Paul Waddell at the Meme Gallery
On Thanksgiving most people will interact with a turkey that’s in an advanced state of death. Paul Waddell, however, will be interacting with a real live be-wattled bird—one that would otherwise certainly be someone’s meal. For three days he will live with a turkey, getting to know his new roommate intimately.
Waddell is not, as you might expect, some PETA fanatic trying to make a grand statement. He’s a performance artist, and this turkey-saving event, entitled “I Like Massachusetts and Massachusetts Massachusetts Massachusetts Me,” is happening at the Meme Gallery in Central Square.
Those up on their art history will recognize the event as a parody of famous artist Joseph Beuys’ 1974 performance piece called “I Love America and America Loves Me,” in which the iconoclastic German came to the US to live with a wild coyote for three days.
“I’ve never tried to be friends with a turkey, so I want to find out, you know, what are they like? How do they feel? What would they like to do with their lives?” says Waddell, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Now based in California, he’s made a career out of thinking up and carrying out bizarre ideas like this one.
“It’s actually a parody of a reenactment,” Waddell explains. “Right now in the art scene a lot of what’s going on is reenactments of past pieces. It’s like the Mannerist art movement after the Renaissance where they were all copying the old paintings. It becomes a futile, go-nowhere kind of thing, like musicians doing tribute bands.”
Waddell, who studied performance art in college, started out as a musician himself. In high school he had a rock band called Partially Hydrogenated that was basically an excuse for him to do things on stage, like perform strange acts with mayonnaise and yell at people in the audience.
“It was sort of a primitive, aggressive way to have forced participation,” he says. “Then I got to college and realized that what I was already doing anyway had a name. It was great; I got exposed to an international community of artists. But now what I spend a lot of time doing is trying not to think about what I learned.”
Although he is entertaining, Waddell insists he feels no pressure to be funny or shocking. His shows consist of anything from crawling through the shelves of a library, pushing around books and bothering patrons, to larger-scale improvised events. In a recent performance at the University of Iowa, he started out seemingly in control and let the whole thing collapse, allowing the audience to take over the show.
“It’s a good model people could follow if they want to overthrow the government,” he suggests.
When he’s not living with turkeys or wreaking artistic havoc, Waddell teaches drawing and painting at a private high school. He’s in demand as a performance artist, but that’s hardly something that pays the rent.
“It takes a long time before you can make a living at it,” he says. “At least I have my airfare and food paid for. The Meme Gallery doesn’t have a lot of money, but they’re giving me a place to stay.”
Vela Phelan of Meme Gallery says that he and his partners hired Waddell based on an appreciation of his past work; they didn’t know what he was planning to do.
“Performance art changes and adapts to the space,” Phelan says. “So even if someone has proposed what they’re going to do, anything can happen once their actions start.”
Phelan is proud that his gallery offers an unlimited situation for artists to explore and express themselves, but says that he always looks for humor and a sense of fun and engagement.
When informed that Waddell claimed to have very little commitment to such things, Phelan laughs and says: “He’s the only one I know who could pull off a statement like that and still be entertaining and hilarious always.”
Paul Waddell performs “I Like Massachusetts and Massachusetts Massachusetts Massachusetts Me” Nov 25-27 at Meme Gallery, 55 Norfolk St. Central Square Cambridge.