Tuesday night (15 November) was the private view of “Capital Improvements”, a solo art exhibit by provocative New York performance artist and punk front-woman Kembra Pfahler at Emalin gallery in Shoreditch at Emalin gallery in Shoreditch (from 16 November – 21 December 2016).
The Facebook event page promised the private view would incorporate a live performance by the perennially-fierce Pfahler’s theatrical glitter-punk revue The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. I’ve been a hardcore fan of VHKB since the nineties, have all their CDs and often a drop a song of theirs into my sets when I DJ at Lobotomy Room. What an exciting development! VHKB almost never perform in London. The last time was their triumphant appearance at The Meltdown Festival in 2012 – an unforgettable shimmering spectacle of decadence! (Read about it here). Would this little independent gallery in East London have the budget to fly over the whole band and backing dancers that make up VHKB for a free one-off performance?
The private view party was meant to last 6 pm – 9 pm. Pal and I rocked up shortly past six to get a look around and scope a good spot to watch the performance. The exhibit itself is fascinating: Pfahler has lived in the same tiny rent-controlled studio apartment in New York for many years and the gallery has faithfully recreated her living space. (Pfahler’s life is her art statement: she’s one of those people who looks like a walking piece of art. Her idiosyncratic apartment and its artefacts is part of her performance). It’s a beautiful, compact space with every surface painted the deep shade of dried blood, surrounded by eerie dolls and multiple portraits of Pfahler in all her ghastly, macabre beauty.
Promisingly, the makeshift performance space in the corner was a decent set-up: a tiny high stage with the official VHKB logo (Batman with a pendulous pair of female tits) emblazoned on a flag behind it. (You must exclaim, “A little stage!” like Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble at this point). There was three microphone stands lined up and no musical equipment, so clearly the actual band wasn’t there and Pfahler would be singing to taped musical accompaniment, which was fine by me.
My friend Emma and her girlfriend Pippa joined us. Princess Julia and Marc Almond were both there too. Time started to drag. And then drag some more. There was no sign of the artist herself. The venue started seriously filling up with a nice mix of freaky club kids, punks, Goths, androgynes and the kind of weirdos who only emerge by night you hope to encounter at events like this. Talking amongst ourselves we started speculating, “I wonder when this thing is actually going to start?”
Finally, a glimpse of a huge exploding haystack of black bouffant hair emerged from around the corner. It wasn’t Pfahler – it was one of her troupe of backing dancers. (Pfahler always performs accompanied by a gang of identical semi-naked dancing girls styled to look just like her – the VHKB equivalent of Ike and Tina Turner Revue’s Ikettes). She came out and cavorted a bit wielding one of the VHKB dolls. I think this one was called Phoebe. Grateful for the spectacle, everyone cheered when she announced the show would begin shortly. People snapped her photo. Phoebe grinned with blacked-out teeth. But time stretched on with nothing happening. There wasn’t even music playing to create a bit of atmosphere. Occasionally another VHKB dancer would appear, introduce themselves and promise the show would start imminently.
By now we were getting seriously impatient and pissed-off and the gallery was growing hotter and more claustrophobic. Eventually another VHKB dancer came onstage (this time, a guy in drag. The troupe was mixed gender), introduced himself and announced the show would begin shortly but first – some go-go dancing! This is what I can piece together in retrospect: Pfahler herself was missing in action and not even on the premises at this point. The go-go dancing was intended to pad things out while they tracked down Pfahler. Her “backing dancers” were local London-based people assembled at the last minute (apparently) for this performance. (There wouldn’t have been the budget to fly over Pfahler’s regular New York girls). I suspect the auditioning process for them wasn’t terribly rigorous. The first glimpse of them in their identical virtually-naked, body-painted and bewigged get-ups was genuinely dazzling. That image – sexy alien, zombie woman, devil doll, voodoo dolly – is powerful and alluring. But it got tired fast with no substance or action behind it. For what seemed like an eternity, we were subjected to a cavalcade of onstage exhibitionists not exactly burdened with talent, charisma or even basic dancing ability listlessly jiggle around a bit (you wouldn’t call it “go-go dancing”) to whatever Pfahler’s agent or manager or whoever it was happened to have on the iTunes library on his iPad (“Paranoia” by Black Sabbath. “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks. Loads of terrible seventies stadium cock rock). They fanned each other with feathers, yawned, lit candles, sat on each other. More frequently, they just stood around onstage talking amongst themselves, slack-jawed and gormless. Up close you could see where their body paint had worn off in patches. It was frankly embarrassing.
Things felt increasingly shambolic and inept. The gallery had zero control over the event and seemed out of their depth. The night began with such optimism but all good will was evaporating fast. I had visions of it descending into a club kid equivalent of Day of the Locust-style chaos. I assured Pal (a VHKB virgin), “This will be over by 9 pm! Something must be happening soon!” But he left and I couldn’t blame him. You know that sense of blind rage you feel when you’re trapped on a train platform and the indicator shows “cancelled” and “delayed” but you get no other updates or useful information and you get so furious you want to strangle someone? I can only compare it to that.
The nadir was when another dancer took the mic to promise, “Kembra is on her way! She should be here in at least thirty minutes!” That’s when we realized she wasn’t even there. A fed-up Emma and Pippa left, certain Pfahler probably wouldn’t even turn up at this stage. Luckily I found another friend to hang out with – Nicole. By now, all the complimentary booze had long since run out. The door to the sole toilet had a sign announcing it was out of order. Nicole and I were bursting for a slash. We left the gallery and found a pub around the corner where we could go for a piss and drink a half pint killing time. Before we split, we cornered one of Pfahler’s dancers in the crowd and asked for any kind of update. She confessed she had no clue what was going on or where Kembra Pfahler was. No one was telling her anything either.
There was still no change when Nicole and I got back to the gallery but we both decided to stick it out a bit longer to see what might happen. Finally, there was a ripple of excitement: Kembra had arrived! Another sighting of a jet-black, glitter-dusted wig slicing through the crowd. After so many false starts, this time it was attached to Pfhaler herself. She finally took the stage at 9:15 pm. Her set was short (maybe 25-30 minutes), but mercifully it was good and did compensate for the preceding fiasco up to a point. On the downside, Pfahler seemed distracted and scatter-brained (perhaps her default setting?) and apologised they’d done no rehearsals. (By this point she’d been in London for about a week to prepare for the show. I wonder how she spent her time?). Pfahler admitted they were “unprepared” and encouraged people to return the following night and she’d do a few more performance pieces to compensate.
Pfahler sang maybe four songs, focusing on new (unreleased) material. The song where she enthused about her favourite scenes from Blade Runner while hobbling around with her feet duct-taped to bowling balls was genuinely weird and funny. She did some onstage butt-printing (where Pfahler smeared finger paint on her ass and pressed it onto paper). I forgave Pfahler almost everything for her inspired screeching death metal version of Celine Dion’s love theme from Titanic. It culminated with Pfahler standing on her head with legs spread and genitalia exposed. One of her dancers stood over her threateningly wielding a white wooden crucifix whittled into a sharp point at the end. We all gasped – and sure enough, she abruptly spiked it hard downwards directly into Pfahler’s anus! It was genuinely shocking, like something out of the Ken Russell film The Devils. (Afterwards the crucifix got flung into the audience – someone claimed the crucifix that had been jabbed into Pfahler’s ass hole). They all filed offstage to Benny Hill’s theme tune.
So … Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. In the past year Pal and I have seen topnotch queer-punk performance art by the likes of Christeene and Peaches in London. Like VHKB, they all incorporate various degrees of onstage nudity, mixed-gender scantily-clad backing dancers and confrontational punk minimalism. Pfahler is an undisputed doyenne or godmother of this whole genre or approach - in fact maybe she invented it! Peaches and Christeene came in her wake - and have now raised the standard and overtaken her with tighter, slicker and frankly better shows. Most importantly – they turn up on time! In New York Pfahler is justly regarded as performance art royalty. But her lateness at Emalin was borderline contemptuous. Judging by Tuesday night, in 2016, Kembra Pfahler needs to significantly raise her game.
/ See the rest of my photos here /