The surprising (or not so surprising) presence of lipstick in performance art
Even the most cosmetically adverse cannot deny the cultural significance of a bright red lip. The history of cinema, and as extension, the twentieth-century social imaginary, is laden with traces of pink and red pigment. Think simply of the proverbial red stain on a man’s white collar: the first clue to his illicit affair with the secretary which leads to the breakdown of a marriage, or the lipstick stain found on the rim of a white cup of coffee-the strange evidence of the moment when lips and ceramic meet to bring warmth and caffeine to the daily grind. And finally, think of the loving imprints left from a kiss on the cheek: the love-struck recipient who melts upon contact and wipes away the mark with a swooning sigh, or the matriarch who makes sure not even one of her grandchildren gets away without a waxy impression of her unconditional love.
Given this loaded cultural heritage, it is no wonder that performance artists, particularly those interested in the performative nature of gender, sexuality and queer identity, turn to lipstick as one of many artistic mediums to explore the relationship between the body, self, and society. Marina Abramovic, in one of her earliest performances Rhythm 0 (1974), invited audience members to use various “tools” on her own body during a period of 6 hours. Lipstick was one of the 72 objects she set out on the table, and it is said that it was one of the objects audience members gravitated towards most, using it to paint on Abramovic’s vulnerable lips, face and body. I have often imagined that the infamous American photo-performance Cindy Sherman has a pretty incredible lipstick collection. Think of how many of her characters required a “bold statement lip” in order to come to life in a still frame.
The list of lipstick related performance-art pieces is endless. More recently, Jedediah Johnson’s Makeout Project (2014) set off on a Midwest kissing tour, documenting the subjects he kissed while he was wearing bright red or pink lipstick. His photographs capture his subjects post-makeout session whose mouths and faces are smeared with the messy markings of their mouth to mouth embrace. Here, lipstick acts as archival evidence of the intimate moment we missed just before the photo was taken.
In 2007, Czech artist Jirˇí Kovanda stood behind a wall at the Tate Modern in London with a note asking strangers to kiss him through the glass. While lipstick was not spelled-out as a chosen medium in this work, I have a feeling that the Tate staff had to spend many hours (and bottles of Windex) wiping off the remnants of Kovanda’s piece after he left. In fact, every time a performance artist shows his or her face in any one of their body-based works, a decision has to be made: “do I put on lipstick?” I remember a few occasions preparing for my own performance Orphan Girl (2011–12) when I self-consciously decided to wipe off my lipstick beforehand so I didn’t come across as “trying too hard” in front of a discerning audience of artists and academics. In my mind as an insecure 20 something, the loaded constructs of both femme fatal or “bimbo” were evoked too easily with the presence of a painted lip, and I convinced myself that if I wanted to be taken seriously in certain intellectual circles, I better tread lightly before twisting up my Dior Rouge and just slapping it on.
Then there are the times when lipstick appears as an act of subversion. I remember a tube of deep purple Wet N’Wild lipstick, which I discovered at the local pharmacy, was central to the after dark regalia of my pre-teen rebellion. This is perhaps because donning midnight blue, oxblood, or black lipstick are one of the many creative ways young people express angst with the living and a gothic romanticism for the afterlife. Lips that look closer to death than to life have a kind of supernatural power that pushes up against our normative constructs of beauty and time.
Mumbai-based performance artist Nikhil Chopra starts of his piece The Death of Sir Raja III (2005) as a nineteenth century gentleman with a mustache, suspenders and top hat, and within the same day, transforms into a colonial era lady adorned in ruffles, pearls, silk and lace. Meanwhile, in the background, a pastoral landscape is drawn onto the wall using various shades of red and pink lipstick. In this moment, lipstick acts as a portal to another dimension, a place in which gender, space, and time dance in and out of our post-colonial histories.
It is this transformative, almost transcendent, quality of lipstick for which I am grateful. I have no illusions about the consumerist trickier fueling my desire for a very expensive tube of Tom Ford Soleil Lip Foil in the shade of Sea Dragon, or the pitfalls of adhering to cultural ideals of feminine beauty. When I pop the cap off of a brand new untouched tube, and twist to watch the smooth pigment rise to the surface, I like to think I am evoking the presence of the ancient Sumerians who 5000 years ago crushed gemstones and used the dust to adorn their lips with gleaming jewels, which sparkled alongside magical rites of passage. Personally, my morning ritual requires a custom which embraces the ethereal beauty of each passing day, especially knowing that eventually my new tube of lipstick, and the lips that it adorns, will themselves turn to ashes and dust.