by Patrick Gantert
I'm the king
So grab a hammer
Nail me to something
To the park and maybe eat a fur coat.
Spray me with blood
The word "guilt" all over my face
I'm the King of Performance Art!
Let's go to the park
I'll eat one hundred apples
While you burn
Until I scream and people gather around!
Is my gig
I'll stab myself while you
squeal like a pig
Can work the crowd and pass out literature.
The critics won't
No one will, they're programmed
by the Man
So lets, take these mannequin parts down to the park. Performance art...
Oh we're so f**ing dark!
Oh, we're so f***ing dark!
Performance art... performance art! -Sifl and Olly
Nearly always existing in a weird veil of coolness through fringe sitting obscurity, performance art has led a somewhat marginalized existence. Historically hard to sell, hard to ‘get’, hard to curate, and ultimately pretty hard to adequately quantify, the conceptual strictures are (and have been for some time) loosening. With larger exhibitions highlighting performance and its existent boundaries being pushed and broken, the notion of what it is to perform is expanding and mutating. In the case of performance, the work and its contingent writing have a symbiotic relationship wherein the latter deconstructs the former and vice versa, the thinking and the acting grow in tandem. It could be said that performance is being broken up linguistically into sections, one feeding into the other with blurry lines in regard to development or beginning but all stemming from one initial gregarious and visceral meta-medium, performance art.
The function of this essay is not to argue against the trajectory of an existing dialogue around performance, all is well and good there. Instead, the purpose is to parse out a possible textual structure for use as a more clearly defined evaluative model. There are three terms that could be useful in exploring that model: Performance, Performing, and Performative. All three of which will likely be familiar to anyone active in the current landscape of contemporary art. They are deployed at will in gallery and museum texts to avoid the inconvenient and clunky overuse of phrases and descriptors. The word performative is especially unique because its relatively ill-defined lexical content allows it to be as simultaneously versatile and offensive as Allen Iverson when he played for the 76‘ers*. There is a large amount of differentiation and re-defining happening, the issue being that words which could specify very particular things have yet to be clearly articulated.
For a general viewer, to say ‘performance’ in the context of art is to conjure images of acting human bodies and anxious feelings about engagement. Relevant to the definition of performance in this essay is performance as an event, a sanctioned thing happening in a specific place for an allotted amount of time (this time limit may be dependent on the artist but regardless, a time limit). Marina Abramovic at MoMA and Tino Sehgal at The Guggenheim are two examples in recent memory of clearly delineated performances. Both of these blockbuster exhibitions put a singular focus on an event, durational sitting (Abramovic’s show had a lot more than just that but my word count would severely muffin top if I were to address the ultimate weirdness that was all of those re-performances(?). Lets just agree that it didn’t work that well and save it for a rainy day. I digress.) and a verbal, generation spanning exploration of ‘progress’ respectively. Though both were billed by and large as performance art, the two artists have considerably different takes and, in that regard, such outings may necessitate a further definition. The shape of the word performance is changing in the context of art so that, rather than containing an implicit meaning and being bogged down by pre-established guidelines, it should prime the canvas for a more detailed explanation employing language with a bit more flourish and depth.
Part of this investigation is born out of an absolute need for differentiation. There were and are simply too many types of ‘performance’ artists and contingent practices for one word to encompass them all. However, in a related sense, it stems from a critical interest in specificity, the desire to attempt to particularize and categorize a fairly steady stream of content production. The term Performance then can be read and employed as a generalized starting point for a more in depth deconstruction of a given work’s particularities.
The word performing suggests an active and ongoing practice, one with less delineation, more transience and integration. It may refer to those artists whose practice defies a standard timeline, instead favoring an ongoing chain of interconnected gestures, actions, and utterances. Essentially, it is to contemporize and qualify the ‘life as art’ adage. Artists befitting the term performing are typically polymaths of sorts, exploring installation, sculpture, painting, music, curating, etc to define their practice.
Interestingly, the term performing as a descriptor or category easily favors work that would not traditionally fall within generalized performance art. Think Kai Althoff, whose practice generates installations, paintings, sculptures, books, and a variety of other pathos-laced ephemera but would likely never be outwardly regarded as performance art. Althoff, then, is a good example for such a parsing out of terminology as his practice hangs in a strange middle ground that, to some degree, defies categorization. To classify it as performing is to encompass an array of free radicals that comprise his rather prolific and eclectic output. Going a step further, it could be said that Althoff’s performing practice then produces performative objects, those aforementioned pieces of ephemera that, though static, wear the sheen of activity.
Althoff’s ‘Punkt, Absatz, Blümli’ is a prime example. The intervention that this work perpetrated on Gladstone Gallery’s bourgeois digs was more than a simple installation. Althoff created a kind of psychic space within a space via a dropped ceiling, abstracted and out of context home fixtures, and a strange floating rug. Within that scenario, his somewhat antiquated works on paper began to connect themselves to the person who creates and ‘lives’ in that space. That is to say, the more narrative portions of the show (drawings and sculptures) overtly implicated whatever personality it was that Althoff was assuming. All of the bits and pieces of his installations speak to an invisible, arguably non-existent** performing practice. Moreover, Althoff goes so far as to allow his objects to act in his absence, namely his installation at the Carnegie International in 2008. Tossing some kind of liquid out of it periodically over the course of the exhibition, gallery guards became sick after spending hours in the room. It quickly became clear that Althoff’s work was in fact actively poisoning those who encountered it for extended periods.
The work of Klara Liden also comes to mind to exemplify such a practice. The New Museum (who will mount her first large United States museum exhibition in May) says of Liden: she ‘...mines the anxieties of urban space to create ingenious and psychologically charged installations...Following in the tradition of urban alchemists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Lidén uses her body as a tool and a weapon to radically alter the space of the museum and expose it to the material and political realities of the world outside’. The way that Liden interacts with her spaces is, indeed, what makes the work pertinent. In Liden’s 2003 video ‘paralyzed’, she performs a kind of gymnast routine in a subway car, upsetting what, for most, is a daily drudgery. A notable twist is that the work happens in transit to little or no audience, a spastic embolism interjected in a life being lived. In a similar vein to ‘Paralyzed’, Liden’s work ‘The Myth of Progress-Moonwalk’ depicts the artist moonwalking across Manhattan. A tactic of upsetting a familiar routine, walking through the city, is combined with cultural iconography to re-evaluate one’s motion and engagement with a space. Both of these works exist as video as a result, their temporal and transient nature defying a sanctioned setting and requiring that they are shown through their documentation or resultant installations.
In that sense, Liden and Althoff follow a similar trajectory in that their performing practices may generate what could be considered performative objects. That turn from performing to performative is not some kind of secular transubstantiation but rather a natural derivation tailored to a market driven system. Performative objects are those that, at first glance, live a life that is, for the most part, abstracted from their performing catalysts, save for a sometimes quite esoteric wall text. Their qualification as performative is largely defined by their provenance but, at the same time, is also derived from a strange, buzzing patina of action. Of course the resultant works of Althoff and Liden fall into this category but it is not only artists that have a so called performing practice whose installations, paintings, and/or objects become performative.
I’ve written more extensively on this site about the work of David Adamo, namely a review of his gorgeous show at ‘Untitled’ last year. Adamo’s is a prime example of a solely performative practice. He succeeds in producing works whose aura (forgive that term) is nearly audible, as if the works are rustling and shaking like a cornfield. They speak loudly of their creation but, more to the point, they become almost like props without a play or better said, performers without a performance. That is, many of his works feel as though they were constructed or augmented during a performance and then hastily displayed as a byproduct. Unlike Althoff, whose puppet mastery, ultimately elusive presence props up his (half?) fictions, no one person or personality seems attached to Adamo’s works. They are intensely personal but also considerably open ended, allowing a viewer to supplant their own identity and consequently displace Adamo’s. Thus they reverse what, in the case of Liden and Althoff, is a partial focus on one individual to a focus on many, a few (or just one) at a time.
Following Adamo, Darren Bader’s current show at PS1, ‘Images’, activates its viewer in an incredibly unique way. The small, restrained, smart, and fucking hilarious show runs the gamut from encouraging cat and iguana adoption to unity burritos (a post post post modern version of Seinfeld’s ‘look to the cookie!’ perhaps; Look to the burritos!). Of prime importance in this show is Bader’s use of performative texts, most notably in his ‘celebrity room’ where viewers can hope to see a celebrity, take a photo with them, pin said photo to the wall, and rest easy knowing any and all proceeds benefit ‘environmental causes’ (: / ). Bader’s work is performative in a pitch perfect sense in that it plays on the current landscape of passive activism (we can stop a Ugandan dictator by ‘sharing’ a video and simultaneously take in a documentary that makes us experts on food, 9/11, dolphin murder, or you know, whatever). Interestingly, he claims to be quite concerned about animal and environmental advocacy. Bader has drafted wall texts that utilize a particular vagueness that asks its viewers to care...but not too much, just care enough but not so much that it is inconvenient because you don’t have time for this shit. The subtle plays in the language of the text turn viewers into somewhat unwitting performers. In the end, Bader’s performative installations (sculptures? Art? whatevs) play a game of back and forth prioritizing activism and advocacy but simultaneously suggesting or, more so, underscoring apathy.
These ‘definitions’ are not intended as gospel, instead they should function as a proposition towards more clarity. By excavating a series of words that are in high circulation with little explanation (aside from a weird attitude that suggest implicit meanings), we can possibly find more categories in what are currently obscurities.
* Iverson was known as ‘The Answer’. He was a dynamic point guard with violent tendencies. He has a rap album that I believe is (regrettably) still unreleased due to reprehensible content.
** One could most certainly say that, without the overt display and consequent validation of a gallery space, Althoff does not have a performing practice as such. Here, that point is moot but we can think about it, no big whoop.