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Who wants to punch a clown?

by Jeffrey Byrd

Consider the classic punching bag. Perhaps the only toy designed to be attacked, the weighted bottom means the big balloon bounces back after every punch with masochistic glee. In his performance, John G Boehme used nine such toys, adorned with cartoon clowns. Each bag featured two clowns actually, one on either side. One clown is shown laughing maniacally with a gap-toothed smile; the other in tears. Both hold their legs in a manner suggesting a recent kick in the nuts. A toy like this certainly begs the question if violence is a learned behavior. Who wants to punch a clown? Especially a clown who’s crying.

Boehme wore only a thobe, the long white robe popular among Middle Eastern men. After mopping the floor of the gallery, Boehme applied clear latex to his gray chin curtain beard. He then assumed a prayer pose, prostrated on the floor and proceeded to blow up the clowns. While the process was less explosive than that phrase suggests, it was certainly not easy. Boehme huffed and puffed, gasped and wheezed and cradled each clown in his arms as he breathed him to tumescent life. As one clown assumed its familiar bowling pin shape, Boehme would place it on his back and begin inflating the next. The clowns eventually toppled onto the floor, bunching around the crouching, heaving Boehme in what might be described as a slow-motion clown orgy.

The labored process drew on and eventually three young men volunteered themselves to assist Boehme in completing his task. Not willing to acquiesce to what might be considered performance ageism, Boehme topped off the last clown himself, thank you very much.

Once his inflatable entourage was assembled, Boehme led a pilgrimage outside the gallery and around the block, with stops along the way in the parking lots of a bank and the Yo-Yo Coin Laudromat to share sunflower seeds with the audience. When on the move, Boehme carried a clump of clowns in his arms, a kind of mobile scrum of vinyl and air. Volunteers again helped by carrying the remaining clowns, reassembling the herd whenever stops were made.

The journey ended back inside the gallery. Boehme began to deflate the clowns, uncorking each one, squeezing the clown into shrinking submission. The space filled with a chorus of loud hisses as even more audience members joined Boehme in putting his posse to rest. He carefully folded the deflated lumps and packed them in a candy-striped bag.

To conclude the piece, Boehme shaved off his beard, alternately using scissors, straight razor and a sharpened metal credit card that has appeared in previous performances. The beard, Boehme’s garment and prayer-like postures seen earlier in the performance all referenced a kind of generic Middle Eastern stereotype. While it could be possible that Boehme is, in fact, Muslim, I am not convinced. Maybe it was all the clowns in his company. His caricature seemed to toy more with our sense of image and reality. Through the simple act of shaving, Boehme suggested just how easily these packages of charged signifiers can be assembled and disassembled. The beard remained intact as Boehme placed it on a pedestal and stood before us a mere man in a nightshirt. There was a bit of bloodshed, but considering the expectations I had when I saw a room full of punching bags, the low-key violence of a shaving mishap was a bit of a surprise.

The responses of the audience were surprising as well. While the frequent viewer interventions that occurred during this piece might be considered a hijacking of Boehme’s art, perhaps it was the audience that refused to be hijacked by taking the bait of the slap-happy clowns. What started as a potential brawl instead became a road trip; a bonding moment of shared experience and collaboration. To his credit, veteran performer Boehme gave the audience a trip they obviously wanted to take. After months of violence in places like Baltimore, Ferguson and so many others, perhaps it was a trip we needed to take.

photo courtesy of the artist
Jeffery Byrd is a performance artist who has presented work all over the globe. His writing has appeared most recently in Performance Research. He is a Professor and Head of the Department of Art at the University of Northern Iowa.
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