Monday, 28 July 2008

Dinner with America

This article originally appeared on and is reproduced with permission.

‘Dinner with America’ by Rajni Shah, Pinter Building, Queen Mary University, London; March 29th 2008.

Image: Rajni Shah (c) Manuel Vason

Come and have dinner with America. Over the course of Rajni Shah’s durational performance, you are invited to witness American icons and ideals slip into one another, to hear Americans define their own patriotism, and to feast on the literal and intellectual fruits of this labour. Here, America is a bride in a shimmering white veil, a blonde 50s starlet, and a glamour model in Wonder Woman boots. America is the Statue of Liberty, Amazing Grace and Red, White and Blue. America is a series of symbols, a soundtrack of anonymous voices and a supporting cast of silent figures dressed in white.

Appearing as different types of all-American-gal (bride, starlet, model), and singing the chorus to ‘Amazing Grace’ Shah represents an idea of America. At times, the idea stands for liberties and freedoms – Shah repeatedly holds one arm above her head, like the Statue of Liberty. At others, this America is a land of exclusions and divisions. Recorded interviews with Americans play overhead, and one voice begins by staking her position as a ‘privileged white woman’, aware that her country holds different experiences for different groups of people. Each speaker’s reality collides with the American dream, which is rolled over Shah’s body in a repeated repertoire of gestures and moves. And Shah’s body also shows the strain: she gets tired; her voice wavers; her limbs begin to shake. Being America, it seems, is a difficult job.

It’s usually easiest to define things by what they are not, and these strains and exceptions are testament to an America beyond its own ideal. But it’s also the American dream that gives these doubts meaning. Silhouetted against the accessories of American patriotism (which comes with a flag, a constitution and an advertising industry), the shape of real life is defined by these ideals at the same time as it contests them. Melting between different symbols and their effects, in fact, Dinner with America does not hold each element of its America up for inspection, but suggests the ways that disparate parts congeal over time. Most noticeably, Shah traces a line from the mythological power of American ‘freedom’ – a story told so often that it seems like it’s true – to the consumer power that drives American society. As a beautiful woman with flowing blonde hair and shiny red lips, she stands for that elusive something that we all want to own – a role she acknowledges with a series of alluring poses lifted from every ad campaign you’ve ever seen. Moving between Statue of Liberty and Glamour Girl, Shah’s Miss America joins the dots between an individual’s right to freedom and an individualistic drive to consume. They are two manifestations of the same American liberty, and each idea provides the template for the other, just as, on the template of Shah’s body, each gesture dissolves inexorably into the next.

The fuel for both this individualism-for-liberty and individualism-for-consumption is neither liberty, nor capitalism – nor even a shabby looking American dream. Instead, it’s desire. Dinner with America vibrates with the anticipation of things to change, things to improve. Two women in white sweep and resweep boundaries of earth around the audience’s feet, with quiet industry but no clear logic; and Shah sheds her layers of costume at the sliding pace of the inevitable. It is this desire for change that feeds the myths of freedom and consumption – we desire more, we desire better. And it’s the desire for change that means today’s shortcomings can be overlooked. American life waits on the actors of tomorrow, and Shah’s female icons distil the American dream. Like a beautiful woman, America is a wonderful idea; it stays that way because it is always out of reach.

The momentum of change is also what turns the needs of the individual into something like a shared experience. When Shah has left the stage, the audience moves close together to watch a film projected onto a pile of earth. It is an intimate moment, and the flickering black and white film plays out like an old silent movie. As well as footage of preparations for the show, the film shows women passing earth to one another, gestures repeated by Shah and her helpers in real time as the film plays. These images are interspersed with prompts for what’s happening next – ‘The Feast is coming!’ Altogether, the film ushers the audience into a shared past (the nostalgia of the movie’s style, details of the labour that has brought us together), and it leads us into a shared future (the upcoming meal). What comes before melts into what is yet to come, so that the here and now has to take us there. This is how national identity is born. And this is how a community of America rises from the detritus of its symbols, however tarnished by testimonies (oral and physical) of real material conditions.

Dinner with America effects a poignant reconciliation between ideal and reality, by conscripting the audience into the promise of a shared future. But who is this America for, and who is recruited into the American project? By the time the film is shown, we have seen Shah stripped naked. She has removed her glamorous clothes, taken off her wig and peeled off the mask that turned her brown skin white. She has also been subject to the unforgiving scrutiny of light that is all red, then light that is all white, then light that is all blue – exposed as an impostor beneath the metaphoric gaze of the American flag. The performance I saw, moreover, was to a British audience in a London university; and Rajni Shah is British herself. It’s tempting to say that it’s American cultural imperialism that makes us all so interested in a country far away and from which we are excluded. But it is also the extraordinary effectiveness of America’s cultural message. Built on desire, the idea of America must always project the dreams of the people at hand – even if they step out of costume with a shaven head and dark skin. The American dream is only a dream of America – it is etched by the people who see it, and it belongs to anyone that looks.

And yet the real collective moment in Dinner with America comes with the feast itself. Here, food and thoughts are served up in equal measure – you’re encouraged to take a topic for discussion at the same time as a piece of fruit. But Shah’s model of communal feasting is very different to the cultural production of America we have all just witnessed. Up to now, ‘America’ has been a chimera of unfulfilled desire, which means it doesn’t have to define its goals. In contrast, Shah’s feast invites the audience to sate its desire – for food and for conversation – and marks the end of a shared event. If Shah’s America uses the rhetoric of the individual to dangle a united future just out of reach, Shah’s feast uses the rhetoric of a community to harvest different reactions to a past (the performance) that we all know: it turns the ideology of America inside out. Is this a new model for the land of dreams? It’s hard to tell, because one similarity remains – just like the idea of America, the content of the feast is up to you.

Mary Paterson

Original article
Rajni Shah

If you want to reproduce this article please contact and

No comments:

Post a Comment