Spirits in the Material World

It's an elusive matter, seeing beneath the glossy surfaces of the contemporary consumer lifestyle. Credit, products, the iconography of well it all aligns with, and how deeply it jars against, the mains of our desires and fears. I, for instance, recently embarked on a dinner-party discourse on individuality and collectivism inspired by a recent trip to IKEA--you know, the kind of evening in which the host obligingly provides to his guests the bonding experience of a shared epiphany that he is completely full of shit.

And so into the same thicket wanders Big Episode #2 (Show/Business), the second show in the Walker's Out There series and the product of the French-Austrian collective Superamas. This multimedia production combines video, dance, and repetitive retakes on short scenes that address money, consumerism, beauty, and transcendence in a manner that pushes cynicism to the far shores of abstract sincerity (a caveat: I have only viewed the performance on tape).

The action opens with a few guys miming playing instruments to subdued lounge funk, then shifts to a clip from Zoolander in which Ben Stiller's fictional friends immolate themselves at a gas station through stupendous ignorance of the basic laws of flammability. Soon enough we're at an airport cosmetic counter, where a couple of male shoppers perk up at the entrance of a woman who makes the act of holding a beauty product strangely erotic.

Superamas insist on being billed as a collective, and resist individual attribution for their work, but they do credit Air France flight attendant Elisa Benureau (the woman in the airport shop), and much of the provocative resonance in Show/Business arises from her willingness to put her poised beauty to use in a series of self-conscious conceits: She dresses in a Catwoman outfit in a video sequence, performs a pretend sex act on a Rolls Royce executive in another, and at one point gamely performs an a capella version of 4 Non Blondes' "What's Going On" that either deepens the irony quotient or else pushes through into earnestness, depending on one's point of view (a repeated line of dialogue that she recites as one scene fragments and repeats: "Should I try on some underwear for you?" The response: "Yeah! Sure, go for it!").

My communication with Superamas last week was somewhat frustrated by the fact that they were still in Europe (best to see the whole wiretap matter settled before making seditious international calls, one might think) and attendant technical difficulties. We instead communed over a series of e-mailed questions--with the condition that I credit Superamas as an entity rather than the (semi-)anonymous individuals that it comprises.

"No family name or first name should be communicated," I was told.

Fair enough. My first thought was that the use of a conspicuously sexy woman (Benureau) in such a disjointed tableau might be a nod to the murky depths of the human procreative dynamic.

"What is so dark about sex?" came Superamas' response. "Visiting recently a sex shop in Vienna I was stunned to come across lots of couples and smiling people in there! What a relief, don't you think so?"

Sure! The next matter that came to mind was the show's use of the surfaces of the consumer age, in a manner both distancing and affectionate. One expects an attack on consumerism, but instead finds it all held up for a good-natured laugh.

"We consider ourselves part of the landscape we are describing or dealing with," adds the Superamas communiqué.

Which seems to be the strength of this odd, idiosyncratic show. It plays with the packaging of art and the soul, and the cheapening of sexuality, yet sets it to a Wham! soundtrack and compels Catwoman to teach a bewildered man to feel the cosmic vibes of the room they're in. And when we meet the aforementioned Rolls Royce bigwig, it's framed in terms of Superamas hitting him up for dough. We're definitely not left feeling in any way above it all, which is appropriate, since we're not.