Seance? Celebration? A risqué tribute to Sinead O'Connor arrives.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, April 22, 2024

Seance? Celebration? A risqué tribute to Sinead O'Connor arrives.
Christeene and her Fukkn Band performing on the stage at the City Winery on the West Side of Manhattan on March 25, 2024. The performance artist Christeene’s show honoring the Irish musician’s debut album touched down in New York with Peaches, Justin Vivian Bond and plenty of nudity and tears. (Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The New York Times)

by Melena Ryzik

NEW YORK, NY.- Since Sinead O’Connor died last summer at 56, the outspoken and defiant Irish singer-songwriter has been memorialized on stages both divey and grand, including a star-studded concert last week at Carnegie Hall. But no tribute was likely as nude as the one on Monday, when performance artist Christeene brought her pantsless queer horrorcore act — and a faithful downtown demimonde — to City Winery on the West Side of Manhattan.

In celebrating “a very powerful woman,” Christeene said onstage, “I think we need to understand the dangers of religion, and the importance of ritual.” She arrived in a scuffed-up red robe, flanked by two dancers in white papal hats, and then shed it all to reveal a triangle of fabric across her nether region; costume changes brought a series of sheer, one-shouldered unitards — Skims from another dimension.

Traversing a stage decorated with crinkled sheets and cones of aluminum foil, in high-heeled black boots, she had the energetic strut of Iggy Pop and the evocative, funny monologues — about faith, protest and community — of an oracle. From the very first song, the audience was intensely rapt.

With guest vocalists Peaches and Justin Vivian Bond, the show, titled “The Lion, the Witch and the Cobra,” commemorated the first studio album that O’Connor released (“The Lion and the Cobra,” in 1987). Recorded while O’Connor was pregnant with her first child, with her voice lilting and strong, she took its name from a psalm, and appeared on its cover with a shaved head. The LP didn’t include any of her biggest tracks, but songs like “Jerusalem” seem prescient in uniting bodily rage and vulnerability to place and history. On Monday, in the wake of a lunar eclipse, Christeene told the near-capacity crowd that it was going to be a witchy night.

Christeene is an alter ego of Louisiana-born artist Paul Soileau, 47, who devised the character while working at a Texas Starbucks, and went on to make fans like fashion designer Rick Owens and influential musician Karin Dreijer of the Knife and Fever Ray, playing for years in an underground scene that blasted convention, including mainstream gay culture. In a dirty blond or black wig, streaky striped face paint and pool-blue eyes with an electric alien look (courtesy of contacts), Christeene has been variously described as a “drag terrorist” (her own term), Divine by way of G.G. Allin, full-blast Tina Turner pitched to Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, and “Beyoncé on bath salts.”

“Christeene is this indelible force of creation,” said Garrett Chappell, who works in sustainability near Denver and traveled to New York for this show and a few others. He compared Christeene to “when you see a tree popping out of the middle of a rock — life finds a way, queerness finds a way, punk finds a way,” he said. “I see in her the force of liberation.”

And given the emotional core and pugnaciousness of O’Connor’s songwriting and legacy, “there’s a lot of opportunity for catharsis,” Chappell said as he waited for the tribute to start.

Traditionally, there is also more than a little raunch. “A Christeene show is out-of-this-world outrageous — raw and dirty,” said Erick Ferrer, a visual merchandiser. “I feel like I need to go to the clinic afterward.” Peaches, too, is known to scale club walls wearing sex toys. (In a chignon, pantsuit and a sparkly collar, Bond, the trans cabaret star, is more of a sophisticated crooner.)

But by Christeene standards, the performance was tame: no butt plugs tethered to balloons, or public urination. It was mostly a faithful rendition of O’Connor’s album, filtered through some extra punk-industrial stomp.

Duetting on “Troy,” Christeene and Peaches were like a pair of She-Ras gazing at each other (Peaches balanced on milk crates; DIY stagecraft), power-belting the chorus: “You will rise.” O’Connor was a force that gave permission to be truthful, and unbridled. “We’ve all been weeping,” Peaches later said, “but with joy.”

Preparing for the gigs — the show originated in 2019 at the blue-chip London cultural center the Barbican — Christeene belatedly realized how much of an influence O’Connor had been. “She had caught me at a very early age, and going back into this music, it was all there,” Christeene said in a post-show interview, as she made the rounds greeting friends and fans and posing for photos. (“This is Josh,” came the introduction to someone in a “Witch, Please” T-shirt. “It’s his first day in New York!”)

The “most delicate” thing, Christeene added, “was finding the right way to put our touch on it, without distorting her too much — honoring her music but giving it the heat that we wanted. We found that, the band found it. It’s been a remarkable experience, and a bit of a possession.”

Peaches understood it. At a previous show in Los Angeles, she felt O’Connor’s energy acutely. “It’s so intentional — healing herself through the hurt, through the pain, with that voice,” she said. “She sings notes for so long that they also go into a spiritual realm.” On one long note, she recalled, “I’ve never said this kind of thing, but I believe she was in me, singing it.”

The crowd at City Winery — many of whom had never been to the venue, which is tailored to less grungy acts — was mostly clad in black, and wore their sensibilities across their shirt chests: “Promote Transexuality” or “Humans Suck”; another listed the names of the seminal ’90s and ’00s gay parties Beige and Squeezebox.

There was a sense of communal belonging, especially for a generation that came of age before the internet, when otherness felt like a silo, and even slivers of recognition offered hope. “The artist is from Louisiana; so am I,” said Sam Boudluche, a Manhattan event planner, explaining what drew him to Christeene.

Patrick Fromuth, who described himself as “the momager” of the Brooklyn bar Branded Saloon and came decked out in glittery mesh, said: “There are so many different people here who feel forgotten.” The artists “shared a mirror back at a community that is often overlooked.”

Seated at a table, Lollo Romanski, a dancer and acrobat who’s part of the feminist troupe LAVA, sang along with every word of O’Connor’s lyrics. Romanski grew up in Detroit and went to Catholic school; starting with “The Lion and the Cobra,” O’Connor was a beacon — “authentic,” they said, in tears, and “strong, beautiful, eloquent.” They were too overcome to continue, so their partner Sarah Hirshan, also a dancer-acrobat with LAVA, picked up the thread.

Both had big hopes for channeling O’Connor through the show. “At least, a seance; at best, a resurrection,” Hirshan said. “Jesus, we really need her now.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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