The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jul 09, 2013

Artist profile: Tzarinas of the Plane

Posted by rsharp

I first encountered the Tzarinas of the Plane in one of their early performances as a duo, formed in 2008 and comprised of constituent artists Faina Lerman and Bridget Michael. That performance, which took place at the now-defunct Yes Farm gallery and performance space, was a complement to the opening night of The Seed Show, and at the time I was able to register little beyond my sheer delight and astonishment at the Tzarinas signature style.

This style includes a outrageous costumes drawn from a variety of sources, found or specifically recorded audio components, and a striking combination of devotion to their practice with an buoyant hilarity that audiences are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge due to the grim seriousness of the execution. The Tzarinas seem at times to be sheerly at play, but a closer read or reflection on their pieces 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.”

The Tzarinas performing at last year's Delectricity Detroit festival. The Tzarinas performing at last year's Dlectricity 2012 festival.

This was clearly evident in their recent performance at the opening of Ocelot Print Shop, where they performed a special piece that transformed the two artists into connected pieces of a machine, joined at the waist by a rope, clad in plastic wrap and resonant chunks of metal. This provided an active soundtrack to the action, which was chiefly comprised of the washing and hanging of sheets of paper along radically skewed clotheslines. 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.

Faina Lerman, left, and Bridget Michael, right, are the Tzarinas of the Plane. Faina Lerman, left, and Bridget Michael, right, are the Tzarinas of the Plane.

I recently had the pleasure of a discussion with Lerman and Michael, to find out more about the Tzarinas’ process and more about them as individuals. Lerman has primarily been a visual artist, with a solo show slated for the Re:View gallery on September 8th, a family affair which will run alongside a show featuring work by her husband Graem Whyte in the main gallery and dovetail closely with the due date of their second child. Whyte and Lerman also collaborate on a residency space and experimental arts venue for artists in Hamtramck, known as Popps Packing. Michael is an enigmatic figure with a history of solo performance art that features a stable of created characters, including Fanny Toupee, a washed-up lounge singer, and Raylin Hatcher, a young art student character in development and perhaps to be deployed in exploration of the significance of performance art and the role of audience as witness and participant. She never performs from a first-person perspective, but is available to unleash particular characters for private events and parties—you can contact agent Bridget Michael at to hire Linda Linda Linda to cook mashed potatoes, DoDo the Clown for birthday parties for kids of all ages, or even a dancer named “Cookie” who Michael describes as, “a classy fun-time (with tassels) kind of woman.”

Our conversation was far-ranging and touched on topics too numerous to do justice in this context, but I strongly encourage everyone to seize an opportunity to see the Tzarinas in action, bearing witness to the absolute satisfaction of play taken seriously.

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