Among the many charges leveled at Marie Antoinette at the cusp of the French Revolution was that she callously parodied the hardships of peasant life. The queen did indeed use state funds to erect a mock peasant village, complete with a fully operational farm, on Versailles property. Marie Antoinette’s most bitter critics spread rumors that she went so far as to don the costume of a milkmaid or shepherdess, “playing peasant” the way young children often “play house.” No reliable record of such behavior exists. Opulent Versailles demanded rigorous daily rituals and exposed the royal family to intense public scrutiny, and historians widely agree that the queen retreated to her humble hameau to escape the pressures of courtly life. It took about a century, give or take, for Romantic philosophy, poetry, and landscape painting in Europe, sensibilities that may have fueled Marie Antoinette’s interest in rustic life, not to mention the revolutionary fervor that sealed the queen’s fate, to fully manifest in the U.S. The movement was only spurred on by the conquest of the West and a newfound patriotic nostalgia, marked by the rise of technologies that spelled the beginning of the end of pioneering and agrarian life. In a gesture every bit as ostentatious as commissioning of Versailles, American Romantics appropriated the natural splendor of their newly claimed continent as proof of their divine right.
It is in this historical and symbolic interstice that Julie Wills’ performance series Marie Antoinette in America is set. Wills resurrects the deposed queen in the bucolic opulence of the Coloradan landscape; she adopts a version of Marie Antoinette’s persona, and elaborate hairdo, to explore and enact themes of psychological hardship, abjection and sexuality. Wills performed The Hunt, one iteration of Marie Antoinette in America, on the last day of Rapid Pulse. This is roughly how it went: The audience flanked either side of a stage-‐space, empty except for a large ribcage, a chair and an image of a vast, empty landscape projected onto the backdrop. Enter Wills, wearing a white slip, cowboy boots, and a long blonde curly wig supporting a sculptural mess of twigs—possibly an allusion to Marie Antoinette’s famously elaborate headpieces. She walked slowly and deliberately around the ribcage, initially in broad circles skirting the stage, then tighter and tighter until she reached the bones. A recording of breathing and a heartbeat kicked in, the landscape in the background turned red. Then the performance turned into a kind of ambiguous burlesque: Wills crept towards the ribcage slowly, suggestively, then dragged it, then cradled it, then put it in the chair. Then Wills-‐cum-‐Antoinette sat in the chair, holding the carcass in her lap, caressing it lovingly. Meanwhile, the landscape turned blue, then black and white, then yellow, in time with the soundtrack, which shifted from heartbeats to the din of bleating sheep, then to bird twitter. For a long while Wills sat straight-‐backed in the chair, sans bones, hands perched in lap, eyes darting around at the audience. Finally, she got up, strode over to the ribcage, kicked it, broke off a rib, stuck the rib in her dress, across her own torso, and walked offstage.
In her own words, the rugged landscape Wills incorporated into The Hunt “is used here as a metaphoric stand-‐in for a psychological ‘wilderness’.” It would be easy to assume that the psychological wilderness is Marie Antoinette’s own, or represents the abject psychological states of women, or to invoke Lacan in order to justify some kind of women-‐and-‐madness psychobabble overreach. But it is important to remember that for most of us, historical figures like Marie Antoinette are an amalgamation of other people’s stories. By plucking her from her context and situating her in a new landscape in order to, as Wills has suggested, invoke abjection and punishment for fictional crimes, Wills underscores the symbolic violence done to the victims of grand narratives. Will’s Antoinette is therefore shrouded in ambiguity, wandering through the psychological wilderness of our collective historical narratives, doomed to re-‐enact the violence of her mythologization.
Photo by Arjuna Capulong
Katie Waddell is a Chicago-based independent curator and critic. She is the founder of its a pony! projects, an independent, nomadic curatorial platform. She also directs and produces 2nd Floor Rear, an annual 24-hour festival of art in unconventional spaces. Katie is currently writing her masters thesis on sincerity and sociality in Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More.