For 30 years, performance artist Finley has confronted politics, sexuality, feminism and abuses of power by using the instrument she knows best: her body.
With unsparing honesty and an eagerness to shed her clothing for art, the New York activist and provocateur has appeared onstage nude and slathered head to toe in chocolate for the sake of feminism. In the 1990s, at the peak of her popularity, she battled the U.S. Supreme Court over artistic censorship, and has dressed up as famous women, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Martha Stewart.
Reached at her home in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., Finley admits that’s she’s mellowed out somewhat in public performances. The clothes stay on these days, but her usual targets — gender disparity, citizenship and freedom of expression — remain the same in Finley’s newest political satire, “The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery,” being staged this Friday, Jan. 12, at Miami Light Project. “Unicorn Gratitude Mystery” confronts the 2016 general election, with Finley portraying Donald Trump (wearing a wig, a red MAGA hat, the signature scowl) and Hillary Clinton (blue pantsuit, wig) onstage.
“My show is already about the fire and the fury,” Finley says with a laugh, referencing the Michael Wolff book “Fire and Fury,” which probes the first nine months of Donald Trump’s presidency. “I look at the sexuality of power and greed. But there’s a lot of humor in the performance. I actually use Trump’s tweets, his speeches, and I sound like him. I take him to another, crazier level.”
“Unicorn,” Finley says, is composed of three short pieces that share a frustration with the public’s habit of taking refuge in archetypes and fantasies in American politics, such as the fixation with Trump’s hair and Clinton’s emails. Finley decided to double down on the fantasy: In one segment, she dresses as a unicorn, which she says has come to symbolize white liberalism and entitlement in American politics.
“I use [Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s] archetypes as a way to understand our culture,” says Finley, whose show will also address the Harvey Weinstein scandal. “I look to them as portals. If you watch Trump talking about Hillary’s emails with the sound off, he looks like he’s frothing at the mouth. I see it as a sexualized frenzy, the way people talk about Hillary’s clothes and pantsuits and emails.”
Finley’s performance art has long explored ways in which women are treated and abused, often with penalties to her career. Her 1990 performance in which she covered her nude body in chocolate ignited a freedom-of-expression war with conservative groups, notably the Christian-leaning Traditional Values Coalition and late Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. As more politicians entered the fray, the government-funded National Endowment for the Arts, which at first recommended Finley for a grant, later denied her NEA funding for violating grounds of “decency.” Finley re-created the performance by posing nude for Playboy in 1990, a pictorial that also depicted political humorist Bill Maher pretending to lick chocolate sauce off her body.
“We even sued the NEA,” Finley recalls. “It went before the Supreme Court, and we lost. I’ve spent a lot of my life reflecting on that time, and what I’ve learned from that is that I’m a unicorn. I had to understand my own white privilege, that even being censored as a straight, white woman was more exposure than people of color who don’t even get an opportunity.”
That “The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery” will be performed in Miami is important to Finley. The last time she appeared in South Florida, during Art Basel 2013, Finley premiered the piece “Sext Me if You Can,” in which she drew illustrations inspired by erotic photos sent by her audience.
“Miami is a bilingual sanctuary,” Finley says. “You can’t deny its importance and value as a culture that the rest of America should be moving toward.”
“Karen Finley: The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery” will be staged at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, at Miami Light Project at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St. Admission costs $5-$15 via BrownPaperTickets.com. Call 305-237-7700 or go to MDC.edu.
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