Chinese Cocktail, Symphony Performance by Robert Wilhite

This past Tuesday at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, I had the rare opportunity to attend Chinese Cocktail, a re-performance/concert by Robert Wilhite. It was a special treat, part of Pacific Standard Time’s bonanza performance art festival. Chinese Cocktail had only been performed twice before, both times in 1978.

An absurdist take on music, sculpture, and performance, the arranged set of brightly painted geometric and three-dimensional objects called into question their relationships to each other in space, and our symbolic relationships with them. Add layers of instrumental complexity and you have performance rife with curiosities.

Yes, there was a shiny pink ball with handles that acted as a magnetic theremin type instrument. Yes, there’s a guitar that resembles a giant badminton shuttlecock. Yes, (the original composer) Bob’s sole function is to play his triangular air guitar precisely at the moments it is notated in the score. What’s not to love about a tall bow-shaped guitar painted in Memphis furniture colors? And was that a vacuum cleaner enclosed in an ultramarine box rounding up the rear?

Chinese Cocktail. Photo: Yanyan Huang
Pink Ball Magnet Instrument. Photo: Yanyan Huang
Shuttlecock Guitar. Photo: Yanyan Huang
Stage setting. Photo: Yanyan Huang

At once mesmerizing and beautiful, it is a great pity more performances aren’t anything like this. Musical performances common to high culture are generally confined to reinterpretations of Baroque to Romantic compositions, on lacquered wood instruments that have been virtually unchanged since Medieval times. What is a forward-thinking, contemporary art-minded audience to do? I say: let’s tour this symphony around the country and start up a wave of performance art-music-sculpture-painting following. It would be the genuinely radical thing to do.