Dissonant Objects of Memory: Cori Olinghouse’s Grandma

Photo by Scott Shaw

A day after seeing Cori Olinghouse’s Grandma, I come across a black and white cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein in a former issue of the New Yorker. A middle-age man holding a suitcase and telling his wife that he is leaving her, is about to step on a banana peel on his way out. The word “Dramedy” hangs above the two characters like a sword of Damocles. The cartoon plays with anticipation and the slapstick comedy staple of the banana skin: the character will slip on the peel, fall and make a fool of himself, rendering the scene both heartbreaking and hilarious. If I were to use a shortcut to summarize Olinghouse’s Grandma, I would say it is a deftly orchestrated kinetic dramedy that draws from clowning, post modern dance, silent movies and visual arts without ever drowning in any of these genres.

Upstage right disappears under a pile of trash that includes junk food wrappers and piss-yellow foam mattresses. From the entrance, we hear the shuffling sound of something being hauled on the floor. A silhouette (Hope Mohr) wearing a beige wig with the hair obscuring her face, is dragging an orange acrylic rug, like she would a dead body, to the center of the stage. On the rug, sits a 70s TV monitor with a fork antenna and an orange extension cord. The performer takes slow steps forward, pelvis stuck in posterior tilt, shoulders rolling in, head hanging forward.

A second clone-like grandma (Martita Abril) enters the stage, wearing a fake leather faded pink jacket zipped up against her torso, constricting it like a cast. She shuffles slowly toward the TV, leans over to turn it on. Her movements are painfully slow and limited. The TV monitor, with a mind of its own, refuses to turn on at first, then spits out a series of blurred images. Grandma, with her white faux leather gloves, changes the stations at lazy intervals. A TV series appears. As the credit rolls, the carcass of a car is being lifted out of a river. Not unlike a rusty memory surfacing from the unattainable depth of the unconscious.

With a canary yellow bob haircut and a bright fuchsia jacket, a third performer (Olinghouse) enters the stage. She turns on George Michael’s Father Figure song, and performs a sensual dance, focusing on one audience member to whom she hands… a Twinkie in its plastic wrap. After repeating her dance for another viewer, she takes a few steps back and unexpectedly shoots the Twinkies from her side pockets, like a ninja throwing stars. She then swings the bag of Cheetos as if unloading a submachine gun, the chips collapsing into an artificial orange pool on the black marley. With her seductive assassin spirit, Olinghouse could very well be a younger sister or remote cousin of The Bride character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, although hers is a crusade against mediocrity, stagnation and despair. She proceeds to step meticulously on a couple of cheese puffs, looking at the audience with a threatening gaze. In the audience, laughter keeps erupting at the dissonance between the murderous intent of Olinghouse’s gestures and the comicality of her weapons of choice. After disappearing backstage, she comes back running in a frenzy, pushing a stage crew plastic grey cart loaded with a mountain of Wonderbread, stacked one on top of the other. She tears open one package, smearing the white crumbs all over her face and body, the explosion of crumbs like grotesque semen projection in a porn film parody.

The objects that surround the stage are loud — they speak of desperate consumerism, failed dreams and dead end horizons — but Olinghouse and the performers know how to use them aptly and never allow them to take over the narrative. If the theater is her circus, Olinghouse becomes an object tamer of sort, playing with their performativity and altering their meaning: a cheese puff becomes a bullet, a piece of Wonderbread an absurd second skin or body fluid, a pink balloon a visual metaphor for a life that sputters away in both comical and tragic manner. Hyper aware of the many mediums she is drawing from, Olinghouse performs with careful restraint and an attention to subtle but telling details– amidst the apparent decay of grandma’s life there are still fleeting gestures of control, such as when she chooses to adjust the rug, maybe to respond to what she deems a better alignment, or removes a tiny piece of hair from her acrylic pants.

At times the objects become extensions of the self, as when Mohr hugs an orange soda bottle or a foam mattress, creating a grotesque body that echoes the transformations that artist Cindy Sherman undergoes in her setup photographs. At the end of the piece, the TV monitor– which sits center stage, as omnipresent as in the contemporary household- shines its artificial light on the performer. She sits on a chair facing the TV on the rug, which, disconnected from the other areas of the stage, becomes an island in and of itself and points to isolation and alienation. As the house lights fade away, her body, ghostlike, disappears to become a mere reflection of the B-movie featured on the monitor.

The piece oscillates between horizontality and verticality, activating the spaces in-between. Grandma is always on the verge of falling, balance is precarious. Suddenly deviant, objects escape her grasp and roll away: plastic glasses drop one by one from the tower of glasses that she is holding; Twinkies cascade over her tray; her body slumbers against the foam mattress that she presses against her torso. At a discussion organized a day before the premiere with Bay Area artists Xandra Ibarra and Anne Walsh, Olinghouse evokes the use of these “failed objects” and what they say about a certain American landscape we are living in. “These objects have a relationship with the cartoonish, but all have sinister undertones.” Her interest in objects arises from her work as an archivist for the Trisha Brown Dance Company for the past 9 years, diving into “the tactility of the history of an artist.” This is apparent in the way Grandma highlights the performativity of sounds, fabrics and smells. The shuffle of grandma’s white shoes, the fizz-like utterance of the Cheetos when stepped on, the crackling of the faux leather cloth items, the sickening smell of Wonderbread (I’m reminded of a David Sedaris’ story in which the foul smell of old smoke and dirty laundry are so strong that they alone could “peel the paint out of the wall”), the ‘pop’ sound made by the 70s cylinder-shaped TV buttons when grandma releases them, all participate in rendering the work highly palpable, pushing it into the realm of the hyper realistic.

Olinghouse’s interest in the tactility of a medium also appears in her collaboration with the New York City based Australian film artist Shona Masarin, whose work involves the physical, alchemical, and sculptural manipulation of found images and materials to create abstract animations. In the discussion with Ibarra and Walsh, Olinghouse had shared being struck by the “erasure” of humor in post modern dance. She explores that erasure quite literally, by performing a ghost character that appears and disappears from the screen in Ghost line, a 2013 film directed in collaboration with Masarin, which was projected before Grandma. About the film, Olinghouse wrote: “In Ghost line , we bring together our respective mediums in film and performance to create a flickering portrait of histories overlooked and re-written. Inspired by ghost towns, silent era clown films, and Samuel Beckett’s Ghost Trio , this film explores the body as a conduit for transformation. Playing with the anatomy of a moving image, within 24 still frames per second, we experiment with movement in relation to different camera speeds, using in-camera editing as a way to capture and manipulate the elasticity and rhythms of my ghost character. Shona gives the clown language a visuality and materiality by exploding the surface of the film with optical printing, contact printing, hand painting, drawing, and frame-by-frame animation.”

The play between presence and absence, between artificial and real, is carefully navigated in Grandma. Grandma is there –and so are we, sitting on the stage- but in a sense she is also a ghost whose relationship to the living is tenuous. Her main interactions are with the “failed objects” that surround her and that have, in some ways, taken over her. She holds the soda bottle in a tight grasp like her life depends on it. More than an object, the TV has become a “narrative body itself,” to quote visual artist Paul McCarthy – one that has the power to dictate.

After performing with the Trisha Brown Company, Olinghouse went on to study with Bill Irwin, whose work draws from American silent comics. During their work sessions, they would improvise to music and Irwin, her “clown mentor,” would teach her theatrics. “Working with Bill Irwin coincided with my dad dying of alcoholism, so I come to humor in relation with this history and an erasure,” she shared. Movement-wise, Olinghouse found many commonalities between post modern dance and physical comedy: the pendulum, performed by a relaxed body with loose joints, as well as pedestrian and quotidian movements are physical tropes of these two forms, and at play both in Grandma and in Ghost line, in which she also replicates an excerpt of Buster Keaton’s 1921 Playhouse.

Olinghouse is a kinetic DJ of sort, constantly orchestrating the volumes of her movements, those of the performers and of the objects that populate the stage. In a clown therapy workshop the Sunday after the show, she encourages participants to explore what she calls “dis-affinities.” Clown Therapy is an improvisational studio practice that she developed with collaborators Neal Beasley and Eva Schmidt to mine internal states or “landscapes.” “Using 80s and 90s pop songs and costumes as wearable sculptures, clown therapy moves in the direction of clown without developing character or narrative,” she explains. “It has a lot to do with the continuous shape shifting aspect of identity.” In the workshop, she instructs participants to play with modulating their speed and weight. “With rhythm and timing, you can start to generate a sense of narrative without having a narrative. Notice what your affinities are, and play with your dis-affinities: moving with a lot of weight but super fast for example. That is how you can start to disrupt expectations.” Watching her perform in Grandma, it is obvious she has mastered that instruction: she moves from one modality to the next with seamless ease and control.

I keep going back to the image of the foam mattress, that uninviting rectangle made of synthetic material. You drop onto it and it swallows your weight. When you move away, your imprint slowly recedes and the mattress takes back its neutral shape. A week after Grandma, the piece continues to ripple, as if there was still a bit of its shape imprinted in me. Not unlike dissonant objects of memory, showing up like ghosts, then fading away, only to return when least expected.