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Artifacts from the notorious Kipper Kids 

Theater of absurdity at John Hope Franklin Center

click to enlarge Cutting up: Martin von Haselburg (left) and Brian Routh - PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN CENTER

The Kipper Kids: A Slap in the Face
John Hope Franklin Center
Through Jan. 9, 2009

In a vitrine in the gallery space for the current show at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke, one can find a collection of artifacts that include a prosthetic nose and chin of exaggerated proportions, two identical beanie caps with buttons pinned on them that feature cartoon caricature faces, and two jock straps (x-large) stretched from use and dyed in day-glow hues.

These items, inert, hermetically contained beneath glass, are part of A Slap in the Face, a collection of artifacts of the legendary British performance artists known as The Kipper Kids.

The gallery walls are hung with archival photography from the earliest days when Martin von Haselberg and Brian Routh discovered and unleashed the single, singular persona of Harry Kipper. Embodied simultaneously by the two artists, the character was born literally of hallucination, under the influence of LSD. Indeed, for many years The Kipper Kids were fueled by real-time consumption of large quantities of hard liquor during their performances. Later, much like the shaman who no longer requires hallucinogens to go into a trance state, the post-alcohol Kipper Kids found they were able to achieve the obliteration of control that, without the drugs, was a fundamental underpinning of their work.

Von Haselberg and Routh met at the East 15 Acting School in London in 1970. Mutual friends put them together, urging that there was this other guy each had to meet, recognizing a shared sensibility. According to von Haselberg, the chemistry was almost immediate: They were spontaneously riffing mad improvisational characterizations from the moment of their first meeting. They ultimately were sent packing from the relatively staid world of theater and found that the art world was much more open to their brand of performed anarchy, responding enthusiastically to pieces in which the Kippers built rituals that devolved into flung food, sprayed and spewed liquids; they assaulted the audience with an almost brutal comedic force.

To designate The Kipper Kids as a "comedy act," however, would be sorely off-point. In a video segment on view at Duke, one of the Kippers quips ominously to a laughing audience member, "Think it's funny, eh?"

While they could be truly hilarious, twin Popeyes wigging out on a lysergic spinach fix, there were always multiple dynamics in play. The works were built on the idea of ritual or ceremony, beginning in tandem acts of object placement or the completion of obscure tasks but always proceeding into darker territory that involved elements of danger and a conscious breaking down of the boundaries that separate audience from spectacle. These situations by design escalated into the realm of disgust, fear and violence, a betrayal of the complicit contract entered into by performer and viewer.


Video of The Kipper Kids performing with Bette Midler—who has been married to von Haselburg for 24 years.

The Kippers' performances were interspersed with skewed musical numbers, such as a tweaked rendition of the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week" in which the ends of stanzas are punctuated with a kind of barked "Yah!!" or an unruly version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," a number that highlights the Kippers' unrestrained emphasis on the phallus. The song begins with the performers donning sausage "necklaces" around each other's necks and setting them straight along the fronts of their bodies. In case the symbolism of the sausage is not blatant enough, they also set each other's members in order as well. And if that didn't drive the point home, they expose themselves for part of the song.

Sensationalistic phallic display seems to be a core ingredient of The Kipper Kids' visual language. Aside from the over-the-top actions just described, they often performed sporting little more than jockstraps and exaggerated prosthetics that featured extended, bulbous noses and impossibly protruding chins with painted polka-dot stubble. The "thumbs-up!" gesture is big with them, and a staple action with which to top off an evening's performance was to take shaving cream cans and shake them suggestively, only to unload the entire contents on top of the other's swim-cap-covered pates. The action is completed by placing and lighting firecrackers at the top of the dual mountains of expelled foam, which results in double explosions from their cream-covered heads.

Perhaps the most iconic act for which The Kipper Kids were known was a sequence in which one of them would don boxing gloves and the other would take on the role of fight announcer. The announcer would give blow-by-blow descriptions as the other Kipper would literally beat himself up. This was performed to visceral extremes, in which the performer would hit himself so hard as to draw blood that spewed into the faces of viewers. It is not possible to fully imagine oneself present for this and other of The Kipper Kids' accumulated acts of art, ritual and aggression. While this particular gesture of auto-antagonism (the literalized embodiment of self-abuse) would no doubt be difficult to view, I regret that the video segments offered in A Slap in the Face do not include documentation of this infamous bit of theater art.

This kind of performed assault cannot be truly experienced through the artifacts that document it. That being said, A Slap in the Face is a vital, even essential, must-see for anyone interested in the development of art and culture in the last half-century. The Kipper Kids performed in a range of contexts throughout Europe and the U.S., including opening for rock acts from the Bay City Rollers (and an audience of 10,000) to Public Image Limited. After discovering The Kipper Kids, one might feel compelled to rethink everything from The Three Stooges to the work of performance artist Karen Finley (who was married at one time to Routh), to artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, to performance diva Johanna Went and later to her progeny, the NYC performance duo DanceNoise. The Kippers can also be seen in the context of other artist teams, from Gilbert & George to the Starn Twins to Liz'N'Val to McDermott and McGough. Or how about that scene from Fight Club where Edward Norton beats the shit out of himself? And while we're at it, how about that "slime" ritual on Nickelodeon?

Despite these vast and disparate associations, which include casting the Kippers as both shamans and clowns, there is one final line that can be traced to von Haselberg and Routh's beginnings in drama school. Their theater training cannot be underestimated in their knowledge of stagecraft and in their capacity as expressive performers. Further, underneath their drive to abolish the boundaries that create a complacent relationship between audience and performer is a sense of how to build tension and hold the viewer's interest. To my mind, this awareness of how to create and sustain vital, light, dark and enduring theater experiences can be described in a single word: Shakespearean.

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