When holiday 'art' goes unappreciated

Kevin Cowherd

December 25, 1992|By Kevin Cowherd

People are always telling me to be merry this time of year, but merriment is hard to muster when your family get-togethers include a performance artist and an accordion player.

The performance artist is a cousin, Margot, who generally arrives in the requisite baggy corduroys, black turtleneck and beret.

Last year, in the middle of Christmas dinner, Margot announced: "I'm working on a new show . . ."

Immediately a vague sense of unease descended upon the table, each person praying that the conversation would quickly veer onto another subject.

"It's entitled 'Nature,' " Margot said. "Would you like a preview?"

Naturally, no one was foolish enough to say yes.

With performance artists -- and people in other annoying professions, such as mimes, jugglers and dog acts -- it is always best to pretend you don't hear very well.

Of course, the hint went skyrocketing over Margot's head, and she said: "C'mon, I'll show you."

So we all had to troop into the living room, whereupon Margot lay down on the floor and proceeded to twitch spastically and yelp for several minutes, apparently simulating a woman being attacked by a swarm of bees.

Well. Needless to say, the dinner was ruined. It is awfully hard to watch a woman writhing on the floor, a layer of spittle coating her lips and her clothes covered with lint and dust and carpet hairs, and then go back to your turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes.

The whole thing brought back terrifying memories of the time I was dragged to one of Margot's performances in New York.

The performance was called "Relationships," which probably tells you all you need to know right there.

The "theater" turned out to be an old, drafty studio on the West Side. The audience -- which consisted of the usual pale, gaunt, just-out-of-the-grave art crowd -- sat on folding chairs arranged in front of a makeshift stage illuminated by a single spotlight.

Maybe this will give you some idea of the hell we endured: Act I consisted of Margot and her partner Jose staring silently at each other for 20 minutes in a variety of identical poses, supposed to represent "the universal one-ness" of men and women.

After a while, I couldn't take it anymore and wandered back to the "bar," where some guy named Klaus fished a can of Budweiser out of an ice chest and charged me eight bucks.

It occurred to me that $8 was kind of steep for a beer. But this being New York, I was just thankful Klaus didn't pull out a gun and order me into the trunk of a car.

Besides, the price of the beer was immaterial. At that point, all you're concerned with is getting the alcohol into your bloodstream as quickly as possible, so that whatever is happening on the stage recedes into your consciousness and is replaced by a warm glow.

Sometime around 4 on Christmas Day, just about the time Margot has reached her peak irritation level, my brother-in-law Phil arrives with his accordion.

Imagine the reaction. Here the house is hot, stuffy and crowded, people are on edge from Margot -- and now you have someone playing the most grating instrument known to man.

Understandably, as soon as Phil walks in the door, everyone tries to flee the house at once. We used to do that the moment Phil's car pulled in the driveway, but then he got wise and took to pulling in with his lights off.

A few minutes after he's arrived, Phil will get this eerie, forgot-to-take-my-medication look in his eyes and chirp: "Hey, how 'bout some Christmas songs?!"

Despite the resounding silence that invariably follows, Phil will pick up his accordion as the rest of us lower our eyes.

Let's face it, "Jingle Bell Rock" is one of those songs that will slowly drive you insane in and of itself. But to hear it played on the accordion is an absolutely chilling experience.

One thing I've never understood is why accordion players insist on smiling as they play their instruments.

You would think that upon realizing the suffering they're inflicting on an audience, they would wear a properly contrite look. Instead, most accordion players actually seem to be enjoying themselves, which speaks to a streak of cruelty that seems to run through most of them.

Christmas is a wonderful time of year. But sometimes you think: Y'know, there is something to be said for loneliness.

Kevin Cowherd's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in The Evening Sun.

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