On stage in an auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of New York last year, Suzanne Bocanegra delivered a lecture on the Honor tapestry, a 16th-century masterwork, the keystone of a series made for Cardinal Erard de la Marck, an important courtier in the orbit of Holy Roman Emperor King Charles V.
Except it wasn’t Bocanegra. It was the actor Lili Taylor portraying Bocanegra, who also happened to be onstage, but off to the side, whispering Taylor’s lines in her ear via a remote microphone. The displacement, surely, was Cyrano-esque. “The best thing in the world is having an actor who really knows how to relate to an audience,” Bocanegra said.
But it’s more than that, too. Bocanegra, 65, a New York-based artist whose work is in collections of museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, hadn’t concocted a standard lecture so much as a carefully crafted piece of personal theater, knit deep into the threads of her titular subject.
I recently spoke with Bocanegra by phone after I watched a video of Taylor playing her on stage at the Met. She fretted that the performance, framed by a voluminous screen almost the same size as the tapestry itself — 25 feet wide by 19 tall — might be irretrievably diminished by my laptop. It wasn’t, but that’s not to suggest you should stay home and stream when you can show up in person at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Feb. 10 to see Taylor and Bocanegra reprise the entire hourlong scene. (The piece has been traveling the country, requested by various museums.)
For one thing, it won’t be the same. “When we toured the piece, I would always think of something to add, or a better way to say it,” Bocanegra said. For another, if our recent screen-obsessed lives have exposed anything at all, it’s the subtlety and nuance of gesture, expression, and voice that end up obliterated by endless Zoom calls. An art history lecture you can half-heartedly listen to for the dry thing it often is; this is not that, and showing up matters.
A key difference between “Honor,” the performance, and a standard lecture is Bocanegra’s commitment to the audience. “Working with an actor, you can tell them, ‘Say this line and make it sad,’ or ‘Say this and make it funny.’ She can really do those kinds of things.”
Bocanegra and Taylor were introduced by the director of Houston’s CounterCurrent Festival, Karen Farber. “Honor” isn’t their first piece together, but it might be the most ambitious. The piece is a pantomime both between the two women and of the stodgy form of a lecture itself. It’s funny — very funny, frequently, and off the top. “Humor is one of the tricks of the trade,” Bocanegra said. “I put a lot of little jokes right at the very beginning because it tells the audience how to read what comes next.” It’s also very personal, with episodes of the artist’s life serving as humanizing counterweight to the volumes of information she has to offer.
What, you might wonder, is so funny about a 16th-century tapestry commissioned by a royal courtier serving the dominant monarch in the Western world? To be honest, not a lot. A vast mise-en-scene orbiting Honor himself, personified as a deity, are various figures assigned to descending rungs of virtue and vice: The honorable sit close to the man himself — because it’s always a man — while the dishonored creep along the bottom of the frame.
Five centuries of radical social change, however, gave Bocanegra a lot of material to work with. “Honor” is less about the tapestry itself — though I learned a ton, and not just the basics, about Renaissance weaving — than it is about perception and authenticity, as cultural objects become more revered as they’re passed down through the ages. “I’ve always had a good feeling about tapestries,” Taylor says, onstage, as Bocanegra, cutting to a slide showing a grid of self-help books, all of which are titled “The Tapestry of Life.” “Calling something a tapestry makes it feel like it all makes sense, and all adds up to something.”
Much of “Honor” is instead Bocanegra’s messy unraveling that subverts the tapestry’s simple themes. The performance is impressively disorienting, traveling from the early Renaissance spectacles of public execution to the pageantry of invading forces taking over a city (“joyous entries,” they were called by the conquering forces, though I doubt their enthusiasm was shared by the conquered) to a kitschy pageant in Texas to a melancholic meditation, of all things, on the Monkees. Bocanegra inserts personal asides throughout that ground the piece in her own life: Her incredulity at the blatant brutality of the crucifixion, as prevalent as wallpaper while she was growing up in Houston; her love of the story of Hansel and Gretel as a child, which, she now realizes, was a tale of desperate poverty and cannibalism.
Authenticity, manipulation, and construction have a lot to do with “Honor,” the tapestry and performance both. However much has changed in the centuries from then to now, the subjective judgment of value isn’t one of them. Bocanegra returns time and again to the role of women as unseen and undervalued labor. “Things really haven’t changed much for men,” she said. “But the most radical thing that’s happened between the 16th century and now is the reshaping of women’s roles.”
Maybe not quite enough, and this is where art truly imitates life. Taylor, as Bocanegra, explains that for centuries, tapestries were woven by men, who could be accredited to a guild and compensated for their work; women could not. And disparities between male and female artists — in the market, in museums, in most places you can think of — remain significant.
Whose work is valued, whose is not, and for what? “Honor” explores these questions in personal, sometimes cheeky, and often poignant terms, and closes with a moment of irresolvable beauty that you need to see for yourself. Honor is a subjective term, Bocanegra makes clear, and even her own ideas aren’t quite resolved. “I never want to preach to the choir,” she said. “I like to leave things open.”
SUZANNE BOCANEGRA: HONOR
Feb. 10, 8 p.m. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org