“To New Music and Performance Art Installations”: Performance Artist, Lady Gaga

by Carley Demchuk

Still of Lady GaGa from the "Bad Romance" video

Lady Gaga has arguably become the Queen of Pop—Pop Music, Pop Art, and Pop Culture.  Every idea, each avant-garde detail of her show, is fully represented and pushed to the max, down to the last sequin and false eye-lash.  She transcends the subtle boundaries of art, music, fashion, dance and love in a way that no previous artist has done before. She enters the audience’s intellectual space and preconceived notions of culture and art with her music and art installations making her very difficult to ignore. While many of today’s pop artists are entertainers, none perform quite like Gaga.

Though each song might convey a different concept, during the Monster Ball, each one is linked to the next within her performance-art-exhibition-dance-extravaganza surpassing your typical show or concert to become something bigger.  Her performances are artistic events.  She creates a place and time in which to experience her works where everyone is welcome. She sings live, unlike several other lip-syncing “singers” out there; she dances with her creative team of Haus dancers with extreme gusto; and she exhibits her art, be it video or installation, all while exploiting an idea and referencing countless artists who’ve come before her.  The best part is she is the driving, creative force behind it all.  All of these things, and more, place her in a category far beyond pop music artist, and into the realm of performance artist.

Rather than trying to achieve fame and celebrity status, she strives to create and make her art accessible to all by helping her fans free themselves from their inhibitions, to feel comfortable in their own bodies and their own minds.  She creates on impulse and inspiration, and while some might call her a nut case, she is living her dream, which is more than millions of us sitting in our office cubicles can say.

Lady Gaga at the VMA performing “Paparazzi” performance (2009)

Though not always transparent, generally all of her music, stage installations, fashion, and least expectedly, her video art in between songs, all penetrate various ideas into the viewer’s mental and physical space, while simultaneously breaching the viewer’s sexual space.  Going to one of her shows doesn’t involve sitting still singing along.  It’s a full out experience you’ll never forget, in an almost relational aesthetic-y fashion.  She leaves a huge impact not only with her costumes and billboard hits, but also with statements like, “This is our third of all three nights together… It means that we can have sex and I don’t have to feel like a slut,” and “Just remember.  When you’re alone, I’m alone too. And that is The Fame.”  Gaga, you officially entered Chicago’s cold, lonely, sexually frustrated bubble, leaving no audience member untouched.

More important than sexually provocative, her art is conceptual and intellectually provocative.  She delivers a message, an idea bigger than a simple song or outrageous costume.  There could be several interpretations of any one song, installation or outfit, whether it’s “She looked like a bloody tampon!” as my sister likes to proclaim, or that she bled to death as the martyr of Fame (referring of course to her VMA performance of “Paparazzi”).  She makes you think about what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.

While performing “Paparazzi” in Monster Ball performance, her hair is in pigtail buns with rings looped them attaching her to a higher metal device keeping her leashed to the bar above her head.  While every other song had extensive movement and dance, “Paparazzi” is more motionless.  This performance and hair bun set up left her paralyzed by The Fame and each movement stayed within the controlling, invisible box to appease the camera.

Andy Warhol "Jackie II"

Andy Warhol "Jackie II"

In between moving like Bowie and Freddie Mercury and shining like a disco ball during “Dance in the Dark,” she dances the Charleston on stage and sings her jazz infused acoustic version of “Poker Face” and her borderline blues-y “Speechless” ballad like no other.  When you listen closely, “Bad Romance” has Baroque-esque chords and harmonies intertwined with its criminal horror and masterfully designed lyrics so that you don’t find the repetition of “I want your” whatever (love, psycho, leather-studded-kiss-in-the-sand, revenge, etc) as monotonous but rather enlivened with each verse, enough to make you dance your ass off with the rest of the crowd.  It’s like pop, rock, jazz, dance, classical, and techno all meshed together, variations on a theme.

The transitions from song to song in her performance are flawless.  Her stage becomes a TV of sorts, with three screens going downstage, creating a pseudo triptych to glorify her most iconic images, whether of herself in a gorgeous fashionable dress, or of a bird’s wings flapping.  Most especially I recall a slow motion film clip of her image repeated three times side-by-side, very much akin to Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Jackie II or his Marilyn Monroe series.

Another series towards the end of her show reminded me so much of Matthew Barney, it made me wonder if she ever studied his work, Cremaster Cycle.

Matthew Barney, still from "Cremaster 3"

One clip I remember distinctly, Gaga had a bag over her head, with her hand in her mouth, slowing taking it out, with vocal overlays of Gaga saying politically and aesthetically charged messages.  They were the kind of images and messages that are almost disturbing, yet simultaneously intriguing, causing you to want to see more in order to decipher them and live in her insanely twisted, creative mind just a little longer.

The final video clip is of an alien masked Gaga getting a tattoo on her left shoulder.  During what some say can be an extremely personal experience, you see her shoulder bleeding as the needle and ink permanently stain her skin. The clip ends with Gaga taking the mask off, showing her non-make-up-ed fresh face as she looks over her shoulder with a red nose and teary eyes to view her latest body artwork. She penetrates our bubble with her idea filled imagery, but in showing us footage of her receiving her tattoo, she in turn lets us enter into a small part of her bubble as well.  The relational bad romance aesthetic experience comes full circle.

Editors Note: Lady Gaga was also discussed by Annie Heckman in another Chicago Art Magazine piece, which can be found here.