For a long time, performance artists cultivated the image, and maybe still do, of standing outside the system of conventional bourgeois values. (More often than not, that was the whole point.) But in the fascinating avant-garde home-movie documentary psychodrama “Narcissister Organ Player,” the performance artist who calls herself Narcissister comes off as both a liberated and mind-opening deconstructionist of our addictive/oppressive image culture and an unapologetic paragon of the middle class. She’s a provocateur who’s the first to acknowledge her own place in the system.
On stage, she’s a prankish gender outlaw whose work is at once witty, shocking, disturbing, and supremely expressive of her feminine mystique. She bares a great deal of her body, or shrouds it in prosthetic costumes that come off as more naked than her nudity. Yet she never reveals her face. She wears masks that look like dada store mannequins (she wears them even on the red carpet), and what’s eerie — almost scary — about the effect is not that the masks cover her humanity, but that the squinchy cold Barbie-doll features almost look like they have an identity of their own. The effect is akin to that of the old Devo mascot Boojie Boy or the Lady in the Radiator from “Eraserhead”: We know we’re looking at a person in a mask, but that person looks like they’re crying out to be someone real. Narcissister, who’s of mixed-race heritage (hence her stage name, a merging of “narcissist” and “sister”), refuses to reveal herself because she’s saying that even if she did, you wouldn’t see any more of who she is.
Her face is covered, but her body — or, rather, the idea of her body — is everywhere. She slathers herself in goo and wriggles through a pink papier-mâché uterus, giving birth to herself. She crawls up into grand stylized stage-set versions of her own orifices, or drops out of them. A cardboard figure of her slips through intestines like something out of an old Monty Python cut-out animation. Through it all, she writhes and dances — like a live-action porno doll, or maybe just an untamed spirit who wants to dance. At one point (in 2011), Narcissister had enough pop instinct to land a spot on “America’s Got Talent” (she also dated Marilyn Manson), where her topsy-turvy convolutions, with fake heads that jut up from her bottom only to look just like her “real” (fake) head, are enough to leave judges Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel in stitches. A ghostly voguer whose presence calls up dozens of unconscious images, Narcissister is literally a one-woman head trip.
Yet in “Narcissister Organ Player,” which she directed herself, she has her anti-bourgeois cake and eats it, too. In the movie, Narcissister refuses to show herself, but she reveals everything about her family and her own place in it. Through home videos and casual sitting-around-the-kitchen interviews, she introduces us to her parents: her mother, Sarah, a Sephardic Jew who emigrated from Morocco in the 1960s, and her father, an African-American physics professor. The movie is about how these two carried on an existence that was together yet separate, and how their daughter (whose real name, we learn, is Isabelle) got all tangled up in her mother’s identity.
Sarah, a warm, soulfully straitlaced and noodgy earth mother, doted on her daughter, to the point that their bond may strike you as way too close for comfort. Narcissister, who grew up in Southern California, speaks to us in a voice that’s incisive and articulate in the mode of a seen-it-all American princess, and though she talks about not fitting in, or wishing that her hair was blonde (and not kinky), what we see and hear in the clips is a young woman who was woefully off-kilter in terms of her connection to each parent: Her father was distant, her mother enveloped her and never let go, and out of this imbalance she went out into the world in search of an identity.
The drama of “Narcissister Organ Player” is that Narcissister isn’t layering her demons onto the culture; she’s layering the culture onto herself. That’s why that mask of hers looks more and more like one we’re all capable of hiding behind. By the end, Narcissister has confronted the death of her mother and father, and she takes us close to those losses, especially her mother’s, in a way that’s movingly intense. Her art is a form of projection, but what she’s projecting are the shadows on the wall of her own cave.