Genevieve Erin O’Brien’s dark night of the soul took the form of an abusive relationship, a lost job, and a trigger-happy president. With nothing left to lose, the young performance artist fled Los Angeles in 2003 to seek spiritual healing in the refuge of her parents’ house in Vietnam, just as the U.S. was about to invade Iraq. While the gates to Shangri-La remained elusive, O’Brien found instead the raw material for her next piece, The Monk Who Licked Me. She describes the work as “a modern day odyssey into the heart, mind, and body of a young woman on a spiritual quest.”
Using slides of Vietnam as well as scripted text, The Monk Who Licked Me explores the question of what happens when faith fails. “When your country, your relationship, your faith fails you, how do you recover?” asks O’Brien. But don’t expect a sermon here. O’Brien’s work is witty and irreverent, drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as vibrators, Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, and palmistry books. A Vietnamese American (her mother is Vietnamese and her father is Irish-American), O’Brien was struck by the history of U.S. militarism in Vietnam. Against a spiritual backdrop, she weaves war history together with her personal experience of sexual violence against women.
Unlike many performance artists, O’Brien actually tells a story through her theatrical work. “People think performance art means that I’m going to swim in milk,” she says. Instead, she uses her body to create a personal narrative that fits neither the grand fiction of traditional theater nor the abstract, conceptual work of some of her contemporaries. For O’Brien, her body is a vehicle to re-enact moments that resonate with truth.
O’Brien, 33, first encountered performance art as an undergraduate at UCSB. There, she saw Denise Uyehara perform Hello (Sex) Kitty: Mad Asian Bitch on Wheels, and something clicked. “Oh, that’s what I want to do,” O’Brien remembers thinking. Part of what impressed her was seeing another queer, Asian-American woman addressing gender politics and cultural identity throughout her art. O’Brien began taking performance workshops at the Highways Performance Space in Los Angeles, and she hasn’t looked back since.
She is now working toward a Masters of Fine Art in Performance at the Art Institute of Chicago, and her performances have become more conceptual. The piece she is currently working on lasts eight hours, during which she lugs a cardboard suitcase across a city, stopping at various Vietnamese centers to ask people for their thoughts and feelings about Vietnam. For O’Brien, the intersection between Vietnamese and American culture is something she carries in her body; she personifies a collision of two places. “People carry around a lot of political baggage,” she says. “When they meet me, it comes out.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that O’Brien works with suitcases and dislocation in her art; as a diplomat’s daughter, she traveled constantly as a child, living in places as distinct as Syria and Cameroon. That geographic insecurity may have been the perfect education for a budding performance artist-it gives her an infinite number of distinct backdrops to draw from in her work. “It had a transitory affect,” says O’Brien of her childhood. “On some level, it’s the lens through which I see the world.”
For the record, there really was a monk who licked the artist. But to understand how that episode fits into O’Brien’s larger spiritual misadventure in Vietnam, you’ll have to see the show. In preparation for The Monk Who Licked Me, meditate on O’Brien’s quasi-Buddhist commentary on American culture: “If we weren’t so attached to our SUVs and our lattes, would we be in Iraq?”
Genevieve Erin O’Brien presents The Monk Who Licked Me at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center Theater on Thursday, November 8, at 8pm. The event is free. For more information, call 893-8411.