Les Jeux Sont Faits

Performance artist puts a wrap on Timothy McVeigh

Jeanne RiceTim was a rare bird, guided by principles of love, beauty and honor. His ultimately humanitarian motivations are sure to be more pervasively recognized and appreciated in the echo of time. Some day you—or your descendants—will enjoy the luxury of removing your Tim McVeigh tribute from its present, safely encrypted confines.

David Woodard

So concludes the latest installment of David Woodard's Timothy McVeigh Prequiem With Accompanying Media Outrage, his most fully realized work to date. Sent as part of a packet to the OC Weekly office last week, a note (excerpted above) chastised me for a piece concerning the McVeigh execution. The packet also contained what Woodard asserted was McVeigh's letter to Woodard, sent just weeks before McVeigh's June 11 execution.

This latest packet is vintage Woodard, full of beautifully circuitous logic and wonderfully arcane references—"In light of the Nietzschean (and, later, Crowleyan) use of the word 'dog' to signify, or secrete, the idea 'God,' the article ('Men Are Such Dogs,' June 15) potentially reads as a paranoid rant concerning the execution of God"—all designed to entice a reaction.

And by that measure, one cannot argue with the results of McVeigh over the past weeks. Woodard's art has always been essentially a collaborative effort that depends upon unwitting collaborators. And his announced desire to perform a 12-minute piece of music for McVeigh, then awaiting execution for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, enticed reaction—and collaborators.

As with virtually all of Woodard's work, the art comes in equal parts of suggesting something either odd or dreadful—usually in reaction to something odd or odd/dreadful—and then reacting to the inevitable reaction. In this way, McVeighrepresents his greatest success, garnering at least 25 newspaper articles ranging from a short piece in the British tabloid Daily Star under the headline "Death Fanfare for Bomb Nut" to a sober 1,700-word Los Angeles Times piece that included this quotation from bombing survivor Paul Heath: "I'm sure this person is sincere, but it is terribly insensitive to the reality of pain and grief caused by this delusional, suicidal coward."

Additionally, there were mentions on radio—the usually savvy Harry Shearer's Le Show (on KCRW) was taken in—as well as TV and Internet news sites. None actually covered the performance of the prequiem held in St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Terre Haute, Indiana. Rather, every public reaction dealt with the idea of performing a sympathetic musical interlude for a mass murderer, which is Woodard's art.

Perhaps what he didn't bargain for—but benefited immensely from—was the cooperation of McVeigh himself. The letter purportedly authored by McVeigh lent Timothy McVeigh Prequiem With Accompanying Media Outrage a deranged credibility.

"With your recent interview in Pitch [a weekly newspaper in Kansas City—also taken in], you become the first person I've heard of (or from) that has figured me out. With your reflections on 'collateral damage,' I breathe a huge sigh of relief—maybe there is hope yet for this species! (I would suggest you apply the same 'collateral damage' insights to analysis of my motivations re: televised execution . . . )."

Though an unqualified success compared with previous efforts, McVeigh is not so much a departure from Woodard's earlier work as an extension of it. McVeigh is similar to previous pieces that traded heavily on ironic juxtaposition. In Farewell From Humankind, Woodard purportedly paid tribute to an LA County man who killed a pelican with a pair of pliers; Woodard said he planned to conduct the piece with pliers. When he attempted to perform Farewell to the Yankee Clipper to a still-living Joe DiMaggio in his Florida hospital, he said he planned to do so accompanied by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.

He was not allowed access to DiMaggio, and he later realized this was a good thing for his art. "I might not have ever made it out of the hospital," Woodard said. "It might have been that some of Mr. DiMaggio's Italian connections would have taken care of me."

Nor was Woodard allowed physical access to McVeigh. In lieu of that, all of Woodard's irony had to be channeled into rhetoric, and he used that with a flourish. He compared McVeigh to Mark Twain and Jesus Christ. For anyone familiar with Woodard's work, the latter choice was disappointing in its obvious attempt to provoke, but one could not argue with the result: a high percentage of the media coverage referenced his comparison that both were 33 and both were almost universally despised at the time of their death.

Still, the Christ reference points to the core of Woodard's success: not only a genius for knowing what journalists need, but also a willingness to be the brainy straw man that needs to be knocked down.

If McVeigh represents growth for Woodard, it's the growth of a man who realizes he can receive significant attention and indignation by crashing a story being cluster-bombed by the American media. In the past, his attempts to persuade the media to pay attention had at best limited results. Farewell for Humankind attracted only one newspaper and only 25 people to the performance. When Woodard posted on his website the Long Beach Press-Telegramaccount of his performance, he changed the story so that instead of 25 people in attendance, there were now 250. Additionally, he manufactured his own 1,600-word piece, "Why One Conducts a Pelican Requiem With Pliers."

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