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Reflection on Igor Josifov’s Performance at Toomey-Tourell Gallery by Ryan Noble

FACE-IT: A Reflection on Igor Josifov’s Performance at Toomey-Tourell Gallery

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Igor’s performance of religious tension, “manumission,” was anchored in his experience as a native Macedonian and tethered to his newly-formed community in San Francisco. There was a profound connection with his self and his environment that struggled to spark an audience of sensationalist and entertainment-saturated, spectators. When Igor faced the audience, his chin was up and he made eye contact with strangers and friends, alike. Perched on an elevated pedestal and fitted with leather blinders his gaze was concentrated and deliberate. Etched in the leather straps of the adapted horse-blinders, were images of Christian iconography and Muslim motifs. Enacting the binds of Fundamentalist religion, the artist became an ambiguous personality with no indications of depth or interaction.

The artist was flanked by two large, black-and-white images of faces wearing these blinders. Taken direct and close-up, these images carried the same weight as his in-the-flesh presence in the gallery. The stage-only lighting of the gallery reduced the exhibition to an artist and his two most prominent images—making the concept and its presentation as impenetrable as the Fundamentalist practitioners of each religion. The attendance at the start of the performance was strong; it was apparently, a rare opportunity to see a performance among the dozens of art receptions on any given evening. There was a combined effect of intimidation and spectacle: art appreciateurs of all kinds—students, friends, tourists, and buyers—pushed their way in and were careful to keep a palpable 12 foot radius from the stage. Everyone found a shorter person to peer over or through, but few people ventured closer to the artist and his images.

After ten minutes, most attendants had found their way out of Toomey-Tourell, and resumed to follow their behaviors through a dependable sequence of galleries and their unique rotation of static images. Another ten minutes after that, Igor removed the first set of blinders (with Christian iconography) and fit himself with the Muslim set. During this time, there was a clear correlation between the number of observers and the level of Igor’s activity as another dozen people came into the room as he fastened the straps—intent on witnessing what would be happening in this gallery.

Over the next course of twenty minutes, the artist continued his gaze with a different set of blinders and even more people left than in the first twenty-minute phase of the performance. Igor stood up and took a moment to remove this set of blinders. He turned his pedestal around so that he could sit with his back to the audience (at which point, most people left the gallery, once again.)

Igor’s back was a deceptive statement; during these first few minutes, there were the fewest people in the room, yet. Without the mysterious gaze of the artist, there was no investment to lure others into the performance or its intentions, and so, no return of attention from the audience.

But the context of this performance clearly reinforced what was mistaken for an ambivalent gesture. Between the two confrontational photo images, it seemed completely out of character for an artist to turn his back on this exhibit. His head was down when he faced away but there were several subtle movements, several subtle gestures. The artist would look at something in his hands, look over his shoulder at his own back, take deep breaths, stretch his arms, and stare into the wall or the photos next to him. The artist drew a line on the back of his shoulder with his finger. He then drew another line with his finger on his other shoulder. Blood dripped down from both shoulder blades. There was a complete revolution in the energy of the performance. The subtle gestures became opportunities for the audience to witness an eternity of internal conflict.

Now, it meant something of relevance to members of the audience when the artist looked at his shoulder, looked into his hands, and stared off into the wall. The thoughts and feelings of the artist were lost in sensation. Now, audience members became participants, and people charged up to stage. Three, four, and five at a time, people were taking photos with their cell phones. Now, there were more people in the gallery than at any previous moment of the performance and they rotated to the stage, front and center, to take photos of the artist’s back. The artist continued to make cuts and for each drop of blood, it seemed another person was running up to take a photo.

At one point I counted ten people taking photos—none of these people made a sound louder than the push of a shutter button. Like any other sculpture on display, some people took shots from different angles, and of different positions. This was a living sculpture. Like another victim on display, some people took a moment to fold their hands in some attempt to make an emotional connection with this person and the uncertainty of his mental state. This was a living victim.

Every cut the artist made to his back was loaded with meaning, though it likely represented something different for everyone. Some people were captivated in watching the color of blood change to brown, and others saw the word “help” take form in the drips down his back. The cuts were remarkably symmetrical—some people saw the form of wings. The clearest message of the work was a state of presence—shifting from a position between religions, to a presence between the artist’s mental state and his community.

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