From her war with the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998, to covering herself in honey to examine female sexuality, to a performance looking back on 9/11 through the eyes of multiple Liza Minnellis, one need only Google Karen Finley for a glimpse into the performance artist’s history of controversial work.
This year, Finley returns with Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, hosted by Spin Cycle at the Laurie Beechman theater in Manhattan. For it, she plunges into politics and creates cathartic impersonations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “I had originally wanted to do an anniversary performance of my other show, Make Love, with the Liza Minnellis,” she tells The Creators Project. It would have been its 15th anniversary, but after watching the Democratic Convention, she built something else. “I had to speak to what was going on now. The artist acts as a historical recorder.”
Wearing a shawl of daisies and colors, Finley dances onstage and begins Unicorn with cryptic lightheartedness: “The unicorn prefers the dragon roll to the sushi roll, and never likes styrofoam under any circumstances. It gets the job done without hands. It doesn’t exist so it never waits for the G train. It suffered to make good art.” With a jolt, her breathy praise turns to a bellow. “Damn your white preciousness and chivalry! Where were you when Sandra Bland fell, Eric Garner, the church in Charleston! Where were you?”
The audience leans in and cheers one moment, before shooting back in their seats the next—stunned to grim silence. Finley’s second act begins with an imitation of an acceptance speech, filled with gratitude but progresses quickly into darker territory. She breaks into sudden outbursts, from jokes, “I am grateful you owe me money, so I can experience my own form of wanting to be paid back.”
Over time, her character begins to impersonate Hillary Clinton, with brief moments of Bill as well. From the pantsuits to the infamous blue dress, the presidential pair is portrayed as both powerful and pitiable. In an almost frightening moment, she grabs a wrapped ice cream out of nowhere and squeezes it all over the blue dress hanging from her neck, explicitly referencing Monica Lewinski. “I wasn’t expecting it to explode onto the audience,” she tells The Creators Project, “but it ended up adding another layer of inclusion.”
In a riveting third act, she transforms into Donald Trump, with blonde hair spilling out the front of her pants as she screams, “Somebody stop me!” She concludes with a speech on war, juxtaposing the femininity of never-ending apologies, and the masculinity of being raised to die. “I’m talking about transgressions, narcissism, power, sexual infidelity, denial, and particularly war,” she says. “Alongside constant political spectacle, we have been inundated, traumatized, by continued war and violence. Almost every week there is another traumatic shooting event. And it is truly horrible.”
Finley continues with one more transformation, “The unicorn even has a relationship to Bernie. I’m not naming him, but there’s that sense of the hope, the well-wishes, the projection of an almost imaginary being. It’s also about whiteness, and the sense of mythical, imaginary attainment. I have it too… you just get connected to the trappings of a liberal life.”
Karen Finley’s must-see show, Unicorn Gratitude Mystery, runs through August 21st at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in Manhattan. Learn more here.