When I arrived a few hours before the opening of Chicks on Speed’s largest solo show to date, the main space of CAC was scattered with a messy junk-food buffet, a few bedraggled students working at sewing machines, a local artist riding around aimlessly on a bicycle and technicians trying to make a kinetic wall painting rotate. This hectic atmosphere presumably fitted the intentionally chaotic, communal aesthetic of the show. After all, the Chicks (Anat Ben-David, Kathi Glas, Alex Murray-Leslie, Melissa Logan and A.L. Steiner) had been living inside the space for three weeks before the opening, in dome-shaped tents covered in pink fabric with red nipples perched on top – a campsite of multiple pairs of upturned breasts. It was hard to tell whether the half-unpacked suitcases, sacks of fabric swatches and tutus hanging out of the tent openings were deliberately placed or whether they were actual traces of the Chicks’ living conditions.
The show, entitled ‘Shoe Fuck!’, was ostensibly a statement about the fetishization of fashion commodities; but I suspect it was also an excuse to display a large, provocative painting of one of the half-naked Chicks pleasuring herself with the business-end of a Chanel high-heel. The rest of the space was filled with banners, murals and slogans, such as ‘Free thinking is for free’. Most were advertisements for the Chicks’ own record releases. Despite the improvised feeling of an art school, there was also something manufactured about the vibe; by the time the official opening began, the space had been miraculously cleaned up. It was a sign of just how savvy these artists are at adapting their practice to straddle the divide between DIY aesthetics and easy institutionalization.
The group of four christened the opening with one of their fabled live musical performances. The stage featured an arrangement of white plinths displaying designer footwear that the group had transformed into musical instruments. One by one, the Chicks began manipulating the adapted objects: one of them slammed two rocks together; another repeated the word ‘Hello’ into an amplified ballet slipper. Gradually two DJs introduced beats, and the squawky noises converged into a strangely melodic cacophony. The next song began with an audio sample of a Scottish artist, presumably their frequent collaborator Douglas Gordon, negotiating a ‘50/50 deal’ with his gallerist over the phone – an apt introduction to the musical niche the group has carved out for itself: clever lyrics with conspicuous references to art-world insiders, laid over poppy manufactured beats. But these semi-ironic, self-referential shout-outs to fellow art stars are the more pretentious and forced aspect of their stage show. The Chicks perform with gusto. Though none of them appears to have any particular musical or vocal talent, they do have an infectious energy. There is enough arm-raising, fist-pumping and skirt-twirling in their performance to make for perfect publicity shots every time. Even their song lyrics are admittedly catchy: refrains such as, ‘Brush it up, rip it down, expensive glorified wallpaper’ (sung in a Kraftwerk-esque monotone), circulated in my head for at least a few seconds after their 20-minute set ended.
After the show the place cleared out as quickly as it had filled. The next day the gallery returned to an empty, echoey space, where one had a chance to see how the Chicks skilfully used the exhibition to insert themselves into feminist canons. But their eagerness to align themselves with their fellow artists, historical and contemporary, can seem opportunistic and irritating, particularly in a series of videos of themselves and Gordon, including one in which they cavort naked at night with a video camera, smearing paint on each other’s faces and bodies. Before we can criticize the cliché, they beat us to it: the next video includes the disclaimer: ‘Warning: this video contains performance art.’ The most captivating video shows the Chicks roaming an Yves Klein exhibition after hours, arranging themselves in naked configurations in front of his famous ‘Anthropométrie’ paintings. There is something both sexy and fascinating about this female intervention into chauvinist art history, but it becomes less so when a man enters the mix. Sadly, it turns into parody again when we see Gordon’s squat form jauntily plodding around in the nude. Then it becomes more like adolescents discovering each other’s bodies, undermining the Chicks’ feminist pretensions and lowering their collaboration to the level of chums cheekily reinforcing each other’s art-world status. The Chicks may have found a clever cross-over market for their work, but it will probably collapse when the bubble bursts. As one journalist wrote, they only sound good ‘right this second’. Then again, that was in the year 2000.