The blurb on the wall at the entrance to the exhibit 100 Years (version #2, ps1, nov 2009) at P.S.1 (through April 5 2010) starts off this way: “This exhibition has assembled a wealth of information explicitly intended as an archive for students and scholars of the history of performance art.” Given that intro, it makes sense that the exhibition, crammed full of video screens and facsimiles of artifacts from the past 100 years is a bit difficult to take in all at once.
In some sense it’s nice that there’s not too much contextualization and history printed on the walls next to every image or video, allowing visitors to take what they will from the show. On the other hand, without any context the exhibit is overwhelming for those who don’t have much knowledge of the form. The work on display hurtles from the Futurists to the Dadists to Yoko Ono having her clothes snipped off to remnants from this year’s Performa 09. The exhibit has been mounted in conjunction with Performa 09, and yesterday, in the middle of the final day of the festival, they officially added artifacts and videos of the past few weeks’ events to the exhibit.
Like the festival itself, this exhibit feels overfull. Most of the friends I convinced to come out with me to various Performa 09 events admitted that it was the only thing they would be seeing in the program and that they’d been overwhelmed by the different options available to them. One look at the beautifully printed and occasionally perplexing program that accompanies the biennial would likely give most people a mild case of vertigo. I’m not sure it’s so different from the other art world gluts—room after room of artworks that may or may not be related in any coherent way, other than all being in the same place at the same time. Burn out is simply one of the costs of attending massive art fairs and festivals. The P.S.1 exhibition is a strange blend of an art fair and the experience of watching a performance by itself.
The trick, of course, with performance is that you have to be there to see the thing to get the full experience. Watching the excerpts on display at P.S.1. or viewing the tens of snippets available on PerformaTV will give you the gist of much of the work, but recordings of performances tend to be poor replacements for the thing itself, as it’s very difficult to capture the entire atmosphere in which the work took place, or the crucial and often subtle exchanges happening between performers and audiences.
So, what remains from this year’s Performa, besides the academic renderings at P.S.1 and the shaky videos online? What’s so interesting about Performa founder and curator RoseLee Goldberg’s approach is that she herself is an academic. She began championing performance art in the 1970s, and ended that decade by publishing the first major text on the form, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, which is now in its third edition and still an important survey. In organizing these biennials (this year’s was the third), she deliberately marries historical material with the contemporary and makes concerted efforts to spark conversations between past and present. It’s as if she started a crusade to make sure that we don’t forget the work, so that young artists and critics understand whose shoulders they stand upon, and also to elevate a form that is often dismissed simply because it is both ephemeral and not easily commodified.
Interestingly Goldberg is not the only one who has started to revive and revisit work that was generally assumed to be finished forever after its first performance. As the revival of Anna Halprin’s Parades & Changes (a collaboration between Dance Theater Workshop and Performa 09) demonstrated, there is a growing interest, particularly in Europe, in restaging work that was pivotal to the development of modern dance. And it looks like a trend that won’t be going away any time soon.
One of the most interesting sections of the 100 Years exhibition is in a tiny alcove near the stairwell that features a work, Untitled (Placebo), by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, which includes a simple instruction for the gallery presenting the work to put out 130 kilos of individually wrapped candy mints. This work has been presented in different iterations since its original presentation in 1991, often with slight changes or amendments to the original. 130 kilos was the combined weight of Gonzalez-Torres and his partner Ross who died of AIDS in 1991. As the piece was exhibited visitors to the gallery gradually took away the sculpture, one mint at a time. It raised questions about who the placebo was acting upon—the visitor, the grieving artist, anyone who experiences loss. The piece also raised questions about our relationship to the medical industry and our own health. And it points not only to the idea of performance work having an ongoing life after its first presentation, but also to the unique role that performance has within the arts.
Along with a selection of instructions for works by Gilbert & George and Piplotti Rist, the alcove contains an extended excerpt of an academic explanation that touches on the origins of this form of instruction-based performance that highlights the phrase “le grand jeu.” It’s hard to read that phrase and not think instantly of the idea of life as a grand game. Performance, going back to Aristotle’s Poetics (his treatise on Greek drama), has hinged on the basic human impulse toward mimesis, which carries many meanings but hinges on our urge to mimic others, to try on identities through action and words. In the days when amateur dramatics weren’t considered passé, taking part in a production of Shakespeare, whether in the local town hall or in front of the family hearth, was a common pastime for many in the English-speaking world. Performance art, even as it manifests itself in visual arts (which is Goldberg’s primary interest), may not be so far divorced from that same impulse—trying it on; testing something out in life and seeing where it might lead.
The instructions on the wall in that little alcove don’t speak to the impulse that led the artist to choose those actions, nor do they hint at any meaning behind the work. Like stage directions in a play, they simply instruct the actor. It’s up to the performer(s) and the audience to determine the story that unfolds in those actions and generate meaning in that, as is the case in life. We constantly construct and seek meanings from our days, our to-do lists, and our resumés, which, at their core, are aggregates of actions that are connected by nothing so much as the thru-line we manufacture around them. What importance does each action play in the story we construct for our lives? Performance challenges us at a basic level—why do we do one thing and not the other; under what circumstances would we do something that we otherwise would not allow ourselves to do; what do we prefer to let others do?
With that in mind, and as with any dense exhibit of art from an medium, you’ll probably gain more from the 100 Years by focusing on a handful of works rather than trying to take in the whole thing. If you’re feeling adventurous, choose some from different eras and compare and contrast how they’re different from one another, the different methods they used to realize their performance. A fair amount of the work on display is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, pay attention to how you perform your own disdain for what you don’t accept or don’t feel comfortable with. Then check it off your cultural to-do list, and have a conversation with someone about it.