a Robot-Equivalent (the song in which Moon denies the fascistic connotations of physical perfection).
Its a foolish task to try to compare artists with other artists, especially after one of my friends referred to Moon as "incomparable". But when I see Moon in action I cant get the Supreme Master Ching Hai out of my mind. The "Master" is actually a woman from Vietnam via Taiwan, an ex-Buddhist nun come fashion designer, beauty makeover consultant and restaurateur. I saw her at the Aotea Centre in Auckland, hobbling toward her makeshift throne in a pencil-skirt and high heels, sporting a Pipi Longstocking hairstyle instead of one of her usual outré hats. Surrounded by fruit and flowers, her backdrop was an enormous quilt with "Ocean of Love Tour" embroidered on it. From this hastily-assembled h(e)aven, the Master leaked an occasional oblique nugget of questionable sagacity. I couldnt decide if it was the saddest mockery of spirituality, or the cleverest, most post-modern performance art ever6. Even Rajneesh used to routinely admit to being nothing but a showman.
Its this crisis of modern faith that Moons appealing to, and capitalising on. Cynicism and irony are no longer valid or even clever options. Moon is an all-out "good vibe vigilante"7, the artist-as-superhero being the perfect panacea for a troubled world, with The Facility as a romantically democratic invitation to adventure, open to all. And while the candy colours of The Facility and the effervescence of our prime protagonist Moon might send out twee, camp or kitch warning signals, in fact there are virtually no cringey moments to be had (and thats saying a lot for performance art of any kind). There are even, dare I say it, moments of genuine pathos and soul searching. Who else is asking the tough questions? (Forgive me, Im writing this during the US elections). But seriously, who is asking stuff like "Why is it so hard to live what you believe?" and "Who am I?" And who else do you know who seriously, I mean seriously, believes in the redemptive power of art?
If Moon is not yet the superhero that she says she is trying to be, she is at least building a makeshift bridge to connect the great divide that exists between our ideologies and our everyday actions, while most of us have become quite happy to sit on the banks of the latter while still calling the former home. This degree of self-examination is rare in any field, and simply watching Moon go through the machinations of doubt and questioning, with the odd bit of exultation thrown in here and there, is an inspiration. Moons daydream is an awakening. As she says herself, "Lets go!"
Tessa Laird is a writer who lives but doesn't work in Los Angeles. She realises that there are many Jennifers in the LA art scene at present, and that this can be confusing. To help out, she has furnished us with a ready Jennifer-reckoner which we have posted on the Log website at http//:www.physicsroom.org.nz/log/.
1. For the record, I was listening to "Moonage Daydream" when I was 11, not when the song was first released, but during an early 80s retro binge on Ziggy Stardust, while the real-time David Bowie was going through his "Serious Moonlight" phase.
2. Moon is an American of Korean descent, and the Moon Festival was simply a fortuitous nominal coincidence; an annual Chinese harvest celebration which L.A.s Chinatown wanted to open to the wider arts community as part of their "revitalisation" scheme.
3. In the respect of living to the rules of a regimen, and being publicly accountable for its success or failure, Moons work comes closest to the 70s projects of Linda Montano, particularly her 7 Years of Living Art chakra-related project. An ex-nun, Montanos concern was with personal and spiritual discipline, which reached its apotheosis when she tied herself to Tehching Hsieh for a year in Roped (1983-1984). As with Moons regimen, Montanos Living Art project can be participated in by anyone (currently Californian artist Betsey Caygill is living out the daily regimen).
4. But check out the uncanny resemblance of Storm in X-Men the Movie (2000), to Moris white-eyed siren in Link of the Moon, 1996. Were Fox Pictures ripping off Mori or was Mori riffing off Marvel Comics?
7. Mark von Schlegel in Artext 71, p79. Schlegel prefaces his review of Moons Facility with a cache of recent comics sightings in popular media. Besides X-Men the movie, he mentions Alan Moores Americas Best Comics, "available for $2.50 a pop on the stands", and the fact that "Art Spiegelman appeared in countless art mags". He also name-checks the omnipresent spectres of Lichtenstein and Pettibon. Significantly, after von Schlegels review was published, the super hero theme was addressed by two more movies, Unbreakable, and the US indie George Washington.