Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Karen Finley

"Here's a woman who gets naked, covers herself completely in chocolate and sings. Does that appeal to you?"

"By and large I'm not wild about musicals."

That little exchange comes from a new episode of West Wing, screened last week. The show might be fiction, but the woman is real enough. Karen Finley is her name. And body painting is her game. Well, one of them.

Honey Dripper: Karen Finley in Shut Up & Love Me
(Click on the image to enlarge)

Chocolate, yams, eggs, dog food... you name it, she's applied it with soft toys. Finley is on her way to Melbourne to wallow in some honey. But be warned! She's no high-class mud-wrestler. She's a champion of free speech whose shows tell horror stories of what it's like to be marginal in a white, male, capitalist world; what it's like to be gay or black or HIV-positive... or, worst of all, female!

Finley, famously, had a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant withdrawn, in 1990, when her chocolate-dipped body was described as obscene by the ultra right-wing U.S. Senator Jesse Helms.

Finley won an initial court battle in the early '90s, restoring her grant, but the sequel -- which dragged on for another eight years -- was recently lost in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It was as if I was in a sexually abusive relationship with these persecutors. I was starting to act like a victim."

Her hard-fought loss capped off a horror run for the outspoken, forty-something artist. Not long after her marriage ended, Finley also lost her mother, with whom she and her young daughter were living.

But rather than be brought down by fate, or dwell on her misfortunes, Finley is determined to get through it. "I lost so much... I had to go to the place in me where the far right weren't going to take away my joy."

And that place is a playful one, inspired by Queer Culture and the '70s. By Mae West and Josephine Baker. Finley's new show, Shut Up & Love Me, sounds like a one-woman Mardi Gras. Since losing the legal battle, the pin-up girl for the First Amendment has turned pin-up girl for Playboy. Yep, literally.

And she's published the New Age take on Winnie the Pooh she wrote for her daughter. In it, Winnie has a serious eating disorder, of course; Tigger is manic-depressive, Eeyore has "esteem problems" and Rabbit is a Greta Garbo-styled queen. "You know: 'I vant to be alone, Tigger. Stop bothering me.'"

Is Winnie the reason she's wallowing in honey in the new show? She laughs: "Partly. When I roll into it, on a canvas, and dance about, it's fun and it's beautiful."

While we talk, Finley's daughter peeps in, wanting to be tucked in. "You wanna go to sleep, honey?" And, there, I have my answer. Honey.

It's more than the aphrodesiac effect or the look of an Adam-tempting toffee-apple body gilded and dripping in amber. It's about love and affection. About good old fashioned sweetness.

I ask one last question. Why do you keep smearing your body? "Why does Ringo play the drums?!" I dunno, I shrug. Sadism??

Karen Finley performs Shut Up and Love Me at the National Theatre, St Kilda, on Friday March 22 at 8 pm. Enquiries and bookings: National Theatre 9525 4611 or Ticketmaster7 1300 136 166.

See also: A certain level of denial.