BY Charles LaBelle in Frieze | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Motel California

'Platinum Oasis' at the Coral Sands

BY Charles LaBelle in Frieze | 09 SEP 01

Admittedly, I spent a lot of time in cheap motels when I was 16 and in my second year of high school. Living just north of Detroit, where the winters were harsh, there was often no place for us to go when we wanted to party, so we'd head down Woodward Avenue to The Joker Inn or Lucky Eight Motel or The Sagamore Lodge (affectionately dubbed the 'shag more'), rent a $12 room, fill up a bathtub with ice, load in a keg of Mickey's, turn on the porn channel and call all our stoner friends. Invariably, as the night wore on, we'd endure increasingly angry encounters with motel managers, hookers, truckers, junkies and hapless out-of-towners actually looking for a good night's rest. Frequently fights broke out and cops were called but they were fun-filled nights none the less, full of freedom and energy and the possibility of something strange and wonderful or awful and unforgettable happening.

Ever since then, I've had a soft spot for flea-bag motels, roadhouses, crumbling deco flop-houses and the like. Neither completely private nor really public, these places exist in a Burroughsian interzone where nothing is true and everything is permitted. The anonymity they offer throws our very sense of self into question. Don't we all act differently in motels? You can be anybody in a cheap motel: a businessman fleeing an embezzlement rap, a famous country singer looking for some peace, a hit-man waiting for the call. Or, like Janet Austin in room 208 at the Coral Sands, you can be 'Sweet Hostage' dressed in Valentine red, offering unconditional love, in person or on the phone (George W.'s number was dialled but apparently he was out), to any forlorn soul. Marie Antoinette was there as well, serving chocolate cake (it was Bastille Day, after all), as was rapper Dead Lee, who'd installed a cramped cell in his room and, dressed in a bright orange LA County Jail jumpsuit, was happily taking prisoners.

Co-organized by LA performance artist Ron Athey and impresario Vaginal Davis as part of the city-wide Outfest 2001, 'Platinum Oasis' was a 24-hour performance/installation/burlesque-and-body-art extravaganza-cum-marketplace. The emphasis was firmly on goods and services. Wandering from room to room, you could have or be had in any number of imaginative scenarios. From bondage demonstrations courtesy of Mistress Strix to Bruce La Bruce's fake-blood-spattered room, where you could have a Polaroid of yourself taken as a murder victim, the body reigned supine. El Cholo, a beefy bull dyke from East LA sat outside no. 120 waiting for visitors. Inside on the bed were an array of humungous dildos, industrial-size pump-bottles of lubricant, enema bags, paddles, whips, titty-clips, ball-gags, ropes, cellophane, candles and a barbecue butane lighter. There was a nail salon and a massage parlour, a palm reader and psychic, a plushie room where you could get powdered and diapered, a sensory depravation room, an amateur porn room where you could participate or just pose with one of the male models, a mud room, surveillance room, a confessional, a hypnosis room, a 'Tekken Torture Tournament', and Vaginal Davis' own interactive installation entitled 'Topping from the Bottom', which I didn't get to experience because the queue was too long. On a pool-side stage, performances, music and readings went on through the night, including pieces by Ann Magnusson, Kembra Pfahler (of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black), Athey and the Velvet Hammer Review.

I've often lamented the fact that so much performance art has, in the past decade, fled the galleries and sought refuge in clubs, cabarets and festivals such as this one. Certainly, the whole NEA debacle and right-wing antagonism were widely responsible, but on another level there's the feeling that contemporary art has become so dry that it can't make room for this kind of juicy, overtly theatrical, overtly political work. Which is a shame since body manipulation artists such as Athey and London-based Franko B share a genealogy going back to Chris Burden, Hermann Nitsch, Carolee Schneeman, Valie Export, Gina Pane and even Joseph Beuys. Yet the schism between performance and other art forms only seems to be growing and disappointingly few non-queer, non-performance artists from the LA art scene showed up at the Coral Sands to check things out. Conversely, however, I should say that few of the performance works and installations on view seemed to have any reference or relevance to current art discourse. The one exception, however, was Davis' send-up of Vanessa Beecroft, The US Navy Peel. Putting a dozen boys and girls wearing sailor tops and tighty-whities through their paces, including peeking in each of their drawers to comment on their equipment's readiness, Davis wittily revealed what few have said about Beecroft's work - that it's all about power.