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The art of revival: The rise and rise of performance art

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BY THE late 1990s, the small and marginal world of performance art seemed stunted by nostalgia and self-parody. “I would go to [New York’s] Lower East Side and see these scruffy works that felt like a repeat of the 1970s,” says RoseLee Goldberg, a South African-born curator and art historian in New York. “I was seeing works by visual artists like Shirin Neshat, Gillian Wearing and Steve McQueen, and I was wondering why aren’t we seeing this kind of power or beauty in performance? Why are we still doing monologues?”

As a former director of the Royal College of Art in London who went on to shape New York’s performance-art scene in the 1970s, Ms Goldberg was well-placed to diagnose artistic torpor. She worked with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Robert Longo, Meredith Monk and Cindy Sherman as a curator at the Kitchen, a renowned downtown venue. But New York in 2000 seemed to have little interest in art that couldn’t be bought or sold, and experimental artists were increasingly decamping to Berlin, London and Shanghai. To revive the performance scene in New York, Ms Goldberg launched Performa, a biennial of performance art, in 2005. “I just thought, how can we have things bubble up from the bottom?”

Ms Goldberg injected fresh energy into the field by coaxing visual artists to create unique three-dimensional experiences. The resulting performances, which have included Rashid Johnson reimagining “Dutchman”, a racially fraught play, in an East Village bathhouse, and Ms Neshat envisioning a theocratic trial in Iran, have helped transform what has long been the most challenging, least audience-friendly art-form into must-see events.

As Performa 17, the biennial’s seventh edition, splashes out in venues across the city (until November 19th), many credit Ms Goldberg with bringing the medium into the mainstream. “Performa was my education,” says Jenny Schlenzka, the new artistic director of Performance Space 122, one of the city’s oldest performance-art venues. Before she became a performance curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Ms Schlenzka studiously attended every Performa event. This exposed her to works by pioneers such as Marina Abramovic and Joan Jonas, and introduced her to international artists and up-and-comers, such as Adam Pendleton, whose work she has gone on to commission herself.

“Now you’ll have a hard time finding a contemporary-art institution that does not engage in performance art,” says Ms Schlenzka, nodding to more recent programming at MoMA, Tate Modern and the Whitney in New York, among other places. The Shed, a centre for performance and experimental art, will open in New York in 2019. “I do believe Performa played a role in that.”

Part of the festival’s appeal is the way it illustrates the possibilities of performance. This year Ms Goldberg commissioned a piece from William Kentridge, a South African artist best known for his politically potent charcoal drawings, prints and animations. For “Ursonate”, performed in the grand vaults of a decommissioned church in Harlem, the artist read sonorously and with dramatic verve a nonsensical 1932 sound poem by Kurt Schwitters, a Dadaist artist, against a projected backdrop of his own animated drawings.

What began somewhat uncomfortably, as viewers suddenly worried that they were destined for an hour of gobbledygook, soon morphed into a sly meditation on human fallibility and senseless destruction (complete with images of soldiers and bomb explosions). In these uncertain and often absurd times, Mr Kentridge’s performance felt strangely moving and incisive.

Other works came up short, but still managed to provoke. Ms Goldberg commissioned several this year from Barbara Kruger, an American artist known for her visually arresting posters that combine black-and-white advertising imagery with hard-edged aphorisms in white Futura font (“I shop therefore I am”, “Your comfort is my silence”).

In addition to covering a school bus and a skate park with her trademark slogans (“Don’t be a jerk”, “Truth is fiction”), Ms Kruger has created her first-ever “live” performance. “Untitled (The Drop)” involves charging ticket-buyers $5 to wait in a queue that snakes around the block. Attendees ultimately inch into a shop, where they can buy T-shirts, skateboards, sweatshirts and a hat emblazoned with anti-consumer slogans (“Want it. Buy it. Forget it.”). The performance concludes with a purchase. This may be a clever commentary on the parallels between the art world and consumer culture, but even devoted fans of Ms Kruger’s may chafe at a gag that comes at their expense.

For all her work as a curator and producer, Ms Goldberg’s main accomplishment may have been to reinsert performance into the history of art. Her singular scholarship is the subject of her book, “Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present”, which first came out in 1979 and is now in its third edition. “The most interesting times were when artists from different disciplines came together and thought through different ideas,” she says, referring to the Russian Constructivists, the Dadaists, Futurists, Bauhaus and the New York “happenings” of the 1960s. “That’s what I’m trying to do now, to bring different artists together to really argue and debate what it is we all do.”

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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