Report: Back To You: Contemporary Performative Practice
Sarah Lowndes explores a current wave in contemporary art
In 1979 Roselee Goldberg wrote in her groundbreaking survey publication Performance Art, ‘Live gestures have constantly been used as a weapon against the conventions of established art.’ This was certainly true of the radical concrete performance of 1960s and 70s practitioners such as Ulay and Abramovic, Gina Pane, Dennis Oppenheim and Chris Burden, which attempted to re-invest performed actions with a sense of realness.
This important sense of anti-illusionism was underlined when Marina Abramovic applied to Chris Burden for permission to restage his 1974 piece, ‘Trans-fixed’, as part of her Seven Easy Pieces season of re-enacted performances at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in November 2005. Burden denied permission for ‘Trans-fixed’ to be re-staged, a decision which was defended in a letter to the New York Times written by his colleague, the artist and curator Tom Marioni. He wrote, ‘The performance art of the early 1970s was concrete. We made one-time sculpture actions. If Mr. Burden’s work were recreated by another artist, it would be turned into theater, one artist playing the role of another.’
The distinction made by Marioni remains pertinent in the light of the increasing number of artistic re-enactments of historical situations and events, the subject of last year’s survey exhibition History Will Repeat Itself, which opened at Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund and travelled on to KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin in 2008. Curators Inke Arns and Gabriele Horn wrote in the exhibition catalogue that, ‘Re-enactments repeat archived, historical events; they replace “false” memories (false because they are media-based and therefore always susceptible to manipulation) with individual experiences through direct and often physical experience of history.’
While re-enactment is at odds with the ‘no rehearsal, no predicted end, no repetition’ creed of concrete performance, it connects meaningfully with the concept of the performance score, developed by artists associated with the fluxus group, such as George Brecht, George Maciunas and Yoko Ono.
Ono’s ‘Cut Piece’, in which the artist invited the audience to cut her clothes off with scissors, was first performed by the artist in Kyoto in 1964, and was later re-enacted by her in New York in 1965 and in Paris in 2003, and subsequently by many others, including Carol Mann, 1967, Jon Hendricks, 1968, Jim Bovino, 2001 and John Noga, 2007.
Earlier this year the Brussels-based artist Jimmy Robert performed a new interpretation of the piece at London’s Cubitt gallery, in which he knelt on the floor clad in jeans and a ‘t-shirt’ made from lengths of masking tape stuck to his bare torso, which the audience were invited to remove. During the piece, Robert recited excerpts of reviews from Ono’s 1965 New York staging of ‘Cut Piece’. Robert’s revisiting of Ono’s performance was more than a straightforward homage, and generated a host of new interpretations, many of which related to his identity as a black male artist. In this, his re-enactment could be seen both as highlighting the multivalent properties of Ono’s performance score, and as providing an example of the unpredictable possibilities generated by the live situation.
However, Robert’s self-conscious re-enactment occupies a position somewhere between the concrete and the illusionistic. By referencing the critical reception of Ono’s 1965 performance he draws attention to the repetitive quality of his action, and to the art system within which Ono’s artistic practice, and his own response to it, will be assessed and marketed. To a certain extent, his re-enactment contrasts with the rubric of the performance theorist Peggy Phelan, who asserts that, ‘Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.’
However, many of the most interesting performance-related projects of the last decade effect a bridge between the ideas of presence associated with the live act and the absence that attends re-presentation. Some of the most thought-provoking experiments in this field have been in the area of installation art, notably in the interdisciplinary practices of artists including Elmgreen & Dragset, Mike Nelson, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Cildo Meireles.
The highly scripted environments of Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset place architecture in a self-conscious relationship to itself, and in so doing, provide a direct experience of the invisible and somewhat sinister underpinnings of the public sphere.
Since 1995 Elmgreen & Dragset have produced a series of projects entitled ‘Powerless Structures’, which actualise Guy Debord’s description from The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, (English translation 1977): ‘In a society where no one can any longer be recognised by others, every individual becomes unable to recognise his own reality. Ideology is at home; separation has built its world.’ Past projects include their ‘Prada Marfa’, 2005, shop in the Texan desert which no-one could enter, and total environments, such as the circular loop of corridors they installed in the Serpentine Gallery for The Welfare Show, 2006.
The artists explain that, ‘Throughout our entire practice we have worked with what you could call denials—installations which at first appear as if they were meant to be interactive but in fact don’t allow any kind of direct participation by the spectator.’
The spectator entering an installation by Mike Nelson is also cast less as a participant than as a disorientated and anxious voyeur. British-born Nelson has twice been nominated for the Turner Prize for his atmospheric staged environments, which often appear to have been recently vacated by people on the fringes of society such as drug addicts, motorcycle gang members and Islamic fundamentalists.
Nelson, speaking soon after making ‘The Coral Reef’, 2000, his breakthrough installation at Matt’s Gallery, London said, ‘You enter a pact with this space, as to whether to believe it or not. It’s like when you read the first few pages of a book. You know it’s not real, it’s a fiction, but you agree somewhere along the line to go along with it and enter this fictive realm.’
Nelson’s labyrinthine construction, ‘A Psychic Vacuum’, 2007, was a meditation on American society and culture housed in a long-derelict wing of the Essex Street Market on New York’s Lower East Side. The installation consisted of a series of interconnected corridors and claustrophobic rooms, including an abandoned Chinese restaurant, several dead ends and unnerving remnants of the lives of unknown others, such as a blood-stained flag and a collection of bones. The work culminates in a room that contains a vast sand dune, which, the viewer gradually realises, is itself forming a suffocating cloak over the preceding sequence of rooms and corridors.
Like Nelson, the French installation artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster says that, ‘I want to coax people to engage with my art, in the same way that a writer might entice people to read a book.’ She utilises technological advances to construct films and immersive environments that evoke atmospheres, memories and fantasies, and to generate a sense of other realities, as in ‘Promenade’, 2007, an installation that simulated the sound of a tropical rainstorm. Her Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern, TH.2058, 2008, dramatises an imagined environmental disaster in London 50 years hence, with 200 yellow and blue bunk-bed frames scattered with dystopian novels and a soundtrack of constant rain. Gonzalez-Foerster, who lives part of each year in Brazil, has often acknowledged the influence of the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, although her work is both more cerebral and less involving than Oiticica’s sensorial participatory environments.
Oiticica’s legacy is addressed in a more profound way in an exhibition running concurrently with TH.2058 at Tate Modern: the first major UK retrospective of the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles.
Meireles’s sculptures and installations develop the mind/body challenges articulated by the post-war Brazilian avant garde, perhaps most significantly in the eight large-scale installations included in this exhibition. These include ‘Through’, 1983-89/2008, a labyrinth of barriers including barbed wire, fishing nets and a floor made of several layers of shattered glass, which feels genuinely perilous to walk around, and ‘Fontes’, 1992-2008, a spiral path made with 6,000 plastic folding rulers and surrounded by the cacophony of 1,000 ticking clocks.
The exhibition ends with ‘Volatile’, 1980-94/2008, a completely dark chamber filled with a ghostly beach of talcum powder. Visitors making their way barefoot through the darkness and the cold silky powder towards a dim light, find at the far end of a second room a single candle burning in a hollow. There is a smell in the room, which perhaps only registers unconsciously—it is the smell of gas. On reaching ‘normality’ once more, there is a palpable sense shared by the participants of relief mixed with exhilaration.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have stated that it is the task of the artist to invent new uses of language by which society may see possibilities of reinventing itself: in the work of Elmgreen & Dragset, Nelson and Gonzalez-Foerster both the limitations and the possibilities of forms of expression cohere. Their work may be read by the audience, but not written—in this they offer a visceral experience of the endless circularity of signs. In encountering the work of Meireles, though, there is something more surprising at stake—an enraptured encounter with the unfamiliar that leaves the spectator avid for change.
Sarah Lowndes is a lecturer and writer based in Glasgow