Artist Hetain Patel went a bit viral over the last year, with two very different presentations. In June 2013, his TED Talk entitled “Who Am I? Think Again”, based on his 2012 performance Be Like Water with dancer Yuyu Rau, became something of an online hit, racking up more than 2 million views. Then in December, he took an old Ford Fiesta and rebuilt it as a giant Transformer, squatting on its heels like a Indian roadside tea-seller. Fiesta Transformer also seemed to capture something in the public imagination, even making a feature in the Daily Mail.
Patel is something of a transformer himself. Both these works seem a long way from his early pieces such as Ten (based on time cycles in Indian music) and It’s Growing on Me, a time-lapse video of him growing a moustache. His new performance American Boy – in which he geekily acts out snippets from such films as Men in Black, The Matrix, Pulp Fiction, Beverly Hills Cop, X-Men and Enter the Dragon – is different again. And yet, particularly Patellish: it’s about transformation (lots of it) and identity, and its poster and precept once again caught the media’s roving eye, bagging him an interview on Radio 4.
It is, safe to say, very much a guy thing.
So what, or perhaps who, is American Boy? It is the encounter of Bolton boy (Patel) with American fanboy films, the kind that that feature hard men in groups, cool dudes in suits, nerdy men with secret identities as superheroes (or is that the other way round?), and action men who talk in the kind of clipped, capitalised spurts that can fit inside comic-book speech bubbles. It is, safe to say, very much a guy thing.
It also quite a theatrical tour de force. Patel is a natural impersonator, and he flits between scenes, films and characters with astonishing dexterity, nailing the exact atmosphere, attitude and American accent of each one. The whole performance is like a rapid-fire series of jump-cuts, spliced together for 50 breezy minutes: here is Michael Caine, with his measured, Hollywood-lauded Cockney; here is Michael Jackson, smooth-walking, crotch-clutching; here are the cooler-than-you tones of Samuel L. Jackson; here are the vile whisperings of The Simpsons’ Montgomery Burns, the panther poise of Bruce Lee.
You get the feeling that Patel must have spent countless hours practising his impressions in front of his bedroom mirror, getting inside the characters, the voices, the scenes, the bodies. This is rather sweet: you root for him just as you might indulge a teenage nephew diligently working on his air-guitar. It’s also rather poignant. Among his flip-book scenes, one character stands out: Spiderman – or rather, “Real-Deal Spidey”, a Mexican teenager who uploads YouTube videologs charting his quest to embody his idol and ideal, culminating with getting into costume.
assembling an impossible self from fantasy figures, a Frankenstein creation made of film rather than body parts
It is this touching intersection of the real and imaginary that pushes American Boy into more profound, unsettling territory. You start, for example, to notice the pathos of the performance: a boy assembling an impossible self from fantasy figures, a Frankenstein creation made of film rather than body parts. You sense the uncanny double vision inherent in ventriloquism – who is the puppet here? – and the strangeness of the game as Real-Deal Spidey assiduously practises performing a part that has already been manufactured, like a kind of character-karaoke.
It’s not just Real-Deal Spidey who has been practising, obviously, but Patel himself. Who appears before us not just as an impersonator, but as a person. In one telling scene, Patel – a brown boy from Bolton – replays snippets of a scene from Reservoir Dogs in which a boss assigns pseudonyms to his gang: Mr White, Mr Black, Mr Brown, Mr Pink, Mr Blue. Their varying reactions suggest that white is just fine, black is kind of cool, brown is shitty and pink is faggy. The scene is played as light entertainment, but it’s obviously loaded. Identity, suggests American Boy, is about the parts we are handed down and the parts we play up to. It is a kind of costume with real, transformative effects refracted through prisms of race and power: a second skin that a teenage boy might try to fill, or a mask for him to go under cover.
Does that sound heavy? American Boy is anything but. To be sure, it has an underlying seriousness of purpose, but it has the lightest of touches, and is often very funny. After Patel has killed off various imaginary opponents with his remote-control, climbed vertically up a wall thanks to some onstage camera trickery, and kept us playing a constant game of name-that-movie, we may have become only subliminally aware of the power politics at play, but we have certainly had a most excellent adventure.