AMERICAN ABJECT VI: WE COME, WE GUM

I don’t eat bubble gum but I like the smell.

-Karl Lagerfeld

In [Hannah Wilke’s] public performances of [S.O.S. Starification Object Series], documented indirectly by…photographs, Wilke would hand sticks of gum to visitors as they entered the gallery space, before removing her shirt. She would then request the chewed gum from her audience, twisting each piece into a vagina form and sticking it to her bare skin, thus marking herself with a sign. She commented: ‘I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman – chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece.

-from the Tate’s description of Wilke’s poster Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism

I’ve been chewing and spitting out food as a way to manage weight. At first, I would do it every once in a while, when there was a special dessert or something, to get the taste without the calories. Now, I’ve stared spitting more often. I eat regular, healthy meals three times a day – lots of fruits, lean proteins, vegetables, and healthy fats. I am on the swim team at school, so I get lots of exercise. I spit to get the taste of foods – mostly sweets (cake, cookies, brownies, etc.) and bread.

-Beth*, the pseudonym of a teen seeking advice at kids.health.org’s column “Expert Answers on…” 

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This Saturday, while driving up the northbound 101, I witnessed thee most quintessential LA moment I’ve seen to date as an ex-patriot from the land of Central California. Two glorious, tricked out to the inverted 6s lowriders had broken down. Their stillness was staging a sit-in in the center lane. Their hoods were open. This exposed engines and other innards, and the lowriders’ vato drivers, dressed in modified zoot suits, stood together by the front bumper of vehicle number 1. They looked contemplatively fretful.

The moment was gorgeous.

The rest of us inched along, iconic Mulholland Drive nearby, the Getty Center, home of so much looted art, close by, too, and seeing these stalled cars was like watching a peacock limp on a broken leg. Spectacularly broken. Fancy ass sports cars manned by outraged and/or gawking white people swerved and turned to avoid the Mexicans. Watching these folks inconvenienced by Chicano splendor was dreamy.

I don’t know where the vatos were going, but I was on my way to see my parents. I haven’t seen them in months and the ride there took about four hours. I was hella hungry by the time I arrived so I marched into their kitchen, gorged on mangos and pistachios, and glanced at my mom. She was sitting on a family room couch, watching some crime show.

“Hey,” I said to her. “Wanna go to San Luis Obispo with me tomorrow to do performance art?”

I had this whole matriarchal, intergenerational performance art fantasy in mind. Mom had to ruin it by bringing up the D.

“Can Daddy come?” she asked in Spanish.

I groaned.

“I want to do a mother-daughter performance,” I whined.

“Yes,” she said, in an artificially understanding tone, “but Daddy will feel lonely if he can’t come.”

“Fine.”

Daddy strolled into the family room. “What are we doing tomorrow?” he asked.

I explained that we would be going to San Luis Obispo to do performance art and he immediately began micromanaging the upcoming day, right down to the D:

“What time are we eating breakfast? I wanna make sure we beat the crowds. Be up by seven. And where should we have dinner? DINNER. I want tri tip. We should eat at Shaw’s but I don’t wanna deal with the drunks at happy hour. Too many divorcees. We should arrive there by 4 for dinner. 4:30 at the latest.”

“So we can do performance art as a family between 8:30 and 4?” I asked Dad.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “We also have to go to the 99 cent store. I need batteries.”

“For your vibrator?” I thought. I asked, “For what?”

“An alarm.”

“Which one?”

“The one at the bottom of the driveway.”

Dad is currently at war with a teenage boy who vandalized a federal, and womb-like space: Dad’s mailbox. The boy terrorized it, beating it with a bat, and Dad believes that this terrorist may return. This belief prompted him to install a sensor that beeps like a primitive robot whenever anything, including sweet eucalyptus leaves, approaches the mailbox. The beeps sound in the foyer but reach the outer limits of the house.

I stretched, wandered to my bedroom, crawled under mismatched blankets, and fell asleep to the sound of beeping caused by either white boy footfall or rabbit paws.

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On performance-art-as-a-family day, we ate breakfast at a diner Guy Fieri would approve of, Kay’s.

I’d made us late, it was 8, and our tardiness was making Dad tense. He sipped coffee from a mug that’d clearly been thrifted and his forehead furrowed into an old school roadmap. Like the Maginot Line, I sat stiffly between him and Mom. Things got political.

“Mommy,” dad began, “do you feel the Bern?”

“No.”

Looking over his mug, he turned to me and declared, “Mommy doesn’t feel the Bern!”

He has no idea how gross this sounds to me.

I mentioned something about art and Dad went, “What’s that name of that big art gathering they have in the desert? Fire Man?”

Mom pointed at the shabby chic mugs resting on the empty tables surrounding us. She whispered, “Look! I think I gave those to the Goodwill!”

We ate large, manly meals, meals for artists, meals for people who would be chewing, and we returned home to digest. I put on my running shoes and jogged around the neighborhood to the beat of gay club anthems synthing through my earbuds. After showering and buckling myself into a pair of olive overalls, it was time. The three of us piled into Dad’s Honda. He pointed it north and drove. I handed Mom my phone charger. I asked, “Can you please stick this in?”

She grabbed it, felt it up, and said, “It’s sticky. Why is it sticky?”

I said, “Never ask why something is sticky.”

She looked confused. Then she let out a solitary giggle.

My parents are both shit talkers and the whole way to San Luis Obispo, which is a 20 to 30 minute scenic drive, Dad criticized other people’s driving. He also discussed the devaluation of American educators and with authority, he proclaimed that women of a certain age shouldn’t wear tight pants because they will develop a problem called “tingling thigh syndrome.”

I texted my boyfriend, “My dad is a misogynist. Lol.”

Dad also cracked a joke about checking in a bag, the punch line being that the bag is someone’s wife. Other topics of conversation included a Canadian couple from Love or List It that he and Mom couldn’t stand, Crete, and what makes an artist an artist. Mom insisted, “If you can draw people, you are an artist.”

She recently drew somebody.

Dad agreed, “Yes. You have to be able to draw the human face.”

I’m pretty sure that according to my parents, I’m not artist.

I don’t care. I love and accept my parents even though they have a narrow-minded view of art and live a heterosexual lifestyle.

With Dad commenting on how white it makes him feel to set foot in San Luis Obispo, we parked by a community garden beside a park where some lone white dude seemed to be doing rogue crossfit. We got out of the Honda and strolled past a jazz band setting up on a corner and headed to 7-Eleven to grab lunch and art supplies. We bought cheeses, fruits, nuts, and Bubble Tape. We walked back outside, into the wind, and Dad barked, “Do your gum thing before we eat. Otherwise, you’re gonna get food particles in it.”

We walked through an alley. Mom declared, “It stinks!”

“It smells like an alley,” I told her.

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We turned left, into another alley, and arrived at our canvas, the brick expanses of San Luis Obispo’s notorious Gum Alley. For some reason, families make pilgrimages here to spread saliva, Chiclets, and disease across its walls. It’s fun. It’s a bonding experience.

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“How many letters in the name you said you and Mommy are gonna spell?”

Using my fingers, I counted. I answered, “5.”

Mom and I got to work shoving our art materials into our mouths and masticating. She handed me her gum, I mashed it up with mine, and I stretched gum and pressed it, stretched gum and pressed it, stretched gum and pressed it.

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I call what we did at Gum Alley Wilke Family Performance.

What does this work mean and why?

Well, Wilke Family Performance’s dynamic communicates its meaning. My dad, a patriarch, holds the camera (my phone), taking pictures of Mom and I, the women, the beings which are chewed up and spit out, according to artist Hannah Wilke, by patriarchy (see opening quote). By America. We are chewing and spitting ourselves out and then grabbing fresh versions of ourselves and repeating the process. As we do this, we give rebirth to Wilke in pink, the color of her beloved vagina sculptures. I birth her wet, sticky name onto the wall. I stretch it across a wall dotted by inadvertent pseudocunts, a paradise, bricks covered in AMERICAN WOMEN. In this abject place, we praise Wilke. By forcing my father to document this, I force him to participate in my sticky feminism. Father, daughter, and mother bond. Lol.

I wanted to make this work because some of the extended internet performances I’ve been working on regarding the male gaze are very “demoralizing.” I have been told by the men of the internet that I have a piss face, that I should be spanked, that I should flash my privates, that I must give them tips on how to pick up hot women RIGHT NOW, and that I should be killed and boiled into a soup. I made Wilke Family Performance to have something tangible, a work to refute their words. Something loving, sticky, wet, and embracable with which to refute their words.

Lol. Those are Dad’s feet.

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Instructions: Do your own Wilke Family Performance. Chew gum together, as a family. Write something with it. Take a picture. Send it to me. Or not.

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