Artist Lisa Levy stepped out of her white robe and slippers on a chilly Saturday in late January and sat naked on a toilet at the Christopher Stout Art Gallery in East Willliamsburg in a room full of spectators. It was the beginning of a two-day art performance, entitled “The Artist is Humbly Present.”
Levy sat immobile and silent on the toilet in the center of the room with another toilet placed across from her for five hours. The audience was encouraged to sit on the pot in front of her and be free to do whatever they wanted. The only rule: no touching. The performance was aimed at closely imitating Marina Abramovic’s 2010 performance at the MoMA where Abramovic sat on a chair, fully clothed, as a part of a performance that looked back on her 40 years long prolific career. Unlike Abramovic, Levy bared it all to sit on a toilet to create, she hoped, an alternative to high art with a bit of humor. For the most part, viewers were intrigued, if a bit perplexed.
“I read about it in the paper and heard it on the radio. I just had to come and see it. It’s so strange!” said Jerry Segal, a 70-year-old gallery visitor. “There’s no talking, only looking. You do much of what you do on the subway.” He sat and observed as people took turns to sit on the pot placed directly across from Levy.
Members of the audience were encouraged to “become a part of the art,” said Christopher Stout, the owner of the gallery where Levy performed. He has known her for several years, but even he was terrified, he said, when he first heard of Levy’s idea. But he came around. “We are a gallery that shows work that is subversive and the fact that you’re not sure how you feel about it, it’s exactly why it’s the thing you should do,” he said.
As Levy sat naked, gallery visitors didn’t hold back. Most of the audience just sat across from the artist hoping to make something of the experience, but one man, Diego Barnes, was more daring. He pulled his pants down as he sat down opposite Levy.
“I was wondering if people could see my penis. It’s funny because she’s completely naked and yet I can still be a spectacle by dropping my pants,” he said, when he returned from the pot after having taken a selfie with Levy.
“I did it in front of a bunch of people with cameras. I wouldn’t be surprised to see my butt cheeks on the Internet,” he laughed as he posted the picture on his Twitter and Instagram accounts. Throughout Barnes’ side show, Levy didn’t give away as much as a smile. Her red hair continued to rest on one shoulder, her breast scar exposed on the right and her wedding ring on her left hand.
— DiEGO (@die___ego) January 30, 2016
“It would be weird if nobody took a picture. You want something to happen here,” said Phil, the artist’s husband who did not wish to disclose his full name to maintain a professional dissociation from Levy’s career. His twinkling eyes and ever-present persona made it clear that he was “happy, and proud of her.” He believes he is more conservative than Levy. “I hear all the raw feed. All her ideas make me uncomfortable,” he says. “If I’m not uncomfortable, she thinks she’s not pushing hard enough.”
As his wife sat on the toilet in the bugg, he took his turn to sit across from her and clicked pictures. “I see her naked all the time but this is the Lisa I get to see. Now everyone’s getting to see my Lisa,” Phil said, adding that he knows his connection and experience with her will always be different than what other visitors will see.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Levy has never done durational performance art before but she has posed naked for photographer Spencer Tunick. Her own art has always been a bit provocative with a sense of humor.
Even some viewers who stood on the wayside couldn’t help but give the performance a try. Melanie, 29, for example, started getting curious and couldn’t resist. “I wanted to know what it means,” she said. So when it was her turn, she stepped out of her black overcoat and took her seat on the pot across Levy with just her underwear on. She did not want to disclose her full name because she did not want this impromptu decision to hinder her professional reputation.
“It was very stressful in the beginning. She has a very strong look so after one or two minutes, I was ok,” she said. Melanie sat for a little over five minutes, laughed out of embarrassment initially and got up when she finally felt she was in control. “It’s very hard. I would like to be comfortable with my own body and all conceptions of nudity,” she said. “This is how I overcome my emotions.”
Billy Jacobson, 21, also swung by to check out the exhibition, though he kept his clothing on. “I thought it was a bit funny,” he said while thinking about why he came. “I didn’t come thinking it would be a comedy but it’s a lot more serious than how she says it’s a parody. She didn’t smile or anything, and didn’t give much away,” he explained, adding that he thought the experience was a little weird.
When the clock struck six, Lisa Levy finally rose from her toilet seat with red patches all over her bottom. The audience gave her a standing ovation.
As her friends and colleagues congratulated her and asked how she felt, she gave them all a simple answer: “It was like being on a long flight.”