project image
Matt Sleightholm

first performed on December 26, 2013
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Denver, CO
performed once in 2013


Gunnison, CO


“Language Lessons” was a new, live work from my ongoing performance and video series, “Marie Antoinette in America.” This series begins with a historical fiction, imagining that Marie Antoinette has somehow escaped the French Revolution and settled in the undeveloped lands of the ‘new world.’ The character wears a tumbleweed wig, as if she has been alone and wandering for so long that tumbleweed has lodged itself in her hair, or as if she herself has blown in on the wind.

Each work in this series in some way portrays the character’s attempts at livelihood or survival and explores the roles prescribed for her based on gender, class, and skill set. This project allows me to explore the nature of privilege, power, gender and sexuality through works that conflate labor and leisure, culture and solitude, and penance and self-discipline.

“Language Lessons” featured the seated character of Marie Antoinette, surrounded by landscape elements and an oversized portrait frame, attempting to repeat in poor approximation the French phrases from an instructional audio recording intended to teach English to native French speakers. The instructional audio recording had been pieced together in an illogical sequence from intact components of an actual Pimsleur program, with an emphasis on declarations of French and American origin or nationality as well as male and female interactions suggesting courtship, shifting power imbalances, and negotiation. The resulting recording felt disorienting to both the performer and the audience, and to both English and French speakers.

This work referenced the conventions of portraiture, landscape painting, traditional artistic practice and education as well as the Francophilia of the academic tradition. “Language Lessons,” performed at MCA Denver, acknowledged the context of the contemporary art museum as one that both honors and departs from traditional artistic forms and presentation formats. Landscape elements surrounding the performer, including a rock cairn, suggested a sparse western landscape and situated the character in the American West rather than in the French court or Academy, despite the adjacent white walls of the museum. Along with the tumbleweed wig, the character was clothed in Georgia O’Keeffe’s signature black robe, embodying the artist of the American West, while her undergarments peeking from beneath and the surrounding portrait frame nonetheless bound her to longstanding roles and expectations.