When a contemporary performance artist adopts religion in general as the theme of a work, a few things are likely to occur: the work will be funny, the work will be angry, and the work will betray an unnameable sense of existential bereavement and longing. The artist will also almost certainly discover opportunities to exhibit stylized sexuality, mock-authoritarianism, and on a good day, prophetic intuition. Michael Dudeck manages to assume all these postures and positions – along with some heartfelt camp, intellectual jockeying, and few more besides – in Messiah Complex 5.0, a sprawling attempt to re-figure the world’s religions in an alternative queer mythology for our techno-progressive future.
Dudeck makes a mission of multiplicity, hybridization, contradiction, and jamming as many ideas and visual cues as possible into whatever space his art is occupying. His work often takes the form of “Powerpoint-sermons” or “techno lectures,” as he calls them, which allows him to encase his cinematic aesthetic in many protective layers of theory.
He certainly doesn’t refrain from exposing himself to colonialist critique, however: a self-proclaimed witchdoctor, he has been crafting his own tribal-infused religion ever since his first solo show at Toronto’s Pari Nadimi Gallery in 2009, and many of his intervening performances and exhibitions have emerged out of that overarching project. As he explained in an interview with ArtSync, he found that the dominant mythologies and Grand Narratives (his capitals) lacked a place for the “trickster spirit of the multi-gendered,” so he decided to fill in the gap and construct his own queer origin myth, which he calls ‘the Religion Virus.” Now, more than five years later, it has developed into a richly-detailed fantasy universe that he evokes in drawing, sculpture, song, text, and performance.
It’s a spoof, of course, as well as a critique of popular religions (or, in its more rigorous moments, it’s a commentary), and somehow also an unmistakably authentic spiritual expression. Dudeck ranges freely across the whole terrain of religious expression, appropriating some symbols and subverting others, until it becomes impossible to follow all the threads he’s pulling. But fortunately for the audience, when the whole Gordian knot of what he is trying to do gets chopped off and presented as a single performance, the thought of making sense of it all seems about as pressing as figuring out whether God exists. The didacticism is just part of the aesthetic.
This widely inclusive ambition is a good fit for Progress Festival, a new international performance festival in Toronto that expressly seeks to break down distinctions between theater, dance, and performance. Progress shares its curatorial duties between seven different theatre and dance companies, each of which brings one performance to the festival. Dudeck, the only performer arriving directly from the contemporary artworld, was invited bywunderkind theater artist Jordan Tannahill and his co-curator William Ellis. Together they run Videofag, a hole-in-the-wall venue that has become a nexus for alternative theater and performance in Toronto.
At the one-year-old Theatre Centre, Dudeck arrives on stage wearing nothing except a pair of false breasts taped to his rib cage, a mask of an expressionless chimpanzee, and a magnificent wig of long silver that falls in sheets around his charmingly protruding monkey ears. Overlaying a base coat of white that covers his entire body, Dudeck has painted a rectilinear design in an attractive pink – pink penis, pink cross up the center of his torso, pink patches over his nipples. The rest of the performance swirls in and out of focus around this droll shaman-cum-sexy professor, who is tasked with explaining why religion exists. Continually flipping his (or their) hair out of the way and cocking his head from side to side, Dudeck’s ape-witch delivers the lecture in the primly determined manner of someone who’s been over this a thousand times and really just wants to move on to something more interesting.
But explain he does, via video-Powerpoint and text-to-speech computerized narration. His various interconnected performance projects are rooted in Dudeck’s theory about the motive for piety, which he details in the first part of Messiah Complex 5.0 through an extended metaphor to one of the early primate experiments.
In 1933, the American psychologist Harry Harlow isolated a group of infant Rhesus monkeys, replacing their biological mothers with two artificial versions, one made of wire and the other made of fabric. The wire mother was outfitted with a nipple that gave milk, but the cloth mother was not. Unsurprisingly, the babies vastly preferred their comfy mom. How did Harlow figure that out? He invented bobble-headed mechanical monsters to terrify the infant monkeys, and then he observed that they sought solace from the soft mother, not the hard, metallic one.
It’s a miserable bit of science, but it makes for suggestive viewing. This being a lecture, however, those suggestions are quickly converted to concepts, which Dudeck expounds through the rest of the first section. He indicates that we are all somehow motherless and deprived, and that while religion may not offer the kind of nourishment that keeps us alive (not like bone-breaking, animal-attacking, life-sustaining Mother Earth), it does offer the reassurance we desperately need. In the absence of real safety or meaning, religion staves off the sickening absurdity and fundamental determinism of human existence, but ultimately it’s just something we made up to soothe our terrified minds. (Very few in Dudeck’s audience are likely to be blown away by the idea that religion might be an opiate or a construct).
Though it’s certainly been said before that religion exploits our vulnerability, the Harlow experiments are menacing enough to provide a sturdy platform for saying it again, and maybe even for stepping off in a new direction. For example, they raise the question of why we need a scientist to tell us that frightened beings seek comfort, and the answer to that question – that we can’t tolerate our existential responsibility and so crave an external authority – raises a deeper question: why do we feel like baby monkeys in hell? Is it because that’s what we are? There’s a trauma that we all share, and by recognizing its ongoing potency, we can be liberated from feeling embarrassed about our longing for something to make it all better.
But even if we could all find a way of collectively grieving the loss of our mothers and our artificial mothers, it wouldn’t stop us from being mad at the assholes who made religion good for some and bad for others. This anger serves as a major impetus for Dudeck, who is clearly motivated to defy religion for rejecting queerness. So while he begins by ripping open the hole from which our original pain arises, he then gets busy symbolically confronting the man in the labcoat (or robe, or collar, or bad tie) with the provocative image of a beguiling sex religion that celebrates “ritualized holy pederasty.”
The rest of the performance unfolds like a church service, with readings from pop culture, contemplative pauses, ceremonial actions, and repetitive chanting in the form of glittery synth-pop. Dudeck sings not quite beautifully but with a strong voice and an ache that is arresting. Finally, after a few unmasking and re-masking events, he washes off the paint and gives a hurried “Ted Talk” about the genesis of his work, which he frames as a weird lark or a funny accident: all of a sudden, he just found himself creating a religion. It’s disappointing to hear him abnegate his conscious intention from the work, but that’s life. We’re just making it up as we go along; the explanations come later.