Let's take a journey back more than a decade ago, to the 40th annual Grammy Awards. The year was 1998, and the legendary Bob Dylan was performing his single "Love Sick," when a man with the words "Soy Bomb" painted on his chest ran out from the back, wildly gesticulating next to the confused musician. Eventually the man was ushered off by security, and the rest was Grammy history. But with the Grammys around the corner, one has wonder: What happened to that guy?
It turns out that the man who seemed like a spontaneous protester, a spotlight-stealer, or simply a crazy person is a legitimate and respected artist performance artist named Michael Portnoy. The 1998 Grammys stunt was a performance art piece meant to bring good vibes to the viewers at home, "Soy Bomb" being a two-word poem. Portnoy described the poem as: "Soy represents dense nutritional life. Bomb is, obviously, an explosive destructive force. So, 'soy bomb' is what I think art should be: dense, transformational, explosive life!" Portnoy was originally hired as a background "head nodder" for Dylan's performance, and he took a chance during the live show. The Grammys did not press charges against him, but Portnoy wasn't paid for the background gig, either.
While those of us outside the often strange and obscure art world may not understand any of Portnoy's work, there are plenty notable galleries, art publications, and organizations that do. He has participated in performance art biennial Performa, the Deitch Gallery art parade (founder Jeffrey Deitch is now the director of L.A.'s Museum Of Contemporary Art), and even in futuristic fashion label threeASFOUR's runway shows. Portnoy's work has been lauded and reviewed in Artforum and The New York Times (on non-Soy-Bomb-related topics), and he travels all over the world performing.
But for the average Joe, he will forever be know as that weirdo who crashed the Grammys.
Lucky for us, comedy, along with music and choreography, intentionally plays a big part in Portnoy's performances—so don't feel bad about laughing. Portnoy was part of an "alternative" comedy troupe in the '90s, where crashing other comedian's sets was—of course—a big part of it, and was even called "the new Andy Kaufman" due to his over-the-top comedic performances. Recently he hooked up with actress Grace Zabriskie, of Big Love and Twin Peaks fame, training with her in experimental stand-up comedy.
Some of Portnoy's work I personally can't begin to understand. For his "Wandbiss" piece, onlookers were encouraged to crawl into a tiny space and try to eat morsels of food that have randomly popped out of holes the walls. In "The Dudion Levers," a very large instrument was fabricated with a microphone at the top, and Portnoy sang into the microphone about three objects he had placed inside. But one of his performances I can appreciate and laugh at: His six-episode Dr. Portnoy interview show could be considered a precedent to comedian Zach Galifianakis's hilariously awkward Between Two Ferns.
I recently asked Portnoy a few questions via email about his work, his relationship to comedy and music, and if he would ever crash a nationally televised show again. You'll find his answers, like his work, a bit abstract.
I read in an interview that comedy plays strongly in your work. Was that part of the intention with your Soy Bomb piece? Is it a continuing theme throughout your collective work?
Comedy is for people who have a sense of rhythm but can't play an instrument. Rhythm is for people who like to hit animals but instead stretch them over clay bowls. The art world is for people who want to be comedians and musicians, but don't like driving in vans with other males, or practicing. Soy Bomb was intended to be a simple poem, but my arms stole all the attention.
You incorporate music into your performances. What is your relationship with music personally, and how do you use, perform, or create music in your work?
Music is for people who don't know how to think. I'm not thinking as I write this so it sounds pretty good. Music usually finds its way into most of what I do - like in a huge microphone which grows out of my shoes. I sing into it and a machine imprints objects in mother-of-pearl graphic notation. Or the time I invaded Iceland with the "uuuuu" sound.
Tell us a little about your bands the Liquid Tapedeck and XAR. Are they part of your artwork, or straightforward music projects?
The Tapedeck was a theatrical power duo from over 10 years ago. XAR was the "majestro" [majestic electro] solo project which followed, and where I could flex all my prog-rock muscle.
What would you say was your most successful piece you've done thus far, whether to the press, the art community, or for yourself?
Recently, one of the projects I enjoyed most was the Taipei Women's Experimental Comedy Club in 2010, which I built as a venue for only the most bewildering assaults upon stand-up.
How would you describe your current/upcoming work? What inspires you now and where do you plan to go with your art?
There's a bunch of things coming up: Difficult Forms of Amusement—a book I'm working on with the brilliant illustrator/inventor Steven M. Johnson, full of designs for panic dens, two-person Stalinist funhouses, and et cetera—a film with Grace Zabriskie, and a series of very tall and thin oil paintings of Talmudic scholars peeking through doors.
Would you ever crash national television again for an art piece?
If the delivery of all the nation's programming were confined to just one jumbotron in the heart of the country, I might consider occupying a few square feet in the lower right corner of the screen as a kind of living punctuation.
Um, is that a yes?
We may not understand all of Michael Portnoy's bizarre work, but he's forever a part of music history—Bob Dylan can probably never disassociate himself from Soy Bomb around Grammy time. But it's safe to say that someone can now call the band Eels, because yes, we found out whatever happened to Soy Bomb... and he's doing just fine.
What do you think of Michael Portnoy's work? Should Soy Bomb make a comeback? Leave your comments below!