05 Tzarinas of the Plane


Faina Lerman, born Riga, Latvia, 1975 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan

Bridget Michael, born Detroit, 1977 / Certified Massage Therapist, Irene’s Myomassology Institute  /Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan

Is it possible to be deadly seri- ous and exceptionally playful at the same time? The work of the two-woman performance art duo Tzarinas of the Plane demon- strates the compelling outcome of total commitment to impulse and fun. Their body of work is a tour de force in performance art, managing to eschew all hint of pretension with their joyful energy and inclusive, open-ended narratives. Viewing one of their performances, the audience is imbued with a feeling of wonderment in the truest sense: the potential of untold outcomes, the complete inability to predict what will happen next, and the realization that anything is truly possible when the Tzarinas are writing the rules.

Individually, the Tzarinas are Faina Lerman, artist and cofounder of Popps Packing, an art space and residency in Hamtramck, and Bridget Michael, singular spirit and accomplished solo performer in her own right. Michael has the true actor’s gift of being able to slip entirely into a repertoire of characters, which includes Fanny Toupee, a washed-up lounge singer, Raylin Hatcher, a young art student, hostess with the mostest Linda Linda Linda, DoDo the Clown, and even a tassel-bedecked dancer named Cookie, allowing a range of personas to occupy her body, sometimes with alarmingly quick turnover. Lerman has been primarily a visual artist, and curating is a family affair over at Popps, which she comanages with her husband, artist Graem Whyte.

But there is a level accessed by Lerman and Michael as the Tzarinas of the Plane that tran- scends the sum of their parts as individual artists. Their performance pieces crop up in small venues, like Public Pool, 2739 Edwin, and The Yes Farm, as often as they play big venues, such as the 2012 DLECTRICITY Festival or their performance at ArtPrize 2014 in Grand Rapids. The Tzarinas have been working at play together since 2008, and in that time have developed a repertoire that ties together disparate themes with the common elements of wild DIY costuming, minimal dialogue augmented by found or specifically recorded audio elements, physical movement that ranges from spastic to graceful, and a perfectly stoic execution of unmitigated silliness. Indeed, audiences often seem to hesitate to laugh at the Tzarinas’ comedic efforts, such is the fierce energy of dedication they bring to their performances.

Take, for example, their 2013 performance at the opening of Ocelot Print Shop, where they executed a special piece that transformed the two artists into connected parts of a machine, joined at the waist by a rope, clad in plastic wrap and resonant chunks of metal. This last provided an active soundtrack to the action, which was chiefly comprised of the washing and hanging of sheets of paper along clotheslines that skewed radically through the open-air performance space. Even as the Tzarinas reached a fever pitch, rebounding between the clotheslines, adjusting to accommodate the line between them and audience members interspersed within their performance space, the rhythm remained unbroken.

This audial detail is an important indicator of the intensive preparation and practice that goes into work that seems, at first exposure, to be highly spontane- ous and loosely choreographed, but upon closer reading or reflection reveals deep sophistication and process-intensive building of planned performances that still allow for spontaneity and unexpected twists, a structure that Lerman describes as, “Agenda items in a meeting, but whatever happens between them is what’s happening.” While the movements may not be exhaustively planned, as such, every new work by the Tzarinas represents an exhaustive discovery and development process, borne of being “hard at play.”

Sarah Rose Sharp, October 2014

Copyright Essay’d 2014