Notebook, 1993-


Performance Art Gets Its Biennia

Critic's Notebook

By ROBERTA SMITH - Published: November 4, 2005 (NYtimes)

Performance art may be getting its unruly, influential, shamanistic act together. At the moment, it seems to be the art world's medium of choice. Admired for its purity and subversive spirit, it is ubiquitous in gallery and museum exhibitions, whether on its own or as an active ingredient in video, installation art, sound art and photography. And performance art - also known as performance - is often the ghost in the machine in even the most static of objects; there is hardly a work of art with a scratchable surface that can't be assigned so-called performative aspects.

As of last night, performance art also has a New York biennial to call its own: Performa 05, which has been coaxed into existence on a shoestring and possibly a prayer by RoseLee Goldberg, a veteran historian and curator of performance art. Ms. Goldberg, a South African by birth, grew up torn between dance and painting, resolving the conflict with a doctorate in Bauhaus performance that centered on the artist Oskar Schlemmer, who painted and performed.\

As the founding director and curator, Ms. Goldberg is billing Performa 05 as the city's "first biennial of new visual art performance." The wobbly but vibrant inaugural version will unfold primarily in commercial art galleries and alternative spaces, through Nov. 21.\

The biennial has emerged - without corporate sponsorship or even a sponsoring institution - seemingly out of thin air, hard work and fortuitous timing. The diverse credits on Performa's chartlike schedule also suggest a certain talent for persuading diverse art entities - from the Guggenheim Museum to the Kitchen to the Anthology Film Archives - to stage their own events during Performa 05. One result is lots of margins and no center, a good thing. Performa is also enhanced by (even as it helps bring them into focus) a range of performance works on view at the moment in several unrelated exhibitions around town.\

Artists Space signed on. So did the Swiss Institute; Salon 94; the Paula Cooper Gallery; Jack the Pelican in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the online radio station free103point9; the artists Christian Marclay and Christian Holstad; and the Yvon Lambert Gallery, which will sponsor a performance and related exhibition by Sislej Xhafa, a New York-based performance artist from Kosovo. The Austrian art collaborative Gelitin will turn Leo Koenig's Chelsea gallery into a giant, live-in copy machine and spend a week open for business around the clock, copying by hand whatever anyone brings in. Thus Performa 05's caldron of curatorial viewpoints will encompass performances, film screenings, symposiums and at least one panel, orchestrated by the artist Pablo Helguera, that will use opera singers and actors to dissect the panel format.\

The phenomenon of performance art dates back at least to World War I and the days of Dada and the Cafe Voltaire in Zurich. Since then, artists have regularly used it to torpedo the status, definition and market value of art, while in many cases capitalizing on their own magnetic stage presences, sonorous voices or good looks in ways that predate modernity if not art.\

The term itself dates from the early 1970's, when it denoted the hodgepodge of nontheatrical events - including happenings - that visual artists, dancers and poets had been staging in New York since the late 1950's. Conveyed then and now primarily through grainy black-and-white photographs or video, the events nonetheless reverberated through the art world, rife as they sometimes were with nudity, bodily fluids, social critique and identity politics.\

The culture wars of the late 1980's, especially the furor over Karen Finley's chocolate-covered feminism, helped push performance art into the mainstream, confirming once more the publicity value of being denounced in the United States Senate. Since then, performance art has influenced music, theater, advertising, sitcoms and reality television. What is "Fear Factor" if not endurance art - performance's hard-core subgenre - with bikinis and more viewers?\

Now, you can get M.F.A.'s, Ph.D.'s and probably tenured teaching posts in performance art, which has also entered the American vernacular. A random sampling of recent articles in The New York Times found the phrase used in reference to news anchors, hood ornaments, a neighborhood bar, American evangelists and Kinky Friedman's campaign for governor of Texas.\

But performance art has been plagued throughout its history by its basic ephemerality. Like choreography or art exhibitions, it is a disappearing art form, even in these days of video and virtual reality. Once it is over, it is gone, and as a result, it tends to be omitted from history. The events in and around Performa 05 constitute a strike against that disappearing.\

Ms. Goldberg has commissioned a few of the works, notably a short opera and first-time live performance effort by the Danish video artist Jesper Just, whose New York debut at the Perry Rubenstein Gallery last fall was one of the standouts of the season. Somewhat more dubiously, she has also commissioned the artist Francis Alys to convert a slow video striptease into an even slower performance. More often, though, she has provided context or connected existing dots, creating with quite a bit of help from her collaborators an unusually rich diagram of performance art's past and present, in which the sublime promises to compensate for the ridiculous.\

Ms. Goldberg's background as a painter may explain her use of the phrase "visual art performance" in the Performa 05 tagline and her conviction that many artists who don't work in live performance should try it. So it was that she commissioned Mr. Just's opera after seeing his poignant video meditations on loneliness, masculinity and popular songs at the Rubenstein gallery in Chelsea. (Two of them are being shown for the duration of Performa, along with "Something to Love," his most recent video.)\

Mr. Just's new piece, "True Love Is Yet to Come," is less an opera than a live music hologram whose restrained use of Eyeliner, a freshly patented computer program, allows real people and holograms to interact. As usual with his work, "True Love" includes the young blond actor Johannes Lilleore, who is present in hologram form. He is joined by Baard Owe, a well-known Norwegian actor who has been in several Lars von Trier films and whose agile and commanding presence is usually, but not always, real.\

Making emotionally resonant use of the music of the Ink Spots, a high-speed plunge through a forest and the antique carousel from the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the 30-minute work is a dreamlike tale of spurned love that could be either ambiguously filial or homoerotic. To see and hear it on its intimate, beautifully proportioned stage at the Stephan Weiss Studio in Greenwich Village is to experience technological innovation at the service of a haunting expressiveness.\

Marina Abramovic\
The most prominent dot that Ms. Goldberg has corralled into her Performa 05 diagram is "Seven Easy Pieces," a series of performances by the Yugoslav performance innovator Marina Abramovic, produced by the Guggenheim, that will run at the museum for seven nights, starting on Wednesday. Ms. Abramovic will re-enact some of performance art's earliest, most sensational classics - works by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys and Valie Export, as well as her own 1975 "Lips of Thomas."\ \ Each of these re-enactments, which, like the originals, will be unrehearsed, will be performed from 5 p.m. until midnight on a platform on the ground floor of the Guggenheim rotunda. The cavalcade of history will involve a dead hare, masturbation, crotchless pants and the use of razor blades, and promises a wild ride. At the least, it will be interesting to see how these works will be transformed by changes in time, setting and occasionally sex, and most of all by Ms. Abramovic's highly concentrated brand of gravitas.\ \ Other Restagings\ \ The re-enactment of performance art as a way of both paying homage and retrieving some of the form's past glories recurs in other Performa 05 events. In a program sponsored by the Museum for African Art at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Nov. 14 that also includes a work by the South African artist Berni Searle, Paul D. Miller (a k a DJ Spooky) will present "Re-Set," a V.J. tribute to the video pioneer Nam June Paik. Mr. Miller will mix excerpts from Mr. Paik's characteristically fast-moving, flashy videos with a new video of his own devising: it restages a performance by Charlotte Moorman, the cellist who was Mr. Paik's longtime partner in aesthetic crime, played by the performance artist Joan Jonas.\ \ \ (Page 3 of 3)\ \ In Mary Kelly's lively exhibition at the Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea - which is not part of Performa 05 - you can find a relatively static, object-oriented re-enactment. It consists of three large light-box images that show the restaging of part of a 1970 women's liberation demonstration outside the Albert Hall in London, protesting a beauty contest. Wearing strategically placed lights over their clothing, the participants seem to have swayed and wiggled (in an overtly sexual manner, you hope), creating a rising frenzy of moving light. The work exemplifies the easy intersection of politics and performance art and may look better here than it did the first time around. Mainly, you are glad that this bit of hilarious performance art has now been enshrined for posterity.\ Skip to next paragraph\ Readers\ Forum: Artists and Exhibitions\ \ Tamy Ben-Tor\ \ Back on the Performa 05 diagram, another significant dot is Tamy Ben-Tor, a dazzlingly talented young artist who will make her solo gallery debut with three performances of a work called "Exotica: The Rat and the Liberal," at Salon 94, the city's swankiest private-apartment gallery, starting on Sunday. Ms. Ben-Tor, an Israeli, was one of the better-kept secrets of last spring's "Greater New York" exhibition at P.S. 1, with a video piece displayed in a hard-to-find hallway: it was about different women (all played by the artist) expressing contrasting views and theories about Hitler.\ \ With a little polish and probably an agent, Ms. Ben-Tor might well salvage a show like "Saturday Night Live." Her work combines the brazen, poxes-all-around political incorrectness of Kara Walker and Alex Bag with the shape-shifting proclivities of a walking, talking Cindy Sherman - meaning that her deft handling of wigs, costumes and female personas is coupled with a similar control of voices, accents and physical comedy. (Ms. Ben-Tor's first full-fledged gallery exhibition, "Exploration of the Domain of Idiocy," which opens at the Zach Feuer Gallery in Chelsea on Nov. 17, will include a selection of videos. The show will offer continued performances of "Exotica: The Rat and the Liberal" every Friday and Saturday at 4 p.m. until it closes on Jan. 14.)\ \ On Nov. 20, Salon 94 will screen "The Music of Regret," the first video (still in progress) by the set-up photographer Laurie Simmons. A musical with cinematography by Ed Lachman ("Far From Heaven"), it brings a new emotional and spatial dimension to her signature puppets, ambulatory objects (this time with real legs) and lush color sense.\ \ The Alternatives\ \ Performa 05's diagram highlights the current vitality of New York's alternative spaces. Artists Space, for example, is mounting an ambitious, nearly nightly five-week program of performance and film events, beginning on Nov. 17, that is so comprehensive that it will include an air guitar contest. Considerably more compressed is "24-Hour Incidental," a series of performances at the Swiss Institute that begins at noon tomorrow and ends at noon on Sunday, and promises an appearance by Yoko Ono, one of performance art's royalty. The biennial's most hair-raising program may transpire at Participant, whose intrepid director, Lia Gangitano, has organized four crowded evenings, starting Nov. 15. The bill will cover the club, queer, punk and body art subsets of performance art, with personalities like Vaginal Davis, Ron Athey, Lovett/Codagnone, and the band My Barbarian. Luther Price, working with Katherine Finneran, will stage a live film/video/slide installation. This Sunday will bring a screening of "Coum Transmissions," two recently rediscovered performance videos by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge from the mid-70's, before he became a founding member of the industrial rock bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV.\ \ What else? Plenty. At Anthology Film Archives, Jay Sanders, the new director of the Greene Naftali Gallery in Chelsea, has organized evenings devoted to the videos of the famously clueless performance artist Michael Smith and the films of the Dutch Conceptualist Bas Jan Ader, whose work is also the subject of a small show at Perry Rubenstein. At the Studio Museum in Harlem, the artist Clifford Owens will offer video examples of performance-as-studio-visit on Nov. 13, when the museum's artists in residence, of which he is one, open their studios to the public.\ \ And beyond Performa 05, the sky seems to be the limit. On the Upper East Side, the work of the French artist Yves Klein, one of the sources of postwar performance art, can be seen in a career survey at L&M Arts, and in a more focused show at the Michael Werner Gallery nearby. At Sean Kelly, you can watch the German artist Rebecca Horn deploying her distinctive body-extending sculptures in early-70's videos. At the Gladstone Gallery, there is "Zarin," Shirin Neshat's latest video work, which tells the tale of a guilt-racked Muslim prostitute so vividly that it doesn't need subtitles.\ \ Much of the work in "Day Labor" at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center relates to performance in one way or another, but especially Daniel Bozhkov's "Training in Assertive Hospitality," a video and fresco documenting his tenure as a people-greeter (and self-appointed fresco painter) at a Wal-Mart in Skowhegan, Me., as well as work by Ms. Ben-Tor, Mika Rottenberg and Coco Fusco (who is also performing at the Kitchen in a Performa event).\ \ In Creative Time's beautiful exhibition "The Plain of Heaven" (in a former meatpacking plant at 832 Washington Street in the West Village), catch the installation/performance piece by the choreographer William Forsythe, in which Brock Labrenz, a tirelessly inventive dancer, improvises among a forest of plumb lines for six hours at a clip.\ \ And back at Art in General, Lee Walton's "Experiential Project" celebrates the performative aspects of life itself. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday between 4 and 5 p.m., some of the people who pass Art in General's small, bleachered storefront project space do so again and again, making the same pauses and gestures each time. They are performers. It becomes a kind of game to figure out who is performing and who is not. Then you may notice that some of the people in the street are looking quizzically at you, probably wondering the same thing. }



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