Photo courtesy of Rubber Factory.

Reclaiming the Trauma of ‘Clown Torture’

Artist Ondine Viñao offers a haunting, all-female take on Bruce Nauman.

by Cassidy Dawn Graves
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Feb 4 2019, 6:11pm

Photo courtesy of Rubber Factory.

One clown is endlessly doomed to repeat a rhyme. Another opens a door rigged with a bucket of water, getting soaked time and time again. Yet another eternally shrieks “No, no, no.”

Before Insane Clown Posse birthed a nation of Juggalos, there was artist Bruce Nauman, whose 1987 video art piece Clown Torture shook up the art world with its repetitive, unsettling, and deliberately grating vignettes of clowns enduring acts both humorous and agonizing.

Over three decades later, artist Ondine Viñao offers her own take on Nauman with Holy Fools, a 9-channel video installation that was on view at Lower East Side gallery Rubber Factory until this weekend. An all-female cast of clowns—Eileen Kelly, Rachel Fox, Jessie-Ann Kohlman, and Viñao herself—repetitively undergo their own forms of theatrical torment, which the gallery notes is inspired by the performer’s own childhood traumas, from sexual abuse to “the pressures to perform femininity.” It’s part sideshow spectacle, part exposure therapy.

Nauman’s clowns are grotesque, recalling the nightmarish Pennywise from IT or a low-budget circus. Viñao’s clowns are more stylish and feminine, more at home in an unconventional editorial spread than a child’s birthday. They’re still troubled, but glamorously so, hinting at how feminine-presenting people feel a consistent obligation to adhere to beauty standards, even (sometimes especially) on bad days.

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Photo courtesy of Rubber factory.

One of the more overt comments on femininity is a video of a clown in a rainbow wig and large yellow shoes that loudly scrape the ground. She has a sack of clothes and jewelry, which she steadily removes and puts on. Physically shaking with anticipation, she pulls on a lace camisole and a pink dress over her clown suit, then tragically tries to fit strappy blue wedge sandals over her floppy shoes to no avail. She attempts putting a long blonde wig over her rainbow one, eventually letting the original wig fall and tossing it along with the shoes. It feels voyeuristic watching her examine herself.

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Photo courtesy of Rubber Factory.

What is perhaps Holy Fools’s most personal segment is also one of its most beautiful. Jessie-Ann Kohlman, clowned up and hairless in a vast church with ornate Christmas decor, embodies televangelist Joel Osteen in a speech. Rather than waxing poetic about the Lord, her Southern drawl summons the tragic nature of a Tennessee Williams heroine.

“I keep quiet, I will not kill myself, I don’t need therapy, I’m fine,” she bellows to the camera, her voice dripping with denial. “I’m a happy little girl. Look at all my nice things.” In another video, she repeats the same speech, the camera pulling further and further away.

The closest tribute to Nauman’s clown gruffly repeating the nursery rhyme “Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off, who’s left? Repeat.” comes in the more cultured form of a black-clad clown, played by Viñao, lip-syncing to Mozart’s Papageno Papagena duet from The Magic Flute.

The classical music swells and the staccato opera vocals play. Viñao’s clown, sporting a painted-on smile and visible bald cap, mouths along to the aria like a drag performer. Then it stops, and starts over. This cycle repeats, and the clown gets more and more frustrated, clearly expecting the music to continue every time. Her exasperation reaches a fever pitch, and she begins grabbing her face, smearing her white makeup, creating flesh-tinged streaks reminiscent of dried blood.

Behind this, there’s a video with the same clown. She’s on the ground, watching a video of actors performing the aria. We brace ourselves, waiting for the repetition, but the song continues past it, only to eventually repeat this longer segment—the closest thing to relief the installation offers.

Several videos feature clowns staging their own version of songs and poems. Maybe, the song from Annie where the orphan imagines a life with parents, and William Blake’s poem The Tyger make appearances. The former is sung by a clown with a shy soprano, both an intimate moment alone and a performance, her eyes staring into the viewer’s, as if searching for approval.

Many clowns feel aware of their own theatricality; watching Viñao’s videos transported me back to theater school, where monologues were rehearsed in the dead of night out of necessity, or an acting teacher made sleep-deprived students engage in absurd activities for hours, sometimes never explaining why. It feels especially like this when a clown repeats Blake’s The Tyger in varying tempos, voices, and levels of sanity while intermittently vaping, clutching a coffee cup, and falling off a big leather armchair.

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Photo courtesy of Rubber Factory.

Speaking with BlackBook, Viñao explains she was “drawn to Clown Torture because it seemed like an analogy to the art-making process – arduous and masochistic.” Viñao’s clowns appear to be knowingly engaging in their own creative processes. When some videos end or begin, such as the one featuring Maybe, you see glimpses of clowns dropping their character, taking a breath to ready themselves, and starting their performance again. This also reassures the audience the actors are in fact acting, and not doomed to this fate forever.

The “torture” Viñao’s clowns engage in feel a touch more palatable for the viewer than Nauman’s. Ronald McDonald-style wig or not, there would be something particularly chilling and even exploitative about a woman laying on the ground screaming “No,” legs flailing, as one of Nauman’s male clowns does.

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Photo courtesy of Rubber Factory.

That’s not to dismiss the act of singing a song, sitting next to a running sink, opening a finicky prop door, or playing dress-up as universally enjoyable activities. When you are doing something against your will, or if you have a certain trigger for something bad that happened to you, it doesn’t matter what that thing is, even if it doesn’t seem so unbearable to others.

The automatic cacophony Clown Torture creates, with all its videos blaring at once, is absent here. Instead, each video in Holy Fools has its own pair of headphones, giving the viewer the chance to opt in to the audio, or not. This gesture, however slight, comes the closest to summarizing the installation as a whole: the act of engaging with trauma can be a powerful and affecting thing, sometimes funny, sometimes torturous, but it’s best when you decide when and how.

Ondine Viñao’s Holy Fools is on view through February 3 at Rubber Factory in New York City.