TORONTO — How do you describe a Jess Dobkin performance? The Toronto-based artist has spewed tiny clowns from her vagina, turned her breasts into puppets, and blown bubbles with her ass. Her unique approach to creation is a bit like Marina Abramović on The Muppet Show; she provides an entry point for challenging topics like mental illness and sexual violence by wrapping them in the fluffy comfort of comedy.
“Humor has been such an important strategy in my work,” Dobkin told me on a break from installing her exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University. “It brings an element of connection and a way that we can all relate to each other. When I’m dealing with more sensitive subject matter, humor can make it more approachable. It creates an invitation into something that’s unfamiliar or transgressive by putting people at ease.”
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Her intermingling of clown, puppetry, and stand-up comedy may be part of the reason that, while she considers herself a performance artist, her work appears far more often in theaters and bars than galleries or museums.
“Part of identifying as a performance artist was about wanting to think outside conventional institutional structures,” Dobkin said. “When I’ve been invited to perform, it’s often been in queer spaces, which is what led me to theaters. I’ve been using theatrical conventions to talk about performance art for a long time. So now, it’s interesting to think about performance art in a gallery space.”
Originally from Scarsdale, New York, Dobkin completed a BA in Women’s Studies at Oberlin College and an MFA at Rutgers University before relocating to Toronto in 2002. She caught the attention of local audiences and critics early on with her quirky and occasionally self-deprecating works, which often centered on lesbian identity. In 2006, she shot to international infamy with “The Lactation Station,” a performance first presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where she offered samples of breast milk for the public. (She gave birth to her child the year before.) Since then, she’s continued to build her profile in Canada, the US, and the UK, with a mix of theater pieces, cabaret performances, and community art projects.
At 51 years old, Dobkin is perfectly positioned for a career retrospective in terms of her place in the field and the volume of work she’s produced over the past 25 years. As she’s worked primarily in an ephemeral medium, there was an open question of how to address her legacy in the format of an exhibition.
“Performance art is about a live encounter. So what does it mean to do a retrospective of work that isn’t present?” Dobkin said. “In performance, time is one of the materials we work with. When remnants of past work come into the gallery, what are they saying now? It’s like bending time so that we can be in all times at once.”
Simply assembling documentation of past pieces would have been the obvious choice. Instead, Dobkin used her past works as objects of reflection to create something entirely new. Pink portable toilets (alternately dubbed “Porta-Janes” and “Latrine Vitrines”) serve as quirky display cases for photos, props, and puppets from past works, intermingled with new materials. An iPad app offers viewers an AR experience when sifting through the boxes that make up her personal archive. Disco and circus music play on tiny speakers throughout the space. A disco ball vulva illuminates the room.
“Her flair for performativity really made it a process of putting the gallery on stage,” said curator Emelie Chhangur. “It’s not necessarily a show about critiquing the gallery or processes of exhibition making. But it makes us deeply aware of what they are. Each space ends up performing a different methodology from her work.”
Dubbed the Wetrospective, the show pays homage to the many elements of Dobkin’s practice. “Wet” refers to both her use of body fluids (as in “The Lactation Station”) and the in-your-face presence of queer sexuality in her practice. With “Being Green” (2009), she became a human puppet, lip-synching to Kermit the Frog’s well-known lament while being fisted by a Jim Henson look-a-like. References to past works haunt the show like friendly ghosts: a self-portrait lactates into one of the portable toilets while an exhausted Kermit sits passed out on another.
The title also captures a second, less obvious reference: the “We” points to a career grounded in collaboration and community building. In 2012, Dobkin co-created “The Artists’ Soup Kitchen” with Catherine Clarke and Stephanie Springgay, which offered free lunches to creative types, providing a site to refuel physically and creatively. In 2015, she launched “The Artist Run Newsstand,” a yearlong project with several dozen creators occupying an empty retail space in the Toronto subway, offering original works and multiples for sale, along with snacks and occasional performances. (In the exhibition, the soup kitchen dishes are rearranged as a mock William Sonoma retail display and remnants from the newsstand become a comedic diorama.)
Collaboration is also central to how the exhibition was conceived. Despite being billed as a solo show, the program features contributions from numerous other artists. This includes a sound bath by Andrew Zealley and the collaborative project “How Many Performance Artists Does It Take To Change a Light Bulb (For Martha Wilson)” (2015), which assembles documentation (video, photographs, drawings, audio recordings, and other formats) of a Dobkin piece, created by 100 other artists, including Zeesy Powers, Milada Kovacova, and Adrienne Crossman.
“Organizing the show this way wasn’t a conscious decision as much as a product of the work,” Dobkin said. “If this was going to be a retrospective of my practice, it would have to include all the people I’ve worked with and learned from and who’ve supported me.”
In making the transition from performance to exhibition, Dobkin had to contend with the fact that she wouldn’t be present the whole time. To compensate, she introduced a group of creatures she’s dubbed the Gremlins. Based on a self-portrait created for her first performance “High Tide” (1991), the figures (more anarchist sex workers than folkloric rabble-rousers) appear throughout, interfering with works, knocking things over, and engaging in general fuckery.
“Bringing back the poster image became a kind of anchor while also disrupting the conventions of a retrospective,” said Dobkin. “The character becomes a kind of trickster docent and performer, taking the piss out of the formality attached to an artist’s first major show while having fun, turning things upside down, and making a mess.”
Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective continues at the Art Gallery of York University (8 Accolade East Building, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto) through September 26. The exhibition is curated by Emelie Chhangur.