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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)