Love songs, alter-egos and the performing male subject in Australian art
spaces—performing well-known Kenny Rogers
numbers while dazzling audiences with his crooning voice, dirty talk and occasional charm.
Renny Kodgers is much more than an Australian Kenny Rogers
impersonator; he offers a challenging performative construction that is unpredictable and at times disturbing. A suave mixture of sleaze, sugar and spice, Renny is always impeccably dressed in an outrageous suit, with a dedicated orange fake tan and a silver beard so delicately trimmed you might mistake it for upholstery. Of his mother, he sighs, “She was an angel but she had a hot streak, God bless. She used to drop some Tabasco on her
nipple, while I was on the tit, just so I knew my place.”
The man behind Renny Kodgers is Mark Shorter, a Sydney-based artist and self-confessed failed stand-up comedian. Shorter traveled throughout the United States attempting to launch his comedic career before returning to Australia to undertake a fine arts degree at Sydney College of the Arts. Shorter is now completing his PhD, investigating the role of the alter-ego (particularly the performing male subject) in contemporary culture.
I spoke to Shorter in July 2007 and discovered that Renny Kodgers was in fact born in Germany while Shorter was in the shower. “I’d like to think that it was due to an intuitive decision that was influenced by the very fact that I was in a country that rated David Hasselhoff’s music credentials higher than Prince’s.” On a more serious level, Kenny Rogers was a perfect candidate for Shorter’s act because of Rogers’ representative power. “I felt his image was quintessentially American in a patriarchal kind of way. After all, there are many gray-bearded American icons such as Uncle Sam, the Colonel and Willie Nelson. All these identifiers endeared me to the power behind the character [and were] ripe to be manipulated and subverted.” As a result, Shorter has negotiated the potentially precarious divide between straight impersonation and his own creation with grace. “I realized the character was less about Kenny Rogers, and more about employing strategies that (re)presented a world view of America, in particular the manner in which the United States has been perceived since the Bush administration. I adopted a self-important, misogynist, ignorant, unbeatable approach to the persona.”
When comparing Kenny Rogers and Renny, I came across distinctive differences in style. Renny’s suits are more immaculate than Kenny’s performing garb, Renny swoons when he sings and speaks with a peculiar Australian pastiche the archetypal Southern drawl. When challenged on these differences, Shorter replied: “I wanted to overwhelm the audience, to make them feel that they were viewing something that was from another planet…The swooning side probably comes from my fascination with Mexican romantica music, and it’s an exaggeration of the accent. I don’t mind if it’s not authentic. I kind of like it that it’s wrong. Imagine if I did a performance in the United States, and someone tried to tell Renny he wasn’t American. It would be ideal.”
Renny’s performance usually involves an equal amount of singing and banter, a dualism that holds surprising significance. Of music and dialogue, Shorter comments: “In many instances Renny’s conversation is quite abrasive, whereas the music generally endears the audience to him. When employed together they operate to keep the relationship between the audience and Renny in constant flux. I don’t want people to be comfortable around Renny.” This offers Shorter a palpable degree of power over his audience, and as we will see, unpredictability, unequal power dynamics and the creation of audience discomfort are Shorter’s key performative strategies.
Given Shorter’s emphatic decision to present Renny in art contexts, one might wonder how this ‘difficult’ persona is intended to operate as critique? The complete concealment of Shorter, leaving only the alter-ego Renny, may at first seem an obstacle to the presentation of a genuine critique. However, according to Shorter, “Renny’s critical capacity lies in the fact that it is performance-based art, so it can engage in a direct inter-subjective exchange between Renny and the audience, be it using satire or confrontation. Through this medium I’m commenting on how Australia incessantly defines its identity through its deference to Britain and the United States, and on the male subject in contemporary art…by this I mean the construction of Renny as a parody of the presentation of the male artist in general.” That said, as an audience member watching Renny, it is easy to forget that Renny is a satirical exaggeration, and feel swept up in pure ‘celebration’ of sentimental music and sycophantic masculine sleaze.
One crucial—and particularly problematic—aspect to Shorter’s construction is Renny’s overtly sexualized attitude. Kenny Rodgers is reputed to be a serial monogamist, and Shorter is apt to bring misogynistic behavior to the fore. However, the way in which the artist treats this theme presents questions about Renny’s critical capability and audience agency. “I’m playing on the way Renny sexualizes the space through his presence and use of language. Renny’s strategy is to make the audience complicit with whatever he does… It is interesting to tease out the sexual transference that is implicit in any performance,” says Shorter. Nonetheless, gender politics is awkward terrain for Renny, a problem unsolved by the audience’s knowledge of Renny’s artificiality.
In one particularly sexually awkward performance, Imaginame Sin Ti, 2006, Shorter presented Renny Kodgers in a limousine, shrouded in celebrity, never leaving the vehicle. The audience was invited inside, in a highly controlled manner, by the limousine driver. Even the academics marking Shorter’s work had to wait on the dusty grass, keeping their toes off the red carpet. When meeting Renny inside the limousine, my friends and I piled in, keen to grab a glass of champagne, foolishly expecting to have fun. Instead, we were greeted by an aggressive man demanding sexual favors. When we politely refused, Kodgers ordered us out of the limo. The performance was genuinely affecting: I was furious, and I remember grumbling, “since when is misogyny a form of social critique?” At the time, I saw no irony in how we were treated.
In retrospect, it is easy to appreciate the performer’s manipulations of our expectations. On the other hand, I could just as easily walk into a local pub in Sydney and be addressed in a similar manner. Shorter Defended his performance, asking, “If we view gender as something performed, then why can’t Renny be considered an interrogation of the masculine subject, and the fallibility of that subject?” Shorter continued, “It is also relevant to consider the concept of the veiled masculine subject in modernism. In a way Kodgers parodies that symptom, and opens up a more ‘real’ schizophrenic male identity.”
It’s a particularly intriguing gamble when we view Shorter’s character in the context of the lack of similar performing male subjects in Australia. Comedian Barry Humphries rejects the male constructed identity completely when presented as his creation of the gaudy, dirty-minded Dame Edna Everage, and Australian performance artists such as Tony Schwensen and Mike Parr tackle masculine constructions with a distinct sense of anxiety, defensiveness and in some cases, self-harm. Australian performance is a fraught and sparse field. Shorter notes that “the relationship between performance art and theater is not as well-established [in Australia] as in the United States, where you have critical readings by writers like Philip Auslander that illustrate the relationships between stand-up comedy, theater practices and performance art.”
The constantly evolving persona of Renny allows us insight into the way in which the translation of American popular culture into contemporary art, and subsequently into the culture of another country, is never a simple transferral. This potentially dysfunctional transmission of information reveals much about the power behind the “gray bearded American icon,” and demonstrates an Australian sensibility seeping through the disguise. Shorter is willing to concede the “Australian-ness” of his American experiment: “I would not claim to be an expert, or be able to represent American culture, but I certainly feel it is my place to represent the infiltration of ‘American culture’ into the Australian vernacular.” And so it happens that we see performances of Renny in boisterous tennis matches with abstract painters, making the most of his sporting prowess in a quintessentially Australian manner, and participating in “training sessions” for a sauna performance (endurance has been a key focus of Australian performance for the past three decades, and here Shorter is no exception). Renny’s boldness in telling a joke about paedophilia shows an irreverence and crassness that is also distinctly Australian. There’s just no getting away from it, the Aussie “Kodger” in Renny is always there, playing the room for all it’s worth.