Karen Finley won’t be naked, or covered in chocolate. Candied yams will not be involved. If there are neighborhood morality-watch squads in Salem, they’ll have the night off.
Finley, now 54, is the performance artist who got in hot water in the early ’90s, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, after the NEA awarded her grants to stage transgressive, angry, feminist — and often nude — performance pieces. But next Friday, at the Peabody Essex Museum, she’ll be wearing a tailored black jacket, white slacks, pearls, and iconic dark sunglasses. She’ll be Jackie K. Or Jackie O. Or Karen Finley channeling America’s most famous First Lady and Grieving Widow, in The Jackie Look.
Just back from Austria — where she installed her sculpture Open Heart, a memorial to 420 children murdered by lethal heart injection at the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp — Finley spoke to me from her home in Tarrytown, New York.
What made you want to do Jackie?
Since 2001, I’ve been doing performances where I’ve been integrating public figures into them. After 9/11, I did a performance looking at it through the eyes of Liza Minnelli. I also created a play, George & Martha, which was about an affair between George Bush and Martha Stewart. It was like the George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I did The Dreams of Laura Bush, where I created Laura Bush’s dream journal. I narrated the dream and projected the dreams on screen. And then, two years ago, I was in Albany at the time of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, and I created a performance as Spitzer, his wife, and the sex worker. There was a line where I was examining the apology, the women, and the larger issues. As his wife, I said, “You haven’t seen grief like this since Jackie.” And I started thinking about women and emotion, and what is projected onto them. That’s how I became interested in Jackie.
And then . . .
I was invited to give a talk on photography in Dallas — only two blocks from the grassy knoll — and I decided to give a lecture as Jackie Kennedy returning to Dallas, looking at the images.
How do you regard this piece?
I’m doing it as an illusion or an appropriation rather than a traditional theater piece. It’s not Walt Disney or Tina Fey doing it. Consider it impressionism in the application.
In the piece, is it as if Jackie were alive today commenting on what’s gone down over the years?
Do I think she could have said some of these things? I would hope to think so. But it would be naive to think because I’ve read 12 books and studied her for six months, that I could actually get her completely. I feel what I do know is about her thoughtfulness and sense of reflection. I would hope that would be in there. It’s definitely not a crude work. It’s an emotional work. There are people that start crying when they come to the performance.