The scene is set in a quintessential South Austin music club. A moody glow bathes the room in red light. Center stage stands a beautiful woman, dressed in a fitted white dress with elegant, bouffant blonde hair, her foot strapped into an oversized, shoe-shaped appendage. Like a fifties femme fatale, she sings Marlene Dietrich’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” alternately in English and German, her breathy voice piping through the microphone. A worm-like fabric sculpture hangs from the ceiling in front of the stage, draping outward while its square centerpiece operates as a framed viewfinder through which to watch the woman. The sparse crowd is riveted, sipping on beer and picking at stale bar pretzels. Off to the side, the bartender films the singing woman through a ramshackle handheld camera with a distorted lens, projecting the image into a barbershop across town to a delighted audience.
This improbable scenario is par for the course in the brilliantly bizarre film Dead + Juicy, 2017, by John Bock (German, born 1965 in Gribbohm and based in Berlin). Commissioned by The Contemporary Austin and premiering at the museum in September 2017, the film was made entirely in and around several of Austin’s memorable locations and venues. Labeled an “uncanny musical” by the artist, the film features a mercurial female protagonist, a barber named Lisa, interacting with odd and wacky characters throughout various Texan locales: a barbershop, a bar, a “modern house,” a “small house” and its surrounding neighborhood, and a wooded swamp. Sly references to pop culture—such as a re-enactment of a scene from Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and musical history—Dietrich, as well as Lee Marvin’s cover of “Wand’rin’ Star” from the 1969 film of the musical Paint Your Wagon—lend a campy touch. Against the backdrop of the American Southwest, Dead + Juicy blends classic westerns and dark comedy through a moody German-expressionist lens, a terrain Bock first explored in his roadie Pulp Fiction–inspired film Palms, 2008. In Dead + Juicy, the artist further taps the underbelly of spooky thrillers and horror aesthetics using doppelgängers and “doubles,” mirroring objects and characters throughout the film in a Dada-esque musical murder mystery set amidst the backdrop of the Texas landscape.
Irrational, subversive performativity forms the (bloody) heart of Bock’s work. To this end, Dada—the early-twentieth-century avant-garde movement embracing irrationality, nonsense, and the absence of reason as a means of disrupting the political system—as well as the later inroads into environmental performativity fueled by Fluxus, Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, and 1970s performance art, serve as historical anchors for Bock’s work. Perhaps the introductory scene described above could have been imagined from Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland, that embraced the anarchic values of Dada in its radically experimental performances, cut-up spoken-word poetry, and raucous entertainment. Like the Dadaists, Bock uses part slapstick, part anarchy, and part cultural critique through a mind-bending range of media, materials, objects, sounds, and moving images, resulting in his performances, sculptures, installations, films, and videos. His earliest works from the 1990s consisted of “lectures”: dynamic, interactive performances from the artist coupled with music and manifesto-like sermons, typically enacted on self-assembled stages that were then reconfigured into sculptures, remaining afterward as an installation or sculptural evidence of the performance. Over time, Bock turned increasingly to amateur actors to star in his performances and films, stepping back into cameo roles and favoring the position of object maker and director.
The artist’s oeuvre reflects an obsessive and (despite appearances) meticulous Bockian universe, so to speak, conceived, developed, and constructed by the artist over time. This world contains permutations of the artist’s own language, symbolism, imagery, characters, objects, and performative actions that fuse art with economics, science, fashion, music, pop and visual culture, and, occasionally, farming. Bock employs a discomforting range of viscous materials including, but not limited to, shaving cream, Pepto-Bismol, barbecue sauce, toothpaste, dough, saliva, blood, urine, oatmeal, and goo of all colors, as well as found and organic objects and elements, such as cameras, sheds, furniture, thrift store clothing, clocks, cotton balls, piping, Q-tips, wheels, hay, eggs, resin, and, in the case of Dead + Juicy, human hair and a taxidermied rat—often assembled into Frankenstein-like contraptions. In tandem with the film, an installation—or “sum mutation,” as the artist refers to it—consisting of reconfigured props from the film alongside newly constructed elements occupies the first floor of the Jones Center on Congress Avenue, creating a strange landscape of object and mise-en-scènes that works together with the film. Through the intersection between object and moving image, Bock’s complex and deeply cinematic ethos emerges. At the same time, one shudders to think that somehow Bock’s alternate universe, in the context of our world today, perhaps makes complete sense.