By Roland Betancourt
Lady Gaga sings, “I can feel my heart beating in your hands, my aura and yours meeting in this dance, pull the trigger I’m ready, it’s show time” – probably an excerpt from a rumored forthcoming song, “Aura.” The camera focuses closely on her face, which is set into a white two-dimensional square that seems to evoke the white modernist canvas, and, in particular, the square as a manifestation of this medium – recalling an iconic modernist work, such as Malevich’s Black Square (1915), whose intellectual heritage is directly traced to the Russo-Byzantine icon. Here, we see Gaga as an icon set in a flat two-dimensional space. Particularly, it speaks to the miraculous image of Christ impressed on cloth, known as the image of Edessa in the Eastern Christian church, attested in an image such as the Holy Face of Genoa.
In this moment, Lady Gaga’s body operates as the medium for the Video Music Awards, since the show begins from this space – she is an emblematic, bodily manifestation of the flat white canvas. Upon her body, Lady Gaga has wrapped into herself the modernist white cube of the museum and its blank canvas. As the camera zooms out, her body is revealed to be clad in an elaborate dress with large shoulders and gown.
Her costume recalls the experimental performance pieces of Hugo Ball, (of the Zurich branch of Dada) – and in particular it recalls “The Magical Bishop” performance from 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire. This performance revolved around the recitation of nonsensical, sound poetry – such as “Karawane.” Not only did such a performance, along with the similar poetic compositions of the Futurists, bring the sonic into the field of the visual arts, it also set the foundations for the development of performance art. In a sense, the work of Hugo Ball and his contemporaries functions as an origin myth that establishes the foundations that make possible the ARTPOP project. It is Gaga’s Ur-medium.
The religious association suggested by the comparison to the icon is also stressed by the fact that this costume references the Born This Way era, as it is similar to the “Bloody Mary” costume of the Born This Way Ball, where Gaga appears as the Trinity with two backup dancers, the three of them moving mechanically along in unison throughout the stage (an aspect that Meghan Vicks has expertly discussed here. This song explicitly addresses the apocryphal narrative of Mary Magdalene following the death of Christ as detailed in the medieval Golden Legend.
Note, in particular, the string of pearls around her neck. These are a curious addition that gender the figure as feminine. In this context, it would seem that Gaga operates as the allegorical manifestation of the tabula rasa – the blank slate of the medium – configured as the body of the feminine. This femininity is crucial: allegorical figures are often depicted through images of women. But furthermore, as I discussed earlier, because of its image-bearing, reproductive capacities, the feminine has come to be associated with a site of unregulated, infinite viral reproduction in pop culture – a notion that bears a striking intellectual resemblance with the notion chora, (translated as space), as described in Plato’s Timaeus.
For Plato, chora is the ever-receiving receptacle from which all forms emerge. It can never be described or made fully manifest, but only approximated through a form of “bastard reasoning,” or through metaphor and analogy. Thus, he likens the chora to a nurse of becoming, the virgin wax upon which forms are impressed, or a mother. While Jacques Derrida would come to characterize chora as wholly imperceptible, John Sallis would later counter that in Plato’s cosmogony, chora can be said to be perceptible – perhaps not as a realized form, but rather through its movements: through the tremors and quakes that occur in the chora as forms come into being and change form.
In this opening image, Gaga takes on the notion of chora as a site of generativity who lacks being in its own right, but who can be made manifest through the movements of forms emerging upon her. The performance takes on an iterative process whereby we begin to see Gaga cycling through her key eras – from Born This Way to The Fame to The Fame Monster (and Born This Way) and on to the present ARTPOP. This trope naturally riffs on the popular “Evolution of Dance” viral video, and thereby generates not only the idea of nostalgia or a career retrospective (as many have been quick to observe), but also the idea of a historical emplacement and self-aware knowledge, captured by the line “we just like to read.”
After the camera pans out, we hear the jeers and boos of an audience; while many bloggers alleged that these were real boos, it turns out that they were simulated – they were part of Gaga’s audio track. The boos and jeers respond directly to the opening lines of the song, transitioning us from this virginal, formless space into the domain of the critic – as if her form is forged from the critique and jeers. This, of course, speaks directly to the current themes of the ARTPOP project, which argues that “Lady Gaga is Over” in the promotional Haus film by the same name (which I have discussed here previously).
On stage, she is joined by a series of backup dancers wearing black leotards and skullcaps. This costume cleverly manifests the true medium condition of Lady Gaga, allowing for her quick transition between various costumes. Additionally, this costuming operates as a minimalist rendition of the Pierrot figure, and – as I have discussed here and here – Pierrot’s association with a medium condition is heightened by this costuming. However, in this case we do not see the white body of Pierrot, but are rather presented with the black leotard fitting neatly over bodies as the true medium of Lady Gaga’s performance – mechanically allowing her to cycle through a series of quick costume changes. Hence, the original flatness of the modernist medium is subverted – demonstrated to be an artificial construct, as artificial a construct as any other apparatus of the body.
Lady Gaga uses this medium condition of the black leotard and skullcap to transition through her various phases – and the perceptibility of the medium is only made visible through the movement of different forms (different versions of Gaga) manifesting. That is, the medium is perceptible only in witnessing the manifestations and transitions of forms through its space, but not as an ontological category, which can be reduced to flatness, whiteness, or two-dimensionality (as art historians and critics Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and Rosalind Krauss would champion in the height of post-war, late-modernist art). The flatness of the paper-cutout backdrop further plays with these notions: not only does its flatness manifest images through the cutout silhouettes, but also its color is constantly in a state of flux, changing according to the lights shined upon it.
At first, she takes on the image of The Fame’s Lady Gaga, with her blue bedazzled skirt and blazer, and iconic blond bob. While in this era, (which first articulated the artistic drive of her project before having the full capacities to enact its realities), the song mentions her own transition from being a “Koons fan” into being the “Koons” herself. Interestingly, as she references pop-artist Jeff Koons, Lady Gaga and her dancers take blue gazing balls into their hands, much like the ones you would find in a kitschy garden.
This operates as an explicit reference to Koons’s recent series “Gazing Ball,” which deploys white plaster copies of famous artworks and riffs on them, while adding this signature gazing ball into their compositions. As such, Gaga has doubly cited Koons in her lyrics and performance, and has also cited a series that operates on the white, malleable matter of plaster as a way of articulating the reproducibility of art and its circulation within a popular economy.
Then, she is formed into The Fame Monster (and arguably Born This Way) era’s blond skunk-roots wig, which was featured in the “Telephone” music video, and which also made an appearance in the caged Gaga of the “Applause” video. The heightened, garish blond of the wig, as I have described previously, alludes not only to Andy Warhol’s renditions of Marilyn Monroe, but also to Madonna’s own citation of Andy Warhol on the Celebration album cover, making this a particularly salient image.
It is significant that she is presented her wig by a dancer who carries a mannequin head on each of his shoulders – which reads as if the wigs for The Fame and The Fame Monster came from those very mannequin heads on his shoulders. The two mannequin heads on the shoulders of one body indicate that The Fame and The Fame Monster are two sides of the same coin, operating as a two-faced Janus-like creature, with the tabula rasa dancer positioned between the two as a literal site of mediation. This recalls the same trope Gaga used when posing with Shangela following the drag performance of “Applause,” where the two of them held together the blank bust of a Styrofoam head, an issue I discussed earlier. In Terry Richardson’s images for the performance’s rehearsal, the wigs are precisely mounted on such heads. Here, Gaga has an animate, moving, breathing wig-bearer.
During this very stage, another dancer approaches Gaga and speckles her face with paint, creating an allusion to the iconic cover art for “Applause”, which worked well with the leotard – reminiscent of the Pierrot costume. It is important to note, however, that the paint is dabbed off a painter’s palette, which suggests, once again, that Lady Gaga is precisely an artistic medium whose veritable manifestation is only made visible via her rapid-fire, successive permutations and transformations. Her face is messily streaked with the primary colors, which suggests that Gaga is not a fully manifest artwork, but rather contains all the primers and basic rubrics for the enactment of art – art existing as a potentiality, but not yet (or ever) fully embodied.
The key to these two figures – the wig-bearer and the painter – is that they are not dancers: they are Gaga’s actual hair stylist and makeup artist. Her hair stylist, Frederic “Freddie” Aspiras, wears the two heads, which (as we can tell from Terry Richardson’s useful rehearsal and preshow pictures) are simply Styrofoam wig heads that have been spray-painted black. This is why he does not join the dancers and exits the stage after every change. Tara Savelo, Gaga’s makeup artist, appears to be the painter with the palette, streaking Gaga’s face with colors. While she carries the palette over her face, hiding her visage, we can tell by her profile that this is Savelo – this is corroborated by the fact that in one of Richardson’s images, we see Savelo in full makeup and in profile.
Superficially, it makes sense that Lady Gaga would want her hair person on hand to strap on her wigs, given that a wig malfunction would undermine the fluidity and speed of the transitions. However, Savelo’s appearance causes us to question a purely practical reading of this inclusion: after all, the streaking of color could surely have been accomplished by any of her dancers. This is not to say the color was haphazardly applied. In fact, Terry Richardson’s images also demonstrate the various makeup tests that were done until the proper combination was achieved, which lends extra significance to the choice of colors and the way they are applied to Gaga’s face. Nevertheless, it would not have been a difficult task to train one of her dancers (who clothed her in The Fame transition) to dab on the streaks of color. One of her skilled dancers could surely have also been trained to put her wig on.
So it seems that Gaga wanted her actual hair and makeup team to have a presence on the stage. Note that while Aspiras stands stoically in the spotlight, Savelo does not seem as comfortable and chooses to hide her face with the palette – as if concealing the very object she is there to operate on (i.e. the face), or perhaps even to conceal the fact that her makeup, done specifically for the award ceremony, might not match that of the dancers around her. Whatever the reason, the inconspicuous nature of their appearances should not be mistaken for a desire to disguise or wholly conceal their presence. Like the jazz-hands that “cover” the placement of her Fame wig, these acts of hair and makeup are embraced through a thin veil of misdirection. In fact, we are confronted precisely with their operation: their liminal and transitory action both becomes visible itself, and makes visible the quakes and shivers of Gaga’s body-as-medium metamorphosing before us.
Finally, we encounter a stripped Lady Gaga in her seashell attire and Venus wig, signifying the ARTPOP rebirth of Lady Gaga. Notice that for this costume change, she leaves the stage for a period of time rather than just changing onstage as before – despite the fact that it appears she is already wearing the seashell bikini underneath the leotard. This literal absence from the stage manifests her actual absence from the stage in the period before ARTPOP, following her injury. Here, the imagery is straightforward as she manifests the current stage of her work through the guise of Venus, particularly in a manner similar to that of Botticelli, who depicted the birth of Venus in his well-known image.
We must view this process, then, as Lady Gaga demonstrating herself not through a nostalgic rehashing of her career, but rather through the infinite malleability of her image over time in rapid-fire succession. In a moment where she is expected to top herself, Gaga has chosen to meet that challenge not with some new aesthetic form, but rather by manifesting herself as a state of being through which an infinite succession and iteration of images are always flowing – she is always topping herself.
Hence, she has made her point not by playing into the game, but by simply pointing out that she is that game itself.