Anthony Roth Costanzo, Adam Linder, Myriam Ben Salah, and Lily McMenamy.
I CONVINCED MYSELF that writing this was an opportunity to channel my inner Rhonda Lieberman—if only that were possible. Last week in Chicago, as I made my way through the early moments of the Renaissance Society’s 2023 “RenBen: TRU RENAISSANCE”—an annual fundraising affair masterminded by the storied institution’s chief curator and director, Myriam Ben Salah, and creative-directed this year by artist and choreographer Adam Linder—I sought out a scandal, but found none; I yearned for juicy gossip, but couldn’t manage to dig it up. I tried to provoke artist Piero Golia, who was in attendance as a civilian after hosting last year’s RenBen. Surely, he must have some opinions about Linder’s repurposing of theatrical staging in the context of a gala dinner? But there was no beef to be had. Golia was surprisingly polite about performer and model Lily McMenamy, who had been directed by Linder to spar with attendees in an absurdist pantomime assault.
On entering the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, I was greeted by fashion photographer Will Davidson, who was armed with a camera and bedazzled in Gucci (one of the event’s main sponsors). Just beyond Davidson’s step-and-repeat, McMenamy occupied the center of the vast rotunda, adorned in a faux-bloodstained unitard and bright-red lips to match. She had surely just devoured the heart of an unsuspecting patron of the arts, and if anyone forgot she was there, she’d let out a bloodcurdling scream as a reminder. At one moment (or probably several), she mocked guests who were engaged in conversation rather than lavishing her with the attention she deserved. In the background, a looping saxophone solo toggled between serene Muzak and horror-movie dissonance (the audio was, I suspect, from Linder’s SOME TRADE, previously performed in galleries and museums). I commented on the unease I felt during a particularly shrill pulsation, and a less sensitive attendee retorted that they hadn’t noticed it. By now, I was thoroughly alienated from the experience, and I rather enjoyed the feeling. The array of intervening performances seemed to exist at the expense of conversation rather than in its service—an inevitability, perhaps, of dinner theater.
This year’s RenBen included an hours-long cake-cutting ceremony. All photos: Noah Sheldon.
If McMenamy was meant to be the scene-stealer, the two performers who hustled the periphery of the DuSable rotunda as part of SOME TRADE receded into the shadows. Later in the evening, as I chatted with my seatmate—the artist and filmmaker Jordan Strafer—I became distracted by a scene unfolding in the corner of my eye. Dancer Stephen Thompson had his cutoff jean short shorts around his ankles, what I imagine to be his bare buttocks obscured by a tasseled leather towel in shades of mauve that he’d been using as a prop. The performer’s seductive hip rolls simulated a kind of sexual exchange with the architecture, the pale hues of the towel spread out behind him like a makeshift curtain. I’m not sure how many attendees caught sight of this sexcapade, but it brought me a healthy dose of prurient joy, and also reminded me of what I’d seen earlier in the day at the Renaissance Society.
A detour: a heavy green beaded curtain with accompanying flickering LEDs by Puppies Puppies (Jade Guanaro Kuriki-Olivo); Divine Em and another pole dancer from Fly Club Chicago alternating their routines, bathed in soft pink light; an episode of the Phil Donahue Show about a teenager sodomized with a broomstick, edited by Larry Clark and relayed over three tricked-out monitors; a live stream of some kittens, another of someone asleep in China; Karen Kilimnik’s faceless painting suspended from a pole like those aforementioned pole dancers; Marie Laurencin’s downturned Head of a Young Woman, 1926, shying away from said pole dancers; a configuration of plastic sheathed furniture that I’m told is used for table reads directed by Catherine Sullivan and Pope.L (I shamefully couldn’t stay in town long enough to catch the latter’s staging of Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play The Dramatic Circle); bags of urine; a configuration of walls mimicking the Renaissance Society’s geometric ceiling; two sparring editions of Larry Johnson’s Untitled (How to Draw Chelsea Manning), 2022; an automated scroll/stroll through Instagram posts by @halal.before.haram. These are some of the contents and goings-on within the Ren’s untitled presentation assembled by Bruce Hainley and Shahryar Nashat. Left with little contextual information (other than some vague allusions to Robert Pattinson), I was able to stew in the ways this display chewed me up as much it spat me out. I felt somehow used and disabused of any museological presumptions, and I liked it. Competing soundtracks came in and out of focus, like the works, objects, things, artifacts, playthings, or whatever else you want them to be that were on view. Very much like “TRU RENAISSANCE,” it was hard to know where to direct one’s desires, how to navigate the terrain: The only thing worse than turning your back to a pole dancer suspended in midair is perhaps turning your back on a Marie Laurencin painting.
Speed skater Jeffrey Swider Peltz.
Meanwhile, McMenamy, outfitted this time in another sequined Gucci number (they were plentiful), continued to do her thing on a chaise lounge. Two guests at an adjacent table were dutifully observant, but most were vying for rations of risotto and grilled sirloin steak. Did I mention professional speed skater Jeffrey Swider Peltz making the rounds on rollerblades and a performative cake-cutting that elapsed in excruciatingly slow motion over the course of the evening? I wished we had been served cake before dinner. Music by the band Coil resonated throughout the rotunda (“. . . Eat your greens, especially broccoli. And always say thank you, especially for broccoli”) as a sculptural arrangement by Nashat offered another visual anchor in the form of a papier-mâché carcass and more urine. Chaos—impeccably choreographed chaos—reigned throughout the night.
Before dinner was served, a disembodied voice repeatedly implored guests to find their seats. It took me a while to register the requests I was ignoring were those of countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo (aka ARC), billed as the evening’s main event. When I realized that the voice belonged to Costanzo, I dutifully found my way to my table lest I miss his contribution to the evening. I felt fortunate in the moments that followed to hear the opera singer recite the menu in exacting lyrical detail, even though he was nowhere to be found. I’ve never heard “squash” sound so good.
The three songs eventually performed by ARC (in Gucci) are now forever interwoven with my DNA (also in Gucci). Accompanied by Mark A. Shuldiner on a clavicytherium—an instrument as coveted within music as a countertenor is in opera—the singer eliminated any possibility of inattention. Having never seen him perform live, but having listened to his recording of Philip Glass and David Byrne’s “Liquid Days” too many times to count, I felt ARC’s voice penetrate every porous part of my body and reverberate within me, just as it did throughout the cavernous rotunda of the DuSable. There were certified opera queens in the audience, some of whom had seen ARC perform the Metropolitan Opera’s reboot of Akhnaten (1984) as many as three times (he reportedly told Linder that he’d known others who saw it no fewer than nineteen). I don’t quite have the language to describe exactly how a countertenor embodies the degendered marriage between baritone and falsetto voices, but I can say that Costanzo’s vocalizing of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” was like nothing I’d ever experienced.
The cake was finally served; the speed skater flew between tables waving a flag emblazoned with the night’s financial stakeholders; McMenamy became the star of a music video in her mind; the wall hustlers uncoupled themselves from the architecture and sexualized whatever bits of the room’s center they could, all while ARC cried to my soul in the style of Jimmy Somerville. It was a disorienting crescendo that unified the evening’s disparate gestures into a single tableau. Any attentions that had been adrift were by now thoroughly overwhelmed. Good luck to next year’s RenBen artist to match what the bejeweled Linder orchestrated (in Gucci).