Abramović – The Artist is in the Building

Posted: April 22nd, 2010 | Author: admin | Filed under: Art, History, Museums, performance art | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

*The artist is in the building.

*A woman artist is in the building  – joining Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Helen Frankenthaler, Elizabeth Murray and Lee Bontecou (different building) as the only women in the 81-year history of MoMA to have had retrospectives (pathetic, sad, amazing, infuriating).

*Naked people are in the building.

*A medium shot of the artist pushing her breasts towards the sky; a wide shot of women, the artist among them, lifting their dark skirts and squatting so their bare vaginas come into contact with the wet earth; an aerial shot of men humping a hill of green grass, resembling a swarm of fleshy insects – the video, Balkan Erotic Epic, is on display in the building.

I grew up in NYC.  Like many New Yorkers, I think of the Met, the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA as ‘my’ museums. New Yorkers are provincial; we’re possessive.

This partially explains the uncanny feeling I had walking through the exhibition Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, seeing actual naked people on display. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for MoMA despite my feeling that it was historically ‘modern,’ a bit stodgy and from my Grandfather’s time.  I never located it as an institution that courted controversy, particularly when related to issues of gender or sex.

My view of MoMA, much to my surprise and pleasure, has now shifted and this shift cannot be underestimated. Something has changed here.

First I want to say that I am really pleased that there are naked people, male and female, inhabiting the public space in the Museum of Modern Art.  Inhale.  Exhale.

Ok.  The show.  The first performance I encounter walking through the first room of the show, with its heady mix of projections, photographs, grimaces and screams, is Imponderabilia.  Historically a favorite of mine, this iteration is the most functioning ‘live’ piece in the exhibition, aside from Abramovic’s presence in the atrium.  That said, it’s not nearly as strong as the original, performed in Bologna in 1977 (click on the photo above).  This is in part due to the performers lack of intensity compared to Ulay and Abramovic; it is also severely architecturally challenged.

MoMA, not quite ready to make it a prerequisite to walk between two naked people to enter an exhibition, puts the piece in the back, arranging a much larger, unencumbered pathway up front.   Thus placed, Imponderabilia becomes a spectator sport, with many watching and few daring to pass in between.  When I walked through, the piece was performed by a short woman with a tattoo on her back reading ‘remember to remember’ and a tall man with a notably long penis – perhaps slightly erect (what is known in the industry as ‘a chubby’). These details, particular to the performers, made the performance better (remember this thought).

Have I told you that I love the idea of naked people in MoMA?  That said, some of the other performances, naked or clothed (Point of Contact, Nude with Skeleton) function more like living illustrations or documentation surrounded by other forms of documentation. They are less vibrant than some of the flickering videos or grainy b&w photographs.

A disturbing piece, Luminosity, did have, and benefited from its own room.  A brightly lit person naked, hanging from a bicycle seat, is seemingly impaled onto the wall.  The first time I saw it, the performer was a perfectly coiffed perfectly bodied woman (possible candidate for a Vanessa Beecroft piece). Her expression stricken and blank; she was clearly uncomfortable, not so much physically as from finding herself exposed like this.  The piece felt exploitative.  (I must confess I spent time checking out the various modes of wearing or eradicating body hair). The second time I entered it was performed by another woman with a more particular body and a stronger presence.  She looked out into the horizon, then down at me, then to the man behind me, and then up again, readjusting, suffering, processing, thinking.  The return of my/our gaze was crucial in establishing that she was other than an object. Abramovic says this piece is about spirituality; the first performer did hit and hold the Jesus on the cross position at one point, for what it’s worth.

There is much controversy around the issue of ‘reperformance’.  And the works here do suffer from the deviation from the initial impulse of ‘no predicted end, no repetition’ as they lose vibrancy and present-tenseness. We know that they are scripted and repeated, as opposed to when they were first performed when they were question marks waiting to unfold. An interesting thing about working with the body as subject/object/material, is that part of the body’s functioning is involuntary.  Rumor has it a male performer was removed because of his errant hard-on – a real pity – but didn’t Freud say that the weather is always bad in the land of sexuality?

There can be strength in reperforming when the specific performer (preferably one that is fabulous) truly makes the piece their own. Abramovic did just that during her week in 2005 at the Guggenheim and the results were riveting.  Vito Acconci, another consummate alas lapsed performer, said that by reperforming the work becomes theater.  Ok, I like theater, but then it better be good theater.  And if it’s going to be good theater then a major principle must be adhered to:  CASTING, CASTING, CASTING.  In the case of the MoMA show, it might have been better to pick from actors or non-performers, as opposed to uniformly young, attractive dancer or model types trained in having their bodies do as they are told.  I longed for particularity and diversity in age, race, shape, muscle tone, etc.  Or howsabout if the actors/performers had been given the chance to interpret/truly become the performance.   Well this would have been a different show.

Abramovic’s performance The Artist is Present is in the main atrium; the person, the artist, the woman has arrived.  Queen-like in her red dress, she is otherwise sweaty and exhausted, her expression turned in on itself. When a person stands up, Abramovic allows herself a few minutes of pause, putting her head down, readjusting her limbs, wiping her face. We, the audience, witness her struggle.


JOHN KELLY DANCES ON A POOL TABLE

Posted: April 19th, 2010 | Author: admin | Filed under: Art, dance, performance art | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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Here’s an impromptu video sketch I shot at Yaddo one rainy night last summer of the wonderously shape-shifting performance artist John Kelly improvising to Intermezzo in A minor Opus 76 by Brahms. Inspired by a dance party a few nights earlier, the pool table, with its single minimalist fluorescent, seemed a perfect stage for John’s mix of humor and drama.

Other details: the mosquitoes were biting, the darkened pool house felt like a horror movie waiting to happen, the green felt proved surprisingly rough.  We did not go for a swim afterwards, just scurried back to our rooms to bed.  Now, aside for the video tape evidence, it’s as if it never happened, like the memory of a short vivid dream

Many thanks to Yaddo for providing the setting, the time and the mix of comrades that make such unlikely collaborations possible.

Johannes Brahms            +            John Kelly                  +             Shelly Silver


the moment of encounter

Posted: April 12th, 2010 | Author: admin | Filed under: Art | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lorraine O’Grady, Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, 1980-83

Lorraine O’Grady spoke with Sanford Biggers and RoseLee Goldberg at MoMA.   This event, both fascinating and way too short considering the territory it could have covered, was co-sponsored by an organization I never knew existed – The Friends of Education of the Museum of Modern Art.  It was founded in 1993 – the same year that buttons by Daniel Joseph Martinez were handed out at the Whitney Biennial reading “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White.” The mission of the Friends of Education is to foster a greater appreciation of art created by African American artists…’ (hmmmm, how’re we doing?)

I’m embarrassed (frustrated?) to say that I knew nothing about Lorraine O’Grady till this fall, when I saw a series of her photographs in the Alexander Grey booth at Art Basel Miami, documenting her 1983 piece “Art Is…” O’Grady’s answer to a comment by a non-artist acquaintance: “avant-garde art doesn’t have anything to do with black people.” The performance was done during the African-American Day Parade on 125th Street, and the photographs had more life and vitality than most of the other art on display at Art Basel.

Lorraine O’Grady referring to her non-traditional career trajectory stated that she was post black before she was black – attending Wellesley and then working in a hyper-elite state department job.  It wasn’t until she situated herself within the cultural arena of the art world, deciding at 45 to become an artist, that she became black/excluded.  Then came a sentence that reverberated: “culture tends to be the ultimate barrier to equality.”

Looking at the history of O’Grady’s art over the past several decades, it’s surprising that she is just now getting wider recognition.  Or it should be surprising; unfortunately most women of her generation have come up against difficulty (how’re we doing?)  Most people of color of her generation have come up against difficulty (how’re we doing?)  And then I think to the exquisitely pleasurable and painful problem of making work that is both confrontational and ahead of its time; exquisitely painful because it will, by definition, run into all sorts of resistance.

“My work is a function of living life at the extreme of misunderstanding – when who you are isn’t taken into account let alone misunderstood.”


Performance

Posted: March 14th, 2010 | Author: admin | Filed under: Art | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I used to be in a field (video) where there wasn’t any market interest whatsoever. The upside of this could be summed up in five words:

“DO WHATEVER YOU FUCKING WANT”

The downside:

NO MARKET (often, not always) = INVISIBILITY

The last bunch of years (is there a connection between the fall of the left here?) have seen formerly market-resistant art forms (video, conceptual art) aggressively move, or in the case of performance art, try to move into the marketplace.  It is no surprise that much of this work has become more conservative and less relevant (I’ve long felt that conceptual art, for example, has entered into its ‘baroque’ phase).  These forms, when they mutate, have the market-friendly (ever evident in commercial advertising tropes) ‘smell’ of resistance/avant-garde/edginess/revolutionary tendencies, without actually HAVING them.  They must, almost by definition, take on the dominant values of the larger world, though there’s certainly interesting leakage and contradictions that can occur (again, also very evident in commercial television).

But let’s be frank, rich people are for the most part not the most politically left-leaning/civic-minded/risk-taking/open-minded/liberal-even/please fill in your hyphenated two words here.  Rich people are intent on preserving and increasing their…wealth.  Their/our pursuit of ever-increasing consumption levels has always been politically negative and socially reprehensible, and it is even more so in our current world circumstances.

As I write the above, it all seems more than self evident – and yet this strongly goes against the current assumptions in the art world that:

SELLING = GOOD

What has motivated this semi-diatribe?  The current article/s in the New York Times on performance art.  I will not come down on either side yet (should it be re-performed, should it be editioned and sold…)

I just want to point out how far down the road we’ve come, and what a strange place we now find ourselves in.

Isn’t Joan Jonas fab?