An unseen musician plucks a cello in a halting, haunting melody as a seemingly drunken cameraperson flits between images of the Mojave desert at sunrise and artist Brent Holmes dressed as a pantsless cowboy. He stands alone, among the brush and distant mountains, smokes a cigar, eats a peach and dances. In time with the music, handwritten phrases appear on the screen, such as “A gluttony unfulfilled” and “a denless coyote.” Watching Holmes’ video performance piece “Abraxes” is like watching a poem come to life.
“Abraxes” is just one of the many works on display in the virtual version of the London Biennale Las Vegas performance art festival—marking the 10th anniversary of the event’s Las Vegas debut. It’s coordinated by artists Jevijoe Vitug, JK Russ, Matthew Couper and Laurence Myers Reese.
The London Biennale was created in 1998 by Filipinio artist David Medalla, with the goal of creating a more inclusive art event. When the London location was determined to be in and of itself exclusive, the event invited artists to participate in satellite cities.
Previous local iterations, in 2010, 2012 and 2014, were enthusiastic community affairs, gathering places for Las Vegas artists and fans. Due to COVID-19 precautions, the 2020 Las Vegas event is completely different. Instead of going somewhere physical to experience live art, viewers visit a website—londonbiennale2020.couperruss.com—to consume videos, GIFs and photos by the participating artists.
Organizers decided upon the event’s theme a year ago, yet it speaks directly to the current world: Masks, Mirages & the Morphic Mirror. The concept of the mask—those literal and metaphorical—appears in many of the pieces, which include:
ν Nanda Sharif-pour’s “DIY,” a representation of our pandemic anxieties. Like a voyeur, the camera observes her from multiple angles as she stands at her bathroom mirror, places a sheer mask over her face and then feels the mask with pieces of plants.
ν “Over, Over, Over, Over, Over & Over,” a video piece in which artist and Biennale organizer Matthew Couper slowly makes art while dressed as a Nosferatu-like character.
ν “Wounder Woman Studies: Lasso of Truth,” by artist and educator Wendy Kveck, depicts a woman, dressed vaguely like the lasso-wielding superhero, brandishing knives and smoking a cigarette while her face oozes frosting.
ν The video “Venado Oro,” by Mexican-born Las Vegas artist Javier Sanchez, recasts Hollywood stereotypes of indigenous culture by re-creating the “Deer Dance ritual.”
ν An untitled digital animation by Italian-born artist Giorgio Guidi is based on “the theme of worldwide migration.” Viewers can navigate through a virtual gallery he created to see his intricate layered drawings.
ν Cara Seymour’s digital photo, titled “Lipstick II,” features a red lipstick kiss adorning an abandoned surgical mask.
ν In “Arts and Leisure (Crying)” by UNLV MFA student Emily Sarten, a woman poses on a digital beach while sad emojis float over her face.
ν Video piece “Lost Oasis,” JK Russ’ meditation on our sense of collective loss during the pandemic, shows a masked woman descending into a lit pool.
While the social aspect of viewing the art is undoubtedly missing, there are some unexpected advantages to viewing it online. Instead of feeling trapped by time and place—either missing the event altogether due to a schedule conflict or feeling obligated to watch a certain piece to the bitter end—viewers can flit about the website at their leisure. Watch a video, skip to the middle, jump to the next one, return to the first one. Free from social expectations or obligation, the viewer can simply digest and enjoy the art. In some ways, it’s a more pure experience.
“Even though it’s in the virtual world,” Russ says, “it still feels like it’s creating a presence and bringing people together.”
How to See the Art The website is divided by alumni and debut artists. Guests click on one of the two categories and then on an artist’s name to view the art and read a description of the piece, along with the artist’s bio. Organizers hope to host a live, in-person event at a later date, when it’s safe to do so. Londonbiennale2020.couperruss.com.