“Do you mind if I literally throw myself at you?”
This is the opening line that Lilly McElroy tries with men whom she has deemed suitably solid to catch her.* They usually laugh and then say no. But about a quarter of the time they say yes. And this is the result:
There is McElroy, all 5 feet, 3 inches of her, leaping through the air, her skirt in a state of disarray, turning an idiom into reality. Other bar dwellers look stunned, annoyed, or amused as one of McElroy’s friends takes a picture. These are not photos made with a fancy camera. They are not elegantly composed. These are simply snapshots of nights on the prowl, full of flash and red-eyed glory.
“I was interested in that party pic aesthetic,” she explains.
The images capture her at different stages of flight. Sometimes it’s the moment before she makes contact, other times she is mid-embrace. Regardless of the bar or city, nearly all the men have their eyes shut, bracing themselves to receive the flying artist. Impressively, she’s never been dropped, though she did once end up with a mild case of whiplash, she tells me.
At first she tried to find catchers via Craigslist, but not enough men responded. So she changed tactics, hitting up bars in Tucson, Kansas City, Chicago, and Brooklyn. She’d approach all types of men: young, old, thick, thin, buttoned-up and leather-clad. She enjoyed flipping the stereotypical gender dynamic by becoming the tiny aggressor. Once they gave in and agreed to “stage the performance,” she’d hurl herself at them maybe three times, then buy them a drink.
Sometimes she got a sense that the other people in the bar wished she would hurry up and leave.
“There is a mixture of annoyance and mild amusement. I’m doing something pretty ridiculously stupid. My skirt flies up and my underwear shows.”
It’s this tangible discomfort, evident in the hand gestures and facial expressions of the drinkers in the background, that makes for some of the most interesting photos in the series.
"I want to make the viewer laugh, but I want them to understand that there is more at stake," McElroy explains in the artist statement on her website. This is not some Tosh.0 surprise trust fall; she is actually hoping to connect, and thus making herself genuinely vulnerable.
Interacting with new people does not come naturally to McElroy, who describes herself as shy. But she does it again and again through her art. Before “I Throw Myself at Men,” she tussled with cowboys, hugged strangers, defended a sidewalk chalk square, and invited a random selection of people from the phone book to watch the sunset and eat cake with her in a pop-up papier mâché house.
Looking through her Isolations project, for which she lay down in a nightgown in public spaces, currently on exhibit at the Lunch Box gallery in Miami, I was reminded of a video I spotted a few weeks back, shot in Echo Park, just a couple miles from McElroy’s house.
Titled “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” a girl offers up a Glee-worthy routine in a laundromat. Yes, she’s got some impressive moves, but the routine—and even location—would be nothing if not for the abuelas in the background, going about their business, barely reacting as she dances up on them and spins around in her laundry cart. The tone is different than that of McElroy’s work. But similarly, because of strangers who happen to be there for it, the end product inspires the desire to look over and over again.
Correction, Feb. 2, 2012: This post originally misspelled Lilly McElroy's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Oh Snap! is Brow Beat’s weekly photo feature. Additional posts you may enjoy: