Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) portrayed an unfunny would-be comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) kidnapping his comic hero (Jerry Lewis) as a frenzied effort to nab the spotlight at whatever cost. Too clever for its own good, The King of Comedy succeeded as a critique of the rampant and delusional desire for fame and overnight celebrity within a late 20th-century televisual milieu. But commercially it was a failure, dubbed “box office poison” and chalked up to not being funny at all. The price of Rupert Pupkin’s comic quest warns of a blurring of fantasy and reality that results from an overinvestment in media imagery. One telling scene shows the wannabe stand-up performing in his basement to a cardboard audience, the camera panning back to reveal a cold and empty sound stage where canned laughter spurs him on, even if it’s only heard as diegetic sound in his imagination. “Rupert can be understood as an existential clown,” writes film critic Christina Marie Newland, “a comedian who is his own perpetual joke”.
Melanie Jame Wolf’s Acts of Improbable Genius (2021) is a two-channel video performance that depicts two archetypal white male comic tropes the artist performs, like Rupert Pupkin, to an audience that isn’t there. Wolf calls one archetype Stand Up Ron and positions him against Pierrot, the mute sad clown cliché that has become synonymous over time as an everyman. That Pierrot is in “white face” calls attention to the universalising privilege and power of the white male entertainer par excellence. Wolf embodies the role with drag king swagger and bravado, lip-syncing her own pre-recorded vocal track. In it she calls out Ron’s toxic masculinity while cleverly deconstructing the ideological constructions of comedy itself. “How’s everyone doing tonight, you feeling alright?” asks Ron to the empty theatre. “Me too… Meee tooo,” he replies to a “woot” from the laugh track, blissfully unaware that he will at some point likely be Me Too’d as the bigoted creep to which his monologue makes ironic reference.
Acts of Improbable Genius is characteristic of Wolf’s ongoing interest in how drag can be employed as a performative strategy to queer gendered economies of desire and the body. Since she started presenting her work in theatrical and gallery contexts over a decade ago under the umbrella of Savage Amusement, the Berlin-based Australian artist has built a substantial body of work that is particularly concerned with the power of the image to seduce and ignite libidinal response. Her work is immersed in the image soup of late capitalist MTV-era pop culture, timestamped by Gen-X excess.
Borrowing artist Renate Lorenz’s notion of “transtemporal drag” (2012), Wolf frames her thinking and making within a queer-feminist phenomenology of time. For Lorenz, “‘Transtemporal drag’… designates embodiments with a focus on chronopolitics, which represent an intervention in existing concepts of time and establish temporalities that counter, interrupt, or shift an advanced economic or scientific development or a heteronormative course of life”. In other words, drag in this context operates as a performance of assemblage, which builds momentum as a constellation of images that is dragged through and across time, as she puts it: “with all the debris that sticks to it”. An affront to grand narratives that give weight to sweeping sequential epochs, Wolf makes work that rubs up to rub out history’s inclination to regard modernism and post-modernism as chronological moments rather than political positions.
In this sense, the personas Wolf performs are shapeshifting ghosts of the past—a kind of hauntology, as she calls it—brought into the present as mirrors of a current moment refracted by the histories that call it into being in the first place. This idea is exorcised through the two personas of Acts of Improbable Genius. Wolf explains: “Both of them are ghosts – Pierrot knows that they’re dead, but Ron does not. Ron is still performing for his life, but his life is over.” Wolf speaks of how “possessed” she became once she constructed Ron’s appearance, wearing him like a costume, performing him as drag.
Stripping is where drag and time first crystallised for Wolf. Her iconoclastic 80-minute theatre piece MIRA FUCHS (2015) reflects on intimacy, dance, desire and labour through the prism of Wolf’s past eight-year career as a stripper in a Melbourne gentlemen’s club. Blurring personal memoir with a critique of the gendered complexities and contradictions of stripping and sex work more broadly, Wolf performed MIRA FUCHS interactively to an audience of 40 in the round, structuring it like a dramaturgical essay in 14 chapters: ‘On Girls’; ‘On Value’; ‘On Sex’; ‘Ontology’; ‘Ennui’; ‘On Money’; and more. Two sections are telling as conceptual threads manifesting in MIRA FUCHS and which continue being unpacked in later work: ‘On Time’ and ‘On Drag’.
An evident hallmark of Wolf’s work is her skill and nuance as writer and orator. If her former personal practice as stripper required the body—her body—as communication device for contact and contract between performer and audience, Wolf’s art practice seizes upon the voice—her voice—to do much the same thing with the spoken word. Using the monologue as a performative prop, Wolf’s delivery straddles the strut of stand-up as if it was breathy phone sex narrated by a beat poet. It becomes further complicated when her own pre-recorded vocal in various works is manipulated and modulated as a backing track to which she lip-syncs in the spirit of drag. Lip-syncing becomes a strategy of acoustic detachment, where the splitting of the artist’s body and voice enact the same kind of hauntology examined in her later work, where the subject conjures the spirit through vocal mimicry, much like a kind of ventriloquism. In this sense, miming one’s own words inhibits performance to a strict regime of rehearsal over improvisation; evoking Roland Barthes’ treatise that “it is language which speaks, not the author.”
Wolf achieves this less through the live performance than in the subsequent video work On Time, which is based on a section from MIRA FUCHS. Commissioned by Runway Journal for its “Porn” issue in 2015, On Time is a powerful remediation of the work from live action to video art. The nocturnal time signature of the strip club, how it animates the body as a marker and instrument of time as capital fuels Wolf’s exposition. Its production values and styling amplify Wolf’s speculation that a connection exists between stripping and drag. Wolf lip-syncs her own pre-recorded monologue, which along with the costuming, makeup, wig, and hyperbolic facial and bodily expressions, lend the performance a sensibility more aligned to camp than kink. A simulacrum of self transpires as Wolf plays herself playing a role for which a certain level of gendered “passing” must be enacted. That is, passing as “woman” within codes that constitute the erotics of the stripper for a male gaze. In dragging these erotics, Wolf untangles them by “borrowing the rules from the strip club” and rescripting them as cerebral interrogations of capital, labour and time within an intimately framed libidinal economy. A lap dance for the mind.
So, sometimes, I mean there were times, when I would come downstairs like to the girls’ room from the floor, from the club where I was working, and I would stop and I would look at myself in the mirror and I would just see nothing but, like, my Dad in drag.
Directly following ‘On Time’ in the live version of MIRA FUCHS is a segment titled ‘On Drag’. She offers lap dances, one by one, for her small audience as a video projection plays overhead. On screen Wolf recounts a time at the strip club when she mis/recognised her mirror image for her Dad. As the father/daughter drag scenario is unpacked, she applies makeup in the mirror, ruminating on where stripping and drag intersect as she realises what had occurred was a dragging of a particular version of straight-male (father figure) sexuality and the projected fantasy of what it inevitably desires. Upon realising the Drag Dad conundrum, Wolf adopts a strategy whereby she can be “one of the boys” while still maintaining the fantasy of the “good girl whore”. Equally it seems, both positions play out as queered abstractions of heterosexuality collapsing in on itself thanks to drag.
The action of MIRA FUCHS occurs after dark in a sexy and subterranean “half-light 3am eternal.” Liminal and oneiric, Wolf’s work blurs the space where night becomes day. For The National 2019: New Australian Art at Carriageworks, Wolf presented Oh Yeah Tonight (2019). This hypnotic four-channel video installation portrayed the artist in various shapeshifting guises fashioned from the visual language of pop music. Long before social media, music videos were a key access point to how stardom could be engineered through image and persona. Oh Yeah Tonight takes aim at these three most repeated words in pop music: “oh”, “yeah”, “tonight”. We watch and listen but at what point do these words lose all meaning? Packed into three-minute pop songs, these words are either complex mantras or complete reductions of how sexuality and power come to shape an understanding of the world, particularly one formed in youth—dreamt up by day but played out in the fantasy space of night. Reared in the MTV era, Oh Yeah Tonight revels in the seductions of its source, employing queer-feminist deconstructions of image and text to dramaturgical effect.
Following her appearance in The National, Wolf developed this work into TONIGHT (2019), a 70-minute theatre piece for Sophiensaele in Berlin, more recently reworked into a spectacular shorter 20-minute video work (2021). For TONIGHT, Wolf deep-dives into the temporality of night as a discursive space/time where fantasies of becoming, romance, nostalgia and anticipation are nourished and entertained through the ideological repetitions of a typical three-minute pop song. Forever’s gonna start tonight… In citing just one sliver of anthemic 1980s pop confection, we see an idea unfolding over and over, again and again. An eternal return of expectations never met; wish-fulfilment fantasies suspended; a conflation of eternity (forever) with the present (tonight); verse-chorus-rinse-and-repeat.
Wolf relinquishes ironic distance for the sweet surrender of pop and its seductions. Her immersion in the image stems from the common childhood bedroom fantasy, where pop enables an evolving expression of identity: lip-synced teenage dreams. On stage, Wolf summons a childhood self who would have performed to the mirror as makeshift audience. Not unlike Rupert Pupkin’s basement cardboard throng, except the laugh track is drowned out by an adoring roar, the worship of mass fandom as spiritual rapture. TONIGHT uplifts a libidinal overinvestment in the image economy as a strategy for bodily pleasure and amusement as critical thinking.
And amusement is key. Harking back to the chronopolitics of Wolf’s thinking, with its fixations on popular forms of entertainment, I am reminded of the important role amusements played for the working classes during the rise of modernity and how they transformed space, time and industry. “Around the turn of the century, an array of amusements greatly increased the emphasis placed on spectacle, sensationalism, and astonishment,” writes film theorist Ben Singer (1995). “Modernity ushered in a commerce in sensory shocks. The ‘thrill’ emerged as the keynote of modern diversion.” Whereas modernity’s thrills encompass stage melodrama, vaudeville, burlesque, carnival and freak show attractions, Wolf’s world of Savage Amusement is attributed to the power of pop to invite love, ignite politics, and incite revolution.
- ^ Christina Marie Newland, “Satirical Excess and Empty Vessels: Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy”, Bright Lights Film Journal, April 30, 2013 https://brightlightsfilm.com/satirical-excess-and-empty-vessels-martin-scorseses-the-king-of-comedy
- ^ Renate Lorenz, Queer Art: A Freak Theory, Columbia University Press, 2012, p.23
- ^ Alison Hugill, “Melanie Jame Wolf”, Berlin Art Link, February 2, 2021 https://www.berlinartlink.com/2021/02/02/melanie-jame-wolf/
- ^ Melanie Jame Wolf, interview with the author, January 28, 2021
- ^ Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1967) in Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana, 1977 p.143
- ^ Melanie Jame Wolf, On Time, in Runway Journal, Issue 29: Porn, ed. Macushla Robinson, 2015 http://runway.org.au/archive/29-porn
- ^ Ben Singer, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism” in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, eds. Leo Charney and Vanessa R Schwartz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995 p.88.
Daniel Mudie Cunningham is Director of Programs at Carriageworks in Sydney. He curated Melanie Jame Wolf into The National 2019: New Australian Art.