"My eye has always been drawn to abnormal forms... It's just that now my tool is my body. I'm still animating a form, but it's my own form." Lisa "Louise" Bufano. October 20,1972 - October 3, 2013.
The lights slowly come up on a stage, empty but for a chair and a kneeling woman. The woman begins to move slowly, decisive tension evident in every gesture. It is a tension that grows as it is revealed that the dancer has no fingers and both of her legs amputated below the knee. As she continues to move, a leg, an arm, a torso lifted slowly inch by inch captivate but it is not the fact of the altered body that is the defining exploration, it is the movement itself, a sublime expression of etching out humanity into space.
"Five Open Mouths," the title of the piece in question, is the one of the seminal pieces performed by Lisa Bufano that speaks most profoundly to the nature of her work -- an alchemical challenge that transforms the potentially grotesque into grace and the body into living art. Her presentation is entirely unapologetic, asking neither sympathy nor allowance. It stands on its own.
An important point as standing, let alone dancing, involved the creative use of prosthetics, high-tech carbon fiber prosthetic legs for her body training, and handmade creations for performance often refashioned from the legs of antique tables. The resulting affect is a body expressed in different forms, a series of unexpected shapes. These shapes can be insect-like or intensely structural, for instance mechanical lower extremities shaped as inverted question marks, or acts of physical chiaroscuro that offers a quality of line unique to her specific form. She becomes a representation that is deeply corporeal and yet at the same time, more than human. Her performance has moved many, mostly because of it's beauty but at times, because it is a testament to transcendent function. She has said of her own work, "I'm not an astounding dancer, but being a performer with a deformity, I find that there's a gut response in audiences, an attraction/repulsion aspect to it that can be compelling. I just hope that there's a balance between that gut response and the substance of a performance."
And it was this, how the audience experienced how she employed her body, their revulsion or interest or compassion, that motivated her artistic expression. She deeply examined, in her words, "the visceral experience of alienation, embodied by creatures, real and imagined."
She was however, not interested in being a hero. "She hated that," says John Rinaldi, a close friend of hers and purveyor of the kind of artistic and transgressively revolutionary culture that is the beating and bleeding heart of San Francisco. "In spite of disability, she persevered" is not Lisa's story, she became a dancer after she lost her feet.
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on October 20, 1972, Lisa spent her adolescence training to be a competitive gymnast, but after a surviving the life-threatening staphylococcus bacterial infection that led to the amputation of her fingers and lower legs when she was twenty-one, she explored other mediums through which she could share her particular vision, one that was , not initially, intended to be public. She graduated from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2003 and worked as a web developer at the Museum of Science in Boston. She left that post in 2005 to pursue her interests in sculpture, stop-motion animation and other forms of the visual arts through The Contemporary Artists Center Residency in North Adams, Massachusetts.
While she was exploring art in a studio setting, a professor from the University of Linz who was studying the lives of amputees offered her a stipend and a trip to Vienna if she would create and perform a piece. Her obituary recalls how Lisa responded to this offer, "the idea was absolutely terrifying to me. That seemed like a good reason to do it." She fashioned Queen Anne table legs into stilts for her legs and arms and a performance artist was born. One who would take the idea of being a Shape Shifter into profoundly new territories and would make it the grounding principle of her work that has been performed in Croatia, Brazil, Vienna, France, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C and lastly, here in San Francisco.
In our current Cult of Personality, where even those who have never strutted upon a stage hunger for the public gaze, Lisa is an anomaly. She strove to communicate her vision not because she desired commendation or fame but because it was necessary. It was not a choice. It was a natural outcome. She said of her approach to why she performs, "despite my own terror and discomfort in being watched (or, maybe, because of it), I am finding that being in front of viewers as a performer with deformity can produce a magnetic tension that could be developed into strength..."
In a panel discussion after a video was shown of her work at Yerba Buena show curated by Madison Young in 2012, Lisa told the story about her performance in a store window of the Alaska Building in Boise. In her characteristic soft toned humility, she spoke of how the existence of a live person, of decidedly unusual shape, in the window, with stilts for legs, caused reactions that ranged from horror to revelation. From confusion to genuine recognition. A liminal space where beauty and repulsion could co-mingle and find release.
Not surprisingly, among the many inspirations for Lisa's work was the Victorian explorations of Optical Toys. These were inventions that explored how the eye and the mind in conjunction created an experience separate from the object itself, like the Thaumatrope that employed two discs of separate images spun around a string that created an entirely different image when seen in motion. Medical drawings, historical wax models and dolls of all kinds, the groundbreaking sculptural Cell work of "Spiderwoman" Louise Bourgeois' and the animation of Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers were inspirations that fueled Lisa's investigation into the realm of fantastical reality.
Freaks the wholly unusual, for the time and for the studio, 1932 MGM film featuring as actors, carnival sideshow performers was another kind of inspiration. These were not actors in makeup but the people who existed in sideshows across the country. The Bearded Lady was one, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hill Hilton played a part and Elizabeth Green, The Stork Woman, who was genetically predisposed to be "strange' looking with her prominent nose and skinny, skinny limbs also made an appearence. Director Todd Browning had traveled with the circus when he was younger and wanted to portray the physically deformed "freaks" as inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the crew. Based on the lyrics of the song in the film, Lisa tattooed on her right wrist the words, "One of us."
It was this perspective, brave and inclusive, in her work and her personal life that drew so many people to her. She was an inspiring figure for many but that was not the reason why she created. She was certainly uncomfortable with being an icon, in any sense of the word, and those who were closest to her know how profoundly she resisted that label. Her partner, Justinian Morton says, "She let me be inspired by her because she didn't believe in it. She knew that it was because I was inspired by her dedication in every moment to art, as a vision and a way of living, because of her dedication to organizing and scheduling that did not come naturally to her. She was self made. She challenged being a product of anyone's vision, different to the center of who she was. I was not inspired by her overcoming adversity. She hated that so much because it made what she became unimportant, secondary to what her body was. Her struggle was with the things that would not change, no matter if her body was usual or not. She was a film maker a sculptor, a painter, a dancer, a writer, she was always starting something new. Always looking, always seeing. Lisa gathered together an amazing collection of friends and lovers, all of us with an unusual, and sometimes difficult to see, spark of the really different. Lisa's vision was perfect and that was her art."
Vision, in the midst of struggling through the day to day -- a place to live, funds for survival, the merciless onslaught of those late night voices of vicious inquiry - can exhaust even those who have already weathered the almighty disaster, whatever form it takes. There are the recognizable disabilities and then there are those that are hidden, amputations of spirit that exist in the swampy depths and don't even know how to form themselves into a coherent sentence or a confession or a graceful delineation of arm. Contrary to the current mode of thinking that we can heal all wounds and losses, overcome, move on, the truth is that, often we can only turn them into something beautiful or find an anchored warmth that keeps us going into the next moment.
Being an artist has always been difficult because it means living in the realm of questions asked and more importantly, struggling in the primordial psychic muck for as much of an answer as one can find. This is why we need them, this is why they are important, this is why they need to be cared for. And Lisa "Louise' Bufano was absolutely an artist and an extraordinary human being. Her passing has left a void. As Morton says, "all of us have said, who will we take this to show, now that Lisa is gone?" It is an aching refrain but one that deserves a resounding response. Indeed, it deserves a great goddamn shout of, "Us!"
Last year Lisa performed a piece as part of an extravaganza Circus show produced by Rinaldi with 150 performers, of incredible talent and wild gorgeousness. In the midst of all of this Lisa was given a separate space, painted white and with a single light. As she began to move, the light caught her form and cast shadowed shapes so much larger than she against the walls. A carver of preconceptions, a seeker of that infinitesimal fraction of time when a twist is sublime, hers was a singular grace. Of that show Rinaldi says, "It was Lisa that everyone remembered."
ASKEW, an experimental interactive exploration of performance, activism, and counter-culture through documentary and experimental film will present "Primal Expressionism" in honor of Lisa Bufano. " I hope by dedicating an evening of performance in her honor that she will be with us in spirit and that her artistic voice will live on", (Curator Madison Young). Feb 6th, 7th, 8th, 2014 at YBCA screening room. The event is hosted by by Femina Potens.