Mainstreaming the Avant-Garde: Gender and spectacle at GAGAKOH
by Kirsty Fairclough — University of Salford, United Kingdom
August 03, 2010 – 00:01
Lady Gaga clothed in white, bridal and barefoot, walks slowly in a procession inspired by a stately Shinto wedding parade along a busy Tokyo street to nightclub Tabloid, the performance space that she is about to share with artist Terence Koh. What follows is part pop, part avant-garde and part promotional tool. Here at the Gagakoh charity event sponsored by cosmetics company MAC, she appears as Koh’s bride, passive and willing, oscillating between performance art and pop; the atonal Gregorian-esque chant from Koh, the gay kiss, the white paint and powder covering their bodies, the pseudo-religious imagery ending in the symbolic consummation of their marriage of pop and art. Gaga appears to have found her art alter ego in Koh, both are flamboyant, press hungry performers who share a queer sensibility.
At Gagakoh, Gaga is spectacle. Indeed, she exists as spectacle, both on and off stage. Here she appears to be pushing against the boundaries of a mainstream pop performance. Operating as both a marginal and central figure, playing the art performer off against the pop performer, Gaga is seemingly inviting the viewer to consider that she not only exists for and is aimed at, a mainstream audience, but also aspires to operate in other cultural spheres. By drawing on avant-garde techniques she is aligning herself with a more serious set of practices, here Koh’s art credentials, which permit her to function simply as an icon, straddling the worlds of art and pop with ease.
In this context, as a totally constructed identity, Gaga is freed of normativity, and can both revel in heteronormativity and subvert it. It may be impossible to read her as straight as she consistently highlights gender performativity; she plays male and female, queer and straight. Add to this her professed love for the monster and the grotesque, she can be placed firmly against mainstream pop princesses and can be read as interrogating the performative nature of both gender and sexuality, and their relationship to stardom and celebrity in contemporary culture.
The pop-queer persona, the ferocity of her image and performance style, exemplified here in particular, operate as a rich signifier asking us to use her image in whatever ways are necessary. Yet before we rush to label Gaga as the only progressive mainstream pop star of the twenty first century, we must first consider that the surface mirroring of every environment she encounters may well only speak to self-reflexive mimicry with no purpose.