by Katie Kitamura
[Once left behind by the competitive market, live art is now everywhere—thanks in large part to its staunchest advocate, RoseLee Goldberg. In November 2013, I posted a two-part article on ROT on the history of performance art (followed by an archival review of some of the work of performance artist Penny Arcade). I little less than a year later, Katie Kitamura, a critic and novelist, published this article under “Art Matters” in T: The New York Times Style Magazine on 15 June 2014. It looks like a good continuation of the history post I published on 7 and 10 November 2013.]
I was standing in Marian Goodman Gallery’s booth at the Frieze Art Fair last year when a young girl in jeans and a T-shirt asked me whether I’d rather feel too busy or not busy enough. Nonplused, I said that on the whole, I’d rather be too busy, and she asked me why. I said that I didn’t know, maybe because it made me feel important. She considered this for a moment, then recited a passage by Heidegger.
By then, I knew that this – the girl, my nervous response, the entire situation – was part of a performance by the British-German artist Tino Sehgal. I asked her to repeat the Heidegger quote, as it was a lot to take in. This caused some tittering among the growing crowd, which felt a bit mean-spirited (she was a real child, after all). But the girl complied with my request, then turned and glided away. A moment later, she was replaced by another girl, who approached a different adult and asked him whether he’d rather feel too busy or not busy enough. When I left, there was already a line to the booth. By the end of the day, it snaked around the corner.
Historically the most anti-commercial of art forms, performance is now a fixture at art fairs, the organizers of which have found that live art adds a sense of occasion to the experience of shopping in a hangar. For Art Basel this month, Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist have invited Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst, Yoko Ono, Sehgal and others to “activate a room” for an exhibition of artworks whose ” ‘material’ is the human being.” Elsewhere, live artists are being picked for prizes – Tris Vonna-Michell, who specializes in monologues and presentations, is one of the four Turner Prize nominees this year – and structures are being erected to accommodate the form. The Tanks at Tate Modern are cavernous spaces, and the new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art, opening next year in New York’s meatpacking district, will house a theater. Most symbolic, perhaps, is MoMA’s controversial expansion plan to replace the Folk Art Museum with a building designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, which includes a proposed ground-floor “art bay” for performances.
“Is performance back again?” asked RoseLee Goldberg, the author of what remains the definitive tome on the form, “Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present,” first published in 1979. We were sitting in the study of Goldberg’s Manhattan home, the walls lined with artists’ monographs, where she lives with her husband, the furniture designer Dakota Jackson. “Well, it never really went away.” Goldberg, who grew up in South Africa and came to New York in 1975 by way of the Courtauld Institute in London, has arguably contributed more to the revival of performance art than any other individual. As the curator of the New York experimental performance art venue the Kitchen during the late 1970s, she was in the thick of the scene, hosting artists such as Laurie Anderson, Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo, with whom she would debate the meaning of art in relation to popular culture, punk music and film, before heading to music venues such as CBGB or the Mudd Club. Ten years ago, she founded Performa, a New York biennial for live art that has influenced the practices of curators and museums worldwide.
According to Goldberg, live art is critical to any deep understanding of art history but has spent centuries “hiding in plain sight,” going by other names. (To her mind Leonardo Da Vinci, Jackson Pollock and Cindy Sherman are all performance artists of one kind or another.) By most accounts, however, performance art, which has its origins in Futurism and Dada in the early 20th century, was first recognized as the most radical of art forms in the 1960s and 1970s, with the bold, confrontational performances of artists such as Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys and Carolee Scheemann. Ridding themselves of “the art object,” the artifact that was bought and sold in the gallery, these artists bled, masturbated, got naked, danced and shouted their way through a series of actions that were politically charged and defiantly ephemeral. Goldberg, who wants to steer the conversation away from the enduring stereotypes of early performance, prefers to focus on the medium as the “avant avant-garde,” a form through which artists have always broken barriers between “high” and “low,” tried out new technologies and pushed political boundaries.
Performance art’s best evangelist, Goldberg feels that live art has a new relevance to our culture, being well-matched to the anecdote-seeking Twitter generation, and offering the promise of intimate contact, an antidote to our atomized lives and fragmented concentration spans. “In this multitasking, multimedia world, performance allows for a lot of layering of ideas,” Goldberg said, referring to performances that incorporate various media, such as “True Love Is Yet to Come” by the artist Jesper Just, in which an older actor performed alongside a hologram of a younger man. “That’s why I believe performance is going to be so huge in the coming decades.” Live installations such as Abramovic’s at MoMA or Sehgal’s at the Guggenheim have already fundamentally changed art institutions. “In the old days,” Goldberg said, “you would go to a museum and drop your voice and speak like you were in a library.” Today, large open spaces encourage congregation and participation.
But when Goldberg founded the festival in 2004, the medium was in a rut. “It was repeating itself,” she said. “Performance was starting to feel quaint.” The New York art scene had become depoliticized and overly preoccupied with the market; commercial galleries were reluctant to invest in art that couldn’t easily be sold, for which often the only proof of purchase was a catalogue or grainy video. Performance art seemed an awkward relic of the ’70s, the easy butt of jokes. (“How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Lynne Tillman writes in her novel “No Lease on Life.” The answer: “I don’t know. I left early.”)
Goldberg is a slender, charismatic woman, who has, she told me, excised the words “challenge” and “failure” from her vocabulary – evidence of the kind of steely optimism necessary to starting a “world-class biennial from scratch, with no money, in six months.” One of her triumphs has been to show museums how to turn the impracticality of live art – its risk and unpredictability, its impermanence, even its unwieldy expense – into a selling point. Every other November, Performa has sent art folk scurrying across Manhattan to attend events as diverse as a hula-hooping session on the rooftops of Chinatown (Christian Jankowski), a reenactment of dance clips gleaned from YouTube (Ryan McNamara) or a reading of a Pirandello play by Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman (Francesco Vezzoli). After Performa, performance art was suddenly unmissable, precisely because it was so easy to miss. As Holland Cotter put it, the festival was “a paean to you-had-to-be-there.”
Performa has restaged historical performances – such as Allan Kaprow’s “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” (1959) – and brought existing ones to New York, but Goldberg’s canniest move has been to commission new works herself – ambitious, edgy, big-budget (they are mostly funded by foundations and private donors). She wants to create what she calls “museum-worthy” work, and her attention to the most old-fashioned of artistic tenets, beauty, has produced a series of lush, visually intense commissions by artists such as Elmgreen & Dragset, Florian Hecker and Isaac Julien, many of which have been shown in museums. “I can only describe it as desire,” she said about her approach to commissioning. “It’s a feeling of – please, make this happen for me, because I want to be knocked out.”
Nowadays, “performance artists” are less common than “artists who work in performance,” a distinction that means new blood is constantly being pumped into the form, the parameters of which have expanded to include multimedia, lectures and social interactions (known in art-speak as “relational aesthetics,” of which Sehgal’s work is an example). But live art’s sudden popularity comes with its own growing pains. In a promotional video for the proposed Marina Abramovic Institute in upstate New York, Lady Gaga can be seen practicing the “Abramovic Method,” prancing nude through the woods and reclining on a bed of crystals. Last year, Jay Z released a music video, “Picasso Baby: a Performance Art Film,” inspired by Abramovic’s MoMA performance “The Artist Is Present.” Featuring art-world notables such as George Condo, Lawrence Weiner and the Performa alums Wangechi Mutu, Rashid Johnson, Abramovic and Goldberg, in addition to members of the “Girls” cast, Judd Apatow, Jenna Lyons and Jim Jarmusch, the video begins with Jay Z declaring, “Concerts are pretty much performance art with the venues changed” – a position the more political artists who started out in the 1970s would seem unlikely to share. The video caused one critic to call it “the day performance art died,” but Goldberg is sanguine about such developments, believing that Jay Z made an interesting statement about the form as it “steps over into the commercial world,” while not claiming to be a performance artist himself. As for her, she will always occupy “a quieter space.”
As Tino Sehgal’s performers asked visitors to the Guggenheim in 2010, “What is progress?” Goldberg speaks of the need to keep asking questions – about how to nurture, preserve, collect, exhibit and critique the most transient of art forms. Such issues might sound academic but, as performance goes mainstream, it will need voices like Goldberg’s more than ever. As I learned in 2011, the best works are rarely those that translate well into language (or a press release). “Bliss,” a performance by the rising Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, had a simple premise: A troupe of singers and musicians perform the concluding minutes of the final aria in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” again and again – for 12 hours. It was a work whose delirious effect I did not expect when I sat down, and which I would not have understood had I not stayed in that room for much longer than planned. The performance was in the middle of the day, and it was across town, and, if I had gone by description alone, I would almost certainly have said that I was too busy.
[Katie Kitamura has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Granta, Triple Canopy, Frieze. A recipient of a 2015 Lannan Residency Fellowship, she’s the author of The Longshot (Free Press, 2009) and Gone to the Forest (Free Press, 2012), both of which were finalists for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award.]