Joshua Sofaer’s A bare-buttocked lecture
by Jolijn de Wolf
I grew up with my sister who had a severe handicap, physical and mentally. She was different and quite wonderful. One of the best things about her was that she did not wear a mask. She simply did not have the mental capacity to develop a shield around herself. Or to project an image of who she wanted to be. She could only be who she was, and that was enough.
Living so close to her made me develop a kind of “allergy” against people wearing masks. This can be problematic sometimes, because I myself also wear a mask. Maybe even several.
Performance art for me is a place where we play with these masks. We question them, put on different masks and – on rare occasions- we take them of.
When I went to see Joshua I was not only expecting to see a bare buttocks lecture, but also someone without a mask. Bare hearted, in a way. Someone who took the courage to expose himself and to put himself in a vulnerable position. This expectation was an object of my imagination. Joshua only promised his audience a bare buttocks and a lecture, not a bare heart.
When I enter the space where Joshua is performing I see him standing there, looking at us while we sit down. He wears a grey suit and starts his lecture by mentioning that he is going to try to embarrass himself and that he – if his theory is right – will fail. While the lecture continues he uses several techniques to get embarrassed: sniffing pepper to make himself sneeze, showing naked pictures of himself with an erection, and telling stories about embarrassing situations with his mother. And, as promised, his suit has a hole in the back, revealing his buttocks. Since he does not succeed to blush during the lecture – and therefore proves his own theory – the performance ends with him singing a song while wearing a mask with red lights in the cheeks, creating an artificial blush.
During this performance I did not experienced any embarrassment (which Joshua also assured us it would not happen) nor the shared human experience of failure. The piece just examined the phenomenon embarrassment, using analytics, storytelling and humour. Exactly as promised and, when I asked him, exactly what he intended.
So why am I struggling with this performance? Did my expectations get the best of me? Why do I want to see someone without a mask anyway?
Maybe I just wanted to see Joshua. Who is he? How does he deal with the teeth grinding experience called embarrassment? I know what he looks like naked. I know what his mother did at that embarrassing dinner with his new boyfriend. I know that he is smart and did in-depth research about the phenomenon embarrassment. But I don’t know Joshua. By deliberately making a fool out of himself, he tackles any kind of vulnerability.
While he jokes and analyses, Joshua constructs a distance, armour. This armour does not resonate well with my allergy for masks. Why is this armour there? Does it represent the shield we all built in order to protect ourselves from embarrassment or other harm? To show this armour?
I have the feeling this armour was not there intentionally. The mask was visible, but the performer unaware of this mask. Which makes the presence of the armour an obstacle for me to get into the performance.
Maybe part of the distance that I felt is also caused because this is not the first time that Joshua performed this piece. 15 years has passed since Joshua performed the lecture. What is it like to perform something you have created more then a decade ago? Can Joshua still relate to his twenty something self? It is a challenge for the peformer. For me it translates into this performance as a distance that contributes to the armour.
This made the piece quite an intellectual experience, not an emotional one. So he did deliver a piece about embarrassment. It just did not meet my expectations. Which shows one of the difficulties that a performer has to deal with: his or her intensions meeting expectations of the audience.