The sensory overload starts before you even enter the Stamps Gallery to watch the UMS presentation of “(I Could Go On Singing) Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Specifically, noise band Okishima Island Tourest Association blasts its ear-filling, chest-thumping audio into the space, so that hearing a sound technician’s shouted instructions about how the show will work is a challenge, to say the least.
And this sends a signal to audiences pretty immediately: FK Alexander’s performance art piece – which involves Alexander taking the hand of an audience volunteer, locking eyes with them, and singing along, against OITA’s loud, pulsing backdrop noise, to a recording of Judy Garland’s last live performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before her death – isn’t concerned with making you comfortable.
Indeed, it’s not really about you at all. As Alexander explains in her artist statement, her art is a means for her recovery from various wounds, by way of “sensory overload together with grueling repetition and ritual.” Which sums up “(I Could Go on Singing) Over the Rainbow” pretty concisely, actually.
The show’s wholly-fitting title combines the last movie Garland ever made (“I Could Go On Singing”) with her signature song from “The Wizard of Oz.” Audience members are invited to stand in the back, or sit in one of the chairs set up in two rows, or settle on floor pillows at the front, but they’re also encouraged to move to different parts of the gallery throughout the performance; ear plugs, and an “admit one” ticket, are provided; and if you wish to be sung to, you step up to the black X on the floor in the middle of the gallery and offer your ticket to Alexander.
Although you’re confronted by the OITA’s all-encompassing noise before you enter the room, it all grows louder and far more visceral when you enter the gallery’s darkened space, with colored, rolling spotlights positioned in its four corners, and OITA’s two artists – dressed like a hipster Captain and Tenille (if your pop music memory stretches that far back) in opaque aviator glasses – standing stiffly at tables behind Alexander’s performance area.
At the start, Alexander – wearing black tights, black spanks, and a black halter, with exaggerated, glittery eye makeup and huge eyelashes – stands with her hands on her hips, looking straight out at the crowd with her intense gaze until someone steps forward. And then a pattern is established that will repeat itself several times over the course of an hour: an audience member steps to the X; Alexander takes her/his ticket and mouths “thank you”; she goes to one side of the stage to freshen up her lipstick, shrug into a kind of harness and a black, fitted, glittery blazer (bringing to mind Garland’s iconic “Get Happy” costume), and step into a pair of, well, sparkly red pumps, presumably as a nod to “The Wizard of Oz.”
Once Alexander’s fortified herself by way of this ritual, she steps toward the audience member (while OITA’s noise morphs into a heartbeat-like pattern), takes her/his hand, waits for a certain musical cue to punch her other fist into the air as it holds coils of the microphone cord, uses another cue to drop the cord loops so they fall straight, and then, though you barely hear Garland’s voice through the noise, Alexander begins her rendition of “Rainbow,” including a break when she pats out rests over her heart.
When she’s done with the song, and the noise and flashing lights signal the big finale, Alexander kisses her serenadee on the cheek and goes back to the costume-change side, where she takes her shoes and blazer off, touches up her lipstick, and the whole process repeats itself.
Being performance art, everything about “(I Could Go On Singing) Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is undefined and open to your own experience and interpretation of it. One thing I thought about was how hard it is to maintain eye contact with someone over the course of a song; it demands an openness to vulnerability that many of us back away from, especially in the digital age, when hunkered down each day behind our keyboards. This show invites you to test your own boundaries, and experience what it’s like to receive a personal performance.
I also thought about our collective hand-wringing over constant sensory distractions, and our growing anxieties about them hampering our ability to focus. Like many artists, Alexander and OITA don’t choose to strip away what makes us uneasy, but instead turns up the volume on it (literally). And while you might think the rotating spotlights and the garbled noise that’s so loud that you can feel it in your whole body would make it impossible to zero in on Alexander’s performance, you find yourself leaning in, and listening more sharply, to hear through the wall of sound that (ironically) feels designed to push you away.
Don’t get me wrong; “(I Could Go On Singing) Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is not for everyone, and it will leave many scratching their heads; it’s for sure an odd way to spend an evening (and an upcoming performance will last three hours continuously rather than one).
But one point of great interest to me involves the version of “Rainbow” Alexander chose to re-animate again and again. Garland’s original recording, immortalized in “The Wizard of Oz,” and performed when she was just a teenager, feels dreamy and hopeful; but by the time Garland performs it as a deeply-troubled, disillusioned middle-aged woman, the song’s become a plaintive, almost-angry cry in the wilderness.
And when you’re feeling that way, it’s good to hold onto someone’s hand and look into her eyes, and know that she’s seeing you, too.
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