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?
RoseLee Goldberg, who has for quite some time now cornered the market on performance art curation and criticism, delineates the form this way in the intro to her volume, Performance Art
: “Unlike theatre, the performer is
the artist, seldom a character like an actor, and the content rarely follows a traditional plot or narrative.” But that distinction doesn’t hold up with much of the performance art created in the past couple of decades, and theater long ago discarded traditional plot and narrative while also including the creators in the show, whether it be solo work, devised work created by the ensemble who is acting in the piece, or a thousand other variations on the theme. Another familiar attempt to distinguish performance art from the performing arts claims that the former is born of visual art practice and is concerned with imagery or aesthetic experience, but so much of dance, particularly that created by figures like Merce Cunningham, and the work of theatrical directors like Robert Wilson, is concerned with literally performing aesthetic ideas and questions. The attempt to divide falls flat.
The second exhibition, also running now at MoMA, that helps to push the problem a little further, and happens to be right next door to Ondák’s piece, is Looking at Music: Side 2
. This show consists primarily of a film series that demonstrates the way in which music and visual art merged in the mid-1970s and the early 1980s as artists and punk rockers traded roles with one another, morphing from one form to the other and back again. And what is rock or hip hop but an elaborately costumed and highly theatrical performance? How different is the role of the musician from the role of the artist—both are often portrayed and played as outsiders, instigators, tortured geniuses, and inspirers. The films and videos on display, along with handmade posters and music listening stations, illustrate the work of artists ranging from Laurie Anderson (pictured above) to Sonic Youth to Beth B, who was up until that moment unknown to me, though I think I’m a better person for having been introduced to her work. So why then shouldn’t someone like Prince be considered not only a former, but a major artist, in the capital ‘A’ sense, and for a fair portion of his work to be considered performance art?
Interestingly, just as Younger Than Jesus
was wrapping up earlier this summer, the New Museum announced that they were going to start a new performance initiative all their own. The first resident artists were Lewis Forever
, who not so long ago completed a successful run of their show Freak the Room
at PS122. The current resident is Tarek Atoui who has a live performance event, Empty Cans
, scheduled to take place August 8 at the museum, which will be the culmination of a two-week workshop with high schoolers from around the city and will blend performance, art, technology, and video gaming.
Barriers and boundaries often create strong responses, particularly in places far outside of art galleries where the implications are much more dire. In creative expression those borderlands can often prove to be quite fruitful. I’m interested to see what will come of this persistent division as the yet-to-be-crucified attempt their art world domination in an ever-increasing number of media.
(image credit: Museum of Modern Art, Laurie Anderson)