Drawing on the canon of queer and radical feminist performance art, Lauren Barri Holstein’s Notorious at the Barbican Centre is a slap in the face of convention. Alternatively known as ‘The Famous’, Holstein pushes, prods and (literally) pisses on formal representations of the female body in an anarchic, brash cacophony of saccharine pop, feathers and vaginal secretions; foregrounding the abject.
The stage is a greyscale, decadent assembly of chandeliers and velvet drapes soundtrack to a looped clip of a crackling gramophone. Nestled in the Barbican’s basement Pit theatre, Notorious is tucked away sub-street level like a naughty secret, driven to the underground whilst some lofty Shakespearean production takes place several metres above our heads.
Notorious opens with plumes of smoke and three witchy corpses hanging behind the weighty curtains; humming and groaning in and out of harmony with each other. Ghostly legs protrude from beneath uniform dresses styled from tresses of grey hair extensions. “So there are rumours going around about me- have you heard them?” Holstein purrs, in hushed Kardashian tones. Her face is projected in real time, luminous green onto feathered curtains. The curious backdrop gives the projection a textured distortion, amplifying her exaggerated features. Holstein parades the video camera, the LED screen reflecting a mirror image back towards her. She confesses stories of sleeping in forests, decomposing corpses and animals penetrating her vagina- all delivered in a thick, breathy whisper. Her words are laced with conspiring voices, blurring the distinctions of truth and reality in performance and systematically critiquing her exaggerated gender performance.
She surveys the audience and thanks former students for attending, momentarily dropping the valley girl guise to assume her reality as an academic at Queen Mary University. Holstein convulses erratically, sound tracked by Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop”, madly jerking at her pubis and imitating a crudely explosive orgasm somewhere between twerking and electrocution. The final flourish is a jelly snake emerging from her vagina whilst gyrating, gazing into the audience and subsequently eating it. Holstein is unsettling, brash, and quite frankly- punk as fuck.
Her wig falls off in the frenzy, unabashedly revealing an exposed flesh coloured skull-cap that mutates her complex gender identity. What follows is a series of shrill confessions, “I know that I can be a whore sometimes and also I’m really sorry for being such a slut […] last night I snuck into your flat and replaced all of your garbage bags with female condoms because they’re roughly the same size”. A grizzly series of apologies follow from Holstein’s spooky minions (Krista Vuori and Brogan Davison), charting bestiality, abused tampons and vomit-related blunders, drawing on audience members to project their pleas for pardon. These become more and more farfetched, questioning feminine exteriority. “I’m really sorry about my face” grins Krista, maniacally. She proceeds to imitate her own suicide, hanging to her “favourite song” No Limit by 2 Unlimited. After a minute or so, Krista tires of the hanging and starts feverishly bounding in time in to the music.
Holstein dons a squid wig and a dress made of beads and braids that expose her bare breasts. Retrieving the video camera, she fishes the lens between her labia before asking “familiar?”. Soon we notice an artificial eye has been placed inside her vagina and Holstein twists her legs, making the lips of her labia open and close imitating a winking eye. “Vaginas are hilarious you guys” she snarls, before placing the ball in her mouth and sucking, chewing and spitting the putrid orb to the beat of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships”. Holstein starts to deconstruct her fishy headdress, pulling it tentacle after tentacle and smacking them against her own body in an act of voyeuristically motivated self-flagellation. A lone tentacle flies into the audience, she kisses the residual legs. The track loops and Holstein is suspended and bound and passing on the remaining tentacles to her minions she is lightly whipped. Thereafter, Brogan is told to “incorporate a lesbian sex scene” and delivers an x-rated monologue, fancifully inconsistent and aligned with the male gaze of contemporary pornography. The absurdity of the story reaches its climax as Brogan screams of being “furiously fisted with pizza”.
Holstein is suspended again, this time with the cry that “I need to purify myself”. She inserts test-tubes of coloured paint, confetti and coins into her vagina to the tune of Disney’s “Let it Go” and Miley’s “Wrecking Ball”.“Are you feeling better now? I’m feeling better” smiles Holstein, in-between gasps for air. What’s interesting about all of the evening’s physically intense skits is that despite the formal dance training of Holstein and her troupe, they are thoroughly exhausted and breathless following each rendition; complaining and swearing unrelentingly.
“You’re here so I have to do something I suppose” she sighs, changing into her final incarnation; a sickening agglomeration of a Lolita-style crop-top and skirt, topped with a Rococo wig that she parades giggling, drinking soda and hula-hooping. As the hoop presses against her diaphragm Holstein erupts with burps that intersect her girlish giggles. She whines for want of a piss, spits out her mouthful of soda, curtsies and projects a resounding belch.
Retiring to an armchair in the corner of the stage Holstein reflects on her multiple forms, drifting between theatricality and presented reality. “You guys, this is the real me, the pure me, I’ve been resurrected as a sexy baby. This is how you should remember me… as I truly am.” This final form is a “rebirth”, cultivated by the audience’s desires to witness a woman being punished for her sexual agency because as Holstein rightfully articulates, “it’s really enjoyable to feel pity”.
The performance culminates in an act of public urination over a small heap of popping candy which Holstein eats (“I just had to!”). She submerges her body in it, before finally assuming a highly dramatised “dead” pose, framed by her two underlings as the gramophone crackle resumes and then swells into Britney Spears’s “Work Bitch”.
In sum, Lauren Barri Holstein’s Notorious was born to unashamedly incite disgust. Holstein is no stranger to hitting the press for her radical performance art, gaining notoriety in The Telegraph in 2015 for showing clips from her production Splat! during her time as a first year lecturer at Queen Mary University. Notorious delights in Kristeva’s notion of the abject, and clumsily, stickily, meshes the perverse with the intimate. But does it promise anything less? Of course not. Despite critical lambasting from conservative publications, Holstein is making a stern comment on the socio-cultural implications of hyper-sexualisation in the post-modern age and interrogates the taboo and stigmatism that still pervades the female form.
Notorious takes the road:
18th November-Tjarnarbio, Every Body’s Spectacular, Reykjavik, Iceland.
23rd November- Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Brighton, UK.
Words, Ellie Potts @eldpotts