Intersecting Universes: Performing Arts and Performance Art 

click to enlarge MeasuringtheUniverse.jpg

Even if you didn’t see it, you probably heard about the New Museum’s triennial show, The Generational: Younger Than Jesus and its accompanying tome of some 500 artists under the age of 33, The Younger Than Jesus Artist Directory. In both cases, I was surprised to find that a fair portion of those included produce the kind of work that is rarely seen in art museums—i.e. dance and theater-based performance work. While it’s true that figures from the world of dance, like the late and much-to-be-missed Merce Cunningham, brought the visual arts into the realm of performance in a significant way, it is extremely rare to find an art museum embracing anything with the merest whiff of the performing arts about it.

Performance art and the performing arts are usually considered two quite separate entities. But this is a division that doesn’t hold up well under even a few moments’ scrutiny, particularly in an age when it’s commonplace in all media that the artist responsible for conceiving of a piece is not necessarily the one who executes the work. Philosophizing at length about this divide, in language and/or in fact, will have to wait for a different opportunity than this one, but two exhibits on right now at MoMA which focus heavily on performance got me thinking about this persistent but fuzzy boundary.

The first exhibit is the final chapter in a series of performance works being presented at MoMA. Created by Roman Ondák and titled Measuring the Universe, the piece is comprised of a typical white box gallery space in which a rotating team of attendants marks the height of those who enter the space with a short line, the visitor’s first name, and the date that the measurement was taken. Inspired by the familial ritual of marking a growing child’s height on the wall, the piece, like most performance work, is many things at once. The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as the increasing number of black ink notations create a formation that resembles nothing so much as the edge-on views of distant galaxies captured from space. Like discrete bits of matter, the markings encircle the room, the vast majority hovering between 5 and 6 feet layering one atop another, each distinct, accreting into a new and strange planetary system consisting of signs, symbols, and intentions.

The performance aspect comes in the making of the mark, in the thousands of largely homogenous little dramas between the attendants and the visitors. Those who enter the space seem to enter the performance willingly and without any instruction at all. A misshapen line forms and participants quietly wait their turn, observing those that go before them. Each person walks to a point along the wall indicated by the attendant, the attendant then places his or her hand above the head of the visitor, both silently submit to a photo if one is being taken by an onlooker (which is quite often the case and adds a bit of naïve comedy to the scene), and then the visitor is moved aside so that the appropriate mark can be made without any undue damage to hair or garments by the felt tip pen.

Who is the performer in this work? Who is the artist (Ondák is not one of the attendants in the gallery)? Is the performance the intended point of focus, or is it the resulting diagram spinning around the gallery?

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