An Erotic Avant-Porn Artist Bares Her Body and Soul

AUSTIN, Texas The British playwright Howard Barker once wrote, Tragedy is the greatest art form of all. It gives us the courage to continue with our life by exposing us to the pain of life. It is unsentimental, it takes us seriously as human beings, it is not condescending. Paradoxically, by seeing pain we are made greater, it becomes a need.

Such is the tantalizing lure of Narcissister, an erotic mixed-media performance artist and subject of the compelling new documentary Narcissister Organ Player, playing at this years SXSW. The film, directed by the mononymous masked curiosity, deconstructs her acclaimed performance-art piece Organ Player through the prism of her mothers illness and death.

It opens on Narcissisternude, save a black garter belt, stockings and heels. Splotches of white paint mark her body; red pigtails and a signature Barbie doll mask obscure her face. As she fights her way through the birth canal, a chorus of angelic voices crescendos to the heavens. Then, she exits the vast vagina and plops onto the stage.

The action of Narcissister Organ Player shifts inside a posh L.A. apartment, with the enigmatic artist recreating a womans life journeypresenting first as a small child before shedding outfits like a matryoshka doll to capture teendom, marriage, and pregnancy. For the final transformation she is completely nude, and proceeds to remove grey braids and a wrinkled mask from her merkin-covered vaginapulling objects out of bodily orifices is a common theme in her workplacing them on her person.

Et voila, meet Mama Narcissister.

I can put things in my vagina, I can traverse taboos, I have no limitsto my physical body, to my identity, to my womanhoodthat I will accept.
Narcissister

We soon learnvia a medley of home-movie interviews with her late mother and family photos, with Narcissister placing her thumb over her facethat her mom was a Sephardic Jew from Morocco, and her father was an African-American from Watts, Los Angeles. The two met during their graduate school studies at Columbia Universityhe in physics, she in teachingand fell in love, two outsiders craving the comfort of companionship.

As a mixed-race child growing up in blonde-haired, blue-eyed Southern California, Narcissister was persona non grata. Children would call her nigger at the playground, and her mother struggled to tame her curls. She often fantasized about being a middle-aged white woman in a nude tuxedo dress and pearls named Kathy Winters whose schedule was packed with appointments.

I didnt have their hair or their blue eyes. I didnt have their mothers with the little tennis skirts and blonde ponytails and visors who would pick them up in convertibles from school. But I had this gorgeous body, she recalls, adding, So I tried to figure out a way where I could get love or get the cool surfer boys, and that was by being promiscuous.

Her artistic persona is the embodiment of that outsiderism. She vividly remembers flipping through a dictionary as a youngster and the word narcissist jumped out at her.

I wanted to pick a name that in some way pointed to the fact that Im a person of color, a woman of color, a sister, she explains. It contained this idea of sisteror sisterhoodconcerned beyond self. But I think it also was this idea of actually ironically looking at myself more deeply as a character with a mask than I could without it.

Narcissisters mother was her biggest supporter, and referred to her daughter as an artistic genius. Shed even participate in her erotic performances, sitting onstage in the corner and knitting while her daughter writhed about naked onstage. After, shed offer cute critiques of the work in French like, Your poor little vagina! Her father, on the other hand, was more left brain, remaining hypercritical and uncomplimentary of her creative pursuits.

But Narcissisters mother soon fell ill, as a childhood case of rheumatic fever gave way to open-heart surgery to repair her valves. The operation left her with a visible scar across her chest, and in a fragile state of health for the remainder of her life. She soon became emotionally dependent on Narcissister, who at a young age assumed the role of reluctant caretaker.

The fact that she needed me so much was oppressive. It was a lot of responsibility, she confesses. I really invested myself in this idea that my mother really needed me, and that I was essential to her survival and to her well-being. I think theres a lot of truths and lies in all of that.

Even the mask had so much to do with my mom, she adds. I became powerful and successful as another womananother face, another nameand so I did not threaten our dynamics, or threaten her.

Watching the film, one gets the impression that the Narcissister character is very much shaped by her early-life experiencesthe self-hatred she developed as a mixed-race outsider, her fathers suffocating control over her mother, her mothers carved-up body. The much-ballyhooed Americas Got Talent appearance and her paparazzi-friendly dates with Marilyn Manson belie a woman struggling to navigate the depths of her despair.

One way of looking at that is my mothers body was so present throughout my childhood and throughout my life because of her various illnesses, and what Im doing with my work is saying to myself, I have no limitations. I can put things in my vagina, I can traverse taboos, I have no limitsto my physical body, to my identity, to my womanhoodthat I will accept, she says.

Which brings us to Organ Player. An immense effigy of her mother graces the stage. Narcissister climbs up its right pigtailstark naked, of courseand enters its mouth. This, one assumes, is an R-rated homage to both her mothers erotic relationship with food and the notion that our ancestors live on in us. Shes next digested and shat out in a brown, turd-like bag, emerging from itstark naked, of courseonce more.

At another point in the performance, Narcissisters body is encased in a heart, her black stockings and heels visible underneath. The organ is connected to the effigy by a series of blood vessels. As the heart gives, the beeps of the heart rate monitor grind to a halt, she tears the vessels off and collapses onstage. Her mother is dead.

The effect of Organ Playerand the documentaryis emotional transference. We feel the ecstasy and anguish of Narcissister as she dives headfirst into her reservoir of pain. And what a thrilling, profound experience it is.

Trust me: youve never seen anything like it.

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