Well, it’s back and it’s big. A couple of years ago, New York’s Second Biennial of the performance arts, featured a hundred artists. Performa 09, which opens on November 1 with a Futurist dinner organized by Jennifer Rubell, will feature about 170 artists over its three-week run. “We have eleven commissions. We have forty curators, working on different parts of the show. We have many more venues. But it’s not just the festival, it’s what we’re producing,” says Performa’s director RoseLee Goldberg.
Many of the commissions allow the artists to break new ground. Candice Breitz will be performing live for the first time. Her piece involves four pairs of identical twins. Mike Kelley will be in the Judson Memorial Church. Arto Lindsay, the pied piper of New York’s sonic avant garde will be leading fifty performers through the streets using cellphones as musical instruments. Alterazioni Video, an Italian collective, and Ragnar Kjartansson, who performed at the Venice Biennale, will be unleashing a musical work dealing with “profound joy and despair,” apparently as it might be experienced via YouTube.
Arto Lindsay, “SOMEWHERE I READ,” a multidisciplinary procession featuring over 50 dancers and performers
Futurist Life Redux is a movie inspired by the long-lost Futurist movie and include work by such artists as Martha Colburn and Lynn Hershman Leeson. Lost Astronaut, a performance by Alcia Framis, may or may not make a case for a female presence on the moon. William Kentridge’s piece is called I Am Not Me, This Is Not My Horse and Joan Jonas will be there with the Reading Dante piece she presented at the Venice Biennale, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster and Ari Benjamin-Meyers are there with K62, which is based on Orson Welles’ movie version of Kafka’s Trial.
“We’re looking to create new work for the 21st century,” Goldberg says. “Totally creating new territory. And the way we are using the city is already revolutionizing things for people. I’m getting calls saying this is a totally new way to do a biennial. No one’s going to do the other way again.”
RoseLee Goldberg has earned bragging rights, I think.
It isn’t often that an individual can be said to have brought about a radical shift in our understanding of what actually happened in the art of our times. It can be said of Goldberg, who has spent almost thirty years establishing the centrality of performance art. And certainly Performa 9 would not be happening but for her sheer stubbornness.
Goldberg and I first met in London in the 70s, introduced, as I recall, by Carolee Schnemann, herself the creator of such feisty pieces as Meat Joy. Goldberg, a South African, was a graduate student at London’s Courtauld Institute, part of the generation that included the director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota. “I was a dancer and a painter. And I kept trying to figure out what was I going to do about this conflict?” she says.
This conflict was resolved when she went to a Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy.. It included material from Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballets, “I identified with Schlemmer immediately,” she says. “He talks endlessly in his diaries about being a dancer and a painter. And bringing those two things together.” In 1979, post-Courtauld, Goldberg published a book, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present. She had found her calling.
“My whole position as an art historian is to place performance at the center of 20th century art,” she says. “Malevich made his first white painting in 1913 as part of a performance. Artists have always made live performances. Go back to the Futurists, Duchamp, Dada.”
I sought contrary examples. What about the Abstract Expressionists?
“Absolutely! What’s the whole story with Jackson Pollock? People look on that as Performance.”
And their immediate successors?
“Where did Rauschenberg make his first white paintings? At Black Mountain College in a performance with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. He hung them on the ceiling and projected film onto them. So we are missing this entire piece of the story. Where did these ideas begin?
“You name all the artists that we think of as ground-breaking. Whether it’s Oldenberg, Beuys, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Cindy Sherman, Maurizio Cattelan, they all made performances. Pierre Huyghe tells me he only started making film because he wanted to film his performances.
‘The performance artist really, as far as I am concerned, doesn’t exist. I mean I know I wrote the book. But I used it as an umbrella term. It’s performance. But they are artists first of all. And they don’t work in just one discipline. It’s the critics who work in one discipline. Critics are stuck in this idea that, oh, there’s painting. Oh, there’s sculpture. Oh, there’s performance art. ”
“I just felt that this entire history has to be properly tackled. You can’t keep saying that performance is a sideshow. People are always saying, well, it’s ephemeral. That’s why we don’t know about it. I say, well, so was the battle of Waterloo. These things are ephemeral. But they change history. Let’s understand this whole thing.”
Goldberg believes that the conventional wisdom has been shaped by 60s and 70s performances which usually reflected the politics of protest. “It was orgiastic. It was sometimes very violent. People describe these gruesome things that they have seen,” she says.
“I often think of performance, in the old days anyway, as a breakthrough phase in an artist’s career. That’s when they discover new directions. But then at some point they have to make a living.” So Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Cindy Sherman, Maurizio Cattelan all switched to making objects or images.
Whether performance art has been as absolutely central across the board as Goldberg believes is another matter. I’m not convinced about Pollock. Yes, Pollock painted on glass for the photographer Hans Namuth, but this destroyed their relationship and it is widely believed that it was painting for the photographer that had nagged at him, robbing him of his spontaneity and ending the greatest phase in his career. Also performance might have been crucial to Rauschenberg. But Jasper Johns?
But the most unexpected artists can reveal an element of performance in their work. Damien Hirst has talked of “theatre.” Or Jeff Koons. And, by the way, there will be chocolate versions of Rabbit aka the Brancusi Bunny at Jennifer Rubell’ Futurist dinner. As a video at the Tate Modern’s Pop Life shows us a giant blow-up of Rabbit floated aloft during the 2005 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. And last year Rabbit, voiced by Kevin Spacey, trod the boards in Elmgreen & Dragset’s Drama Queens at the Old Vic.
So Goldberg’s case for the importance of performance to the art world seems unassailable. And its importance is increasing. “Performance moves on,” Goldberg says. “And I think there’s more of a need for it than ever now that we are in a total media society. We are so used to everything being so perfect.
“But with a live performance in the Performa mode, you are leaping into the unknown. There’s huge anticipation and a lot of anxiety. Because you don’t know if it’s going to work. It’s not entertainment. It’s experience.”
Various venues, New York