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Thursday 11.10.05

« Under Construction | Main | Teach Me Your Wildness »

Performance Art as Cover

This week at the Guggenheim, Marina Abromovic is re-enacting seminal performance pieces from the 1960s and 70s, including Vito Acconci's Seedbed, Valie Export's Action Pants: Genital Panic, Joseph Beuys' How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare and one of her own pieces from 1975, Lips of Thomas. As the project description states, "[This] project is premised on the fact that little documentation exists for most performances from this critical early period; one often has to rely upon testimonies from witnesses or photographs that show only portions of any given piece. Seven Easy Pieces examines the possibility of redoing and preserving an art form that is, by nature, ephemeral."

In Portland, we've witnessed two artists in the past 6 months who have employed the idea of performance art as cover. Brad Adkins revived a Francis Alys walking piece in conjunction with PICA's 10 year retrospective and, recently at Marylhurst, covered Michael Bowley's 1979 Walking in a Circle Until a Mark is Made. Last August, Harrell Fletcher gave a performance at the Aalto Lounge of Robert Smithson's slide lecture on the Hotel Palenque.

Fletcher's Palenque left me with some doubts (you can read my review here) - read in a "neutral" manner (meaning it was read quickly and without intonation), it wasn't attempting to recontextualize the piece as much as presenting it in a way so that the audience could draw their own conclusions about the piece. However, since the piece is heavily documented (a recording of Smithson delivering the lecture exists and has been displayed in major museums, plus a transcript of the piece has been published in Parkett), I left the performance feeling like I would have been better served drawing my own conclusions from Smithson's original sound recording while Fletcher ran the slide projector.

Do performances necessarily fail if they act as no more than a simple appropriation? Adkin's cover of Bowley's piece poses this problem - I haven't seen the piece and I probably don't need to. It's the kind of prototypical conceptual artwork that was going on in every media during the late 60s and early 70s by LeWitt in drawing, DeMaria in sculpture, Nauman in his videos documenting his simple experiments in performance. The title explains the full logical basis and outcome of the work - title is concept is artwork.

Adkins' cover of Alys was met with some degree of well-deserved skepticism in town (here and here in the comments). Devoid of the original political connotations at play in Alys version, it comes off as overly simplistic and serves as another one of Adkins' getting to know you type pieces.

Abromivic can get away with her re-enactments not only because of her own long history of performance, but because she strategically chooses her pieces - in her performance of Acconci's Seedbed, which will take place this evening, whatever political overtones are lost in recreating a work so entrenched in art history in the rotunda of the Guggenheim in 2005 will be re-gained by Abromivic's own legacy as performance artist as well as the fact that she is female. However, I doubt that anyone besides Abromovic could get away with re-enacting the self-flagellation of Lips of Thomas. And I'm not convinced that this type of performance hasn't already played itself out. There's a long history of performance works that were once radical simply because the artist was nude in a gallery and/or a radical feminist and/or engaged in extreme acts of self-deprivation and/or inflicting pain upon themselves in the process. But, can we (or do we even need to) continue beyond Abromovic and Burden in 2005?

While looking at the work of Laura Lima, who was part of Troca Brasil at PNCA, I came across a re-iteration of Yoko Ono's cut piece where Lima replaced the female performer with a goat. The work was a part of a series of historical performance pieces re-translated by younger contemoprary artists, curated by Jens Hoffman. They weren't simple re-enactments, but re-translations in which the original pieces served as a starting point for artists. In this way, these pieces could look to performance as a source, while acknowledging the history of performance art. It didn't force the relevance of these pieces in contemporary times, but rather grappled with contemporary implications of these pieces while knowing full well that they can't act as purely or politically in the same way as in the 60s and 70s.

Posted by Katherine Bovee on November 10, 2005 at 10:20 | Comments (4)


Re-staging, re-interpreting, reflecting, and referencing the works(and ideas) of others is how culture operates, right?

This is not a new idea. Picasso, Duchamp, Warhol, Schnabel, Bidlo, Levine, Lawler, Basquiat, Prince, Nauman, McCarthy, Koons, Baldessari, Mike Brophy, Jay Backstrand, Ehlis, Ryan McGinnis, and many many others have either borrowed, stolen, parodied, or paid tribute to another person's work.

An important thing to consider (once one gets over the expectation of seeing something that has never happened before) is whether or not the "new" thing has an "aura" of it's own.

From where I stand, skepticism is pretty good position to take when considering any art work.

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 10, 2005 04:03 PM

A couple of things. The document is not the performance. Nor is the instruction the performance. So I would argue that watching "Zyklus" being performed (a FLUXUS piece by Tomas Schmit in which water is poured from vessel to vessel in a ring until all of the water is spilled or evaporated) is different than reading the instruction. It would also be different and more valuable than watching a document of the performance, e.g. a film.

A couple of examples come to mind. One is a Toronto-based sound poet named Christian Bok who performs some early 20th century DADA sound poems alongside his own sound-poem compositions. Yes, I can hear recordings of the pieces on ubuweb.com, but there is something thrilling about seeing them performed right now rather than listening to my tinny PC speakers. Another example: local dancer Linda K. Johnson is one of the very few custodians permitted by the choreographer to perform Yvonne Rainer's Trio A. She has been entrusted to teach and perform the piece, to keep it alive and true to the choreographer's vision. This is admittedly at the opposite end of the spectrum from the open-source FLUXUS instructional pieces, but still qualifies, under your rubric, as a "cover."

I am aware that I am grouping together performances that fall outside of the art realm, but they have a commonality in that they are equally avant-garde, equally dated/done, and equally fresh right now as some of the FLUXUS pieces that Liminal brought to life with mixed success a few years back here.

I think the very most key point here Katherine, is how the piece is resurrected and for what purpose. I would argue that what Adkins is doing is the same as what Liminal (and Christian Bok and LKJ) is doing, bringing an historical work in an immediate way to a new audience. Abramovic's reenactments are more interesting for the reasons you've noted. It is important to note that she has been doing her own installations and performances for decades and that this, in some way, is a root-checking for her. And yes, this work does deserve the retrospective treatment, if only to get us talking about it again. What was it all about? What was the context? Is that work finished? Has the thread been fully explored? Redoing the Cut Piece with a goat just seems like an inside joke for art-worlders.

Posted by: radon [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 12, 2005 07:53 PM

All in the same week:

Listened to a recording of Elliott Smith performing "Thirteen" by Big Star.

Watched Walt Curtis read three poems by ee cummings.

Read the article in the NYT about Marina Abromovic "covering" early body/performance works.

Looked at magazine with reproductions of Richard Prince re-photographs.

Thought about a series of sculptures by Bertrand Lavier based upon "examples of modern art" as seen in Disney cartoons.

Looked at images on the web of Sherrie Levine's gold "After Duchamp Fountain"

Told a story to somebody else about how Mike Bidlo recreated Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace and the gesture of Pollock pissing in it.

Thought about Ed Harris as Pollock in the movie Pollock and the scene where he pisses in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace.


Looked at an elegantly framed photocopy of a piece by Mike Kelley by Stephen Cleary that reads "Now that this has been done it will never have to be done again."

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 13, 2005 11:52 AM

Yes, in some cases reenactment is a way to explore ones roots and Abromovic is certainly doing that. Yet it is undeniable that she will change "Seedbed" and the gender difference will definitely matter. It makes her re-enactment interesting. Whereas some reenactments strive for an arrested stage of development that is pretty easy to achieve and the lowering of the bar becomes the attraction. Just making something an inward meta spiral of references is a pretty easy rhetorical move. I doubt Abromovic will stoop to that, probably because she already has good ideas of her own, the power of the original isn't a crutch for that she needs to cling to for legitimacy.

In other cases like Adkins' Alys piece I think it failed on a number of levels... in particular it lacked Alys transgression. Instead, it was an all too obvious territorial pissing (yellow paint insead of blue) of an ambitious artist in an arts district meeting up with some art students to walk around and hang out/saunter. (I've yet to hear anyone defend this) The obvious ploy of ingratiation and passive aggression to the original piece made it grating and showed the artist out of his depth (his object based work succeeds much better).

Where Abromovic seems to be signaling new things Adkins seems to be practicing a kind passive aggressive immaturity that will be tolerated in Portland but wouldn't fly in a place like Mexico City or New York where the original piece and artist are very well known. He also seems to be Harrell Fletcher's shadow (at 1:00 PM) when it comes to public art. His circle reenactment seems valid, although not as rich as imagining the original or seeing David Eckard's Scribe performances.

As far as Smithson goes, his narrated slide lecture was a highlight of his recent retrospective because it was so evocative. In theory, when Fletcher removed evocation the performance could be construed as an empty ceremony. I didn't see that slide lecture but Fletcher's most successful piece by most accounts (and mine) is "Blot out the Sun", a video performance of Joyce's Ulysses. Its success probably gave birth to the slide lecture attempt.

By reenacting literature as a video performance (using non actors with little acting skill) the odd distance (and familiarity) of the Ulysses reenactment somehow made Joyce's famously inscrutable work somehow both more and less inscrutable. I think Fletcher was trying for the same thing with the sometimes inscrutable Smithson, but how could he hope go beyond Smithson's pythian delivery?

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 14, 2005 10:17 PM

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