Mixed Media: The Shame Show

The Shame Show – Caroline Smith and Paul Green

A ‘scratch night’ in late May at the Milton Keynes Gallery was the premiere of a ‘free and untamed’ performance of The Shame Show created by performance artist Caroline Smith in collaboration with Paul Green from Avant Gardening arts collective. Caroline’s previous performance art has been seen at the Royal Festival Hall, Tate Modern, ICA, Whitechapel Gallery and the Hayward Gallery.

Caroline’s alter ego in The Shame Show is Mertle Merman, a 1950s suburban housewife modelled after celebrity chef Elizabeth Craig. ‘Mertle Merman’ reflects petty bourgeois gentility and vaudevillian show business but with a ‘nice’ subversive touch. Mertle first appeared in Caroline’s Eating Secret which was described as ‘deliciously dark’ by The Guardian. Caroline has said that ‘Mertle is a façade, from a time when our relationship with food was simpler. She is easy to talk to.’

Caroline brings this aspect of Mertle to The Shame Show where she investigates concepts of shame in our lives and bourgeois society in a participatory, interactive game/variety show which subverts ideas of what popular entertainment can be, and her old fashioned charm draws confidences from her audience. There is also an educational aspect to this ‘light entertainment’ perhaps reflecting Caroline Smith’s former job as a lecturer in creative writing, journalism and media writing at the University of Greenwich.

Mertle informed the audience that the word ‘shame’ has its origin in the Old English word ‘schamu’ which means ‘to cover’, and so we have covering oneself as an expression of shame. She informed the audience about Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals which identifies the tell-tale signs of ‘shame’; blushing, confusion, downward cast eyes, slack posture, lowered head. She spoke about sociologist Charles Cooley and his concept of the ‘looking glass self’ in Human Nature and the Social Order where he wrote ‘the thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind’. Caroline Smith’s work in Eating Secret and The Shame Show concerns ‘themes that explore complicity and exchange and the inevitable disturbances that arise between Self and Other.’

Paul Green appeared as Cardinal Paul (in full Roman Catholic ecclesiastical garb) from the Vatican who had come to England to stop ‘David Cameron making everyone marry a homosexual’. Paul Green also animated the space with film of moments of shame in popular culture such as Britney Spears (her shame is releasing a new record). There is raucous rock’n’roll footage of Cher and Tina Turner singing Shame, Shame, Shame from the era which Foucault described as a ‘surge of libido modulated by the class struggle’. There are satirical swipes at Stonewall’s ‘Bigot of the Year’ Cardinal Keith O’ Brien and his ‘shame’ in having to resign recently for ‘inappropriate sexual conduct with junior clergy’. Paul Green’s subversive ‘catholic’ humour recalls defenestrating Roman Catholic bishops in Bunuel/Dali’s L’Age d’Or and John Waters ‘most overtly Catholic film’ Multiple Maniacs which covers a gamut of sex and rosary beads in church, Christ and the stations of the cross, a religious whore, and the apparition of the Infant Jesus of Prague.

Mertle related to the audience that her husband had gone to sea in the Second World War and had never returned but she confessed that she had eaten him. This was a ‘secret’ not divulged before in Eating Secret. Mertle is rather a subversive persona for the 1950s, the whole idea of eating her husband suggests an assault on perceived hetero-sexist patriarchy. Rousseau wrote ‘when the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich’, and film makers like Paul Bartel in Eating Raoul, Godard in Week End and Pasolini in Pigsty have all used what ‘anti-psychiatrist’ David Cooper called ‘cannibalism as a ritualistic practice or a direct expression of hunger.’

Mertle interviewed Austrian comedienne Alice Frick about shame and being Austrian, and names like Josef Fritzl and Adolf Hitler are mentioned. She interviewed this reviewer who appeared as ‘Steve the Bolshevik from the Socialist Review’ but this is corrected to ‘more Menshevik, a socialist writing for the Socialist Standard’ and that ‘shame is a class society construct and in socialism the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all’. The sudden appearance of a ‘socialist’ recalls the appearance of ‘Steve the Weatherman’ in John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs.

Marxist (Gay Left) writer and academic Richard Dyer described Caroline Smith’s Spank as ‘haunting and hallucinatory’. Dyer in his writings enthuses about ‘conceptualizing radical pleasure’ and this is an apt description for The Shame Show by Caroline Smith and Paul Green.

A new Caroline Smith alter ego is Rita (The Great Crested) Grebe in her Birdwatcher’s Wives where ‘twitchers’ can ‘locate their inner bird’ in a series of workshops being held in Southend on Sea, Leigh on Sea and Wallasea Island in Essex. Paul Green continues as a ‘curatorially subversive explorer’ at everydreamhome.wordpress.com where he explores the far shores of popular culture and the historical and social relationships between popular culture and LGBT communities.

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