James Kubie
Human sheep, spilled milk at the MCA

Lori Waxman | Special to the Tribune
July 10, 2009
Last week in the Museum of Contemporary Art, nine sheep sat primly on short wooden stools, waiting. A 10th examined their gums and teeth one by one. Having passed inspection, the sheep proceeded to milk themselves, shear one another's hair and knit woolen stockings. They then dutifully cleaned up the spilled milk, bottled the washing liquid, stored the clipped hair and folded the socks. After carefully arranging each item on a wooden shelf, the sheep left the gallery.

Sheep at the MCA? Sheep's milk spilled (gorgeously) on the museum's black terrazzo floor? The premise might sound comic, or at least bizarre, but it is neither.

"The Body Parlor," created by Katrina Chamberlin and James Kubie and presented as part of "Here/Not There," a five-week-long series at the MCA (Tuesdays through Aug. 2), is of the utmost seriousness and familiarity, the setting for a thoughtful and visceral performance that trades not in animal humor or the shock of the weird, but rather in the profundity and complexity of bodily sacrifice and human ritual.

These two related and enduring aspects of human history are more traditionally understood through the context of religion, but Chamberlin and Kubie have meaningfully chosen to examine their contemporary significance through the theme of animal husbandry. Animal husbandry? Could there be a more anachronistic phrase? But if the breeding and care of animals seem outmoded, think harder: Industrial farming is beginning to be recognized by some as a colossally harmful practice that should be replaced by more ecological and sustainable methods; farmers markets are burgeoning while food conglomerates race to incorporate organic and all-natural goods into their product lines.

Hence "The Body Parlor's" sheep -- or rather, humans in sweet, hand-felted sheep's masks, their coats light and soft, their large, doe-shaped eyes gently closed. By meshing the human and the animal, but without overdoing it -- the masks cover just half of the performers' faces -- Chamberlin and Kubie get us to care about these animals, in a way that might not otherwise come naturally to those raised on supermarket meat and synthetic fleece. The sheep are handled firmly but kindly, respected as living, feeling creatures whose bodies provide humans with the sustenance of milk, soap and wool (meat will be the focus of a new performance this coming fall).

Meanwhile, the highly ritualized and aestheticized manner in which the performers harvest and store these animal products suggests them as precious objects offered up for both religious sacrifice and conscientious consumerism. In the contemporary city, where the godly temples of the one have been replaced by the market temples of the other, eco-boutiques display their wares with all the reverence and piety formerly reserved for ritual offerings, often as not in a faux-rural style that hearkens to the days when sheep's milk came from an old barn, not a store lined in salvaged barn wood.

This preciousness, both authentic and stylized, infuses the thoughtful objects that, in addition to gallons of sheep's milk, make up the material stuff of "The Body Parlor." Glass udders, a wood and leather udder stand, molded sheep's fat soap have all been handmade by the artists. Purchased props are simple and made of natural elements.

Much of this material meaningfulness could be witnessed during the event, especially once the audience began to wander in and among the performance stations, but having it on view for the show's half-hour duration hardly seemed enough.

Fortunately, "The Body Parlor" was not a singular event. After the performance's end, the props were cleaned of milk and moved down to a gallery on the museum's first floor, where they were displayed as performance remains and sculptural objects, arranged alongside a highly controlled and moving video version of the performance itself.

Museums often have trouble negotiating this very intersection between the ephemeral, theatrical needs of performance works and the static, contemplative requirements of object-based practices. But with "The Body Parlor" as the first in the "Here/Not There" series, the MCA offers a promising solution to this museological problem.

Curated by Tricia Van Eck and Michael Green, the series presents performances by Chicago-based artists, followed by weeklong exhibits of the remains. Highlights include "repurpose" by Amber Ginsburg, Carla Duarte and Lisa Rousset, an interactive remaking of knit sweaters, Chicago bricks and seeds that will roam in and around the museum on yellow carts beginning Tuesday, and a sub-series of four pieces on the theme of family summer vacations by the brilliantly hyperactive and always surprising Justin Cooper, beginning July 28.

There's nothing like witnessing a live performance, with all of its unpredictability, tension and directness, but as "The Body Parlor" and this entire series attest, if you can't be there, you can always get here later. Meaningful encounters don't all happen in the moment. Others take more time.


"Here/Not There"

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Aug. 2

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.

Price: Free; 312-280-2660 or mcachicago.org