Manhattan's Rituals: The Afterlives of Objects, Events and Performances

posted on 21 Feb 2014 22:19 by Hanna Hoelling
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Beyond the Object Principle: Object – Event – Performance – Process is a new Mellon curriculum course taught by Hanna Hölling within the interdisciplinary research project Cultures of Conservation at the Bard Graduate Center. During this course, students are offered an opportunity of a closer examination of objects, performances and events created in the spirit of Fluxus and Happening of the 1960s and 1970s and their aftermath.

Whereas the theme of the last semester’s course (Cultures of Conservation: From Objects to Subjects – On Sites, Rites, and Paradigms) was directly linked with the question of what conservation is in relation to its practices, cultures (East-West), individual and personal perspectives and materials, this semester’s course radicalizes the notion of conservation by asking whether it is still sustainable in the face of living and life art, intermedia, performance and event. Can the term that served the practices centered around a physical, evidential object retain its validity when it comes to a more recent, ephemeral, artistic production? How to “conserve”, then, aesthetic experience? What role does an archive, documentation, oral tradition and embodied knowledge play in the construction of identity of these works? Engaging with post-Cagean aesthetics, the course takes on the ideas of afterlives of a significant portion of a recent artistic heritage that seems to escape the common sense understanding of a physical artefact to be continued or preserved.

During one of the class visits to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the students were encouraged to reflect on the ideas of performance manifold afterlives — residues, documentation, props and left overs.

Linden Hill, M.A. student and Beyond the Object Principle class member, offers a fascinating insight into her experience of the visit:

Conveniently coordinated with the beginning of our semester, the Whitney Museum’s Rituals of Rented Island: Object, Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama - Manhattan, 1970-1980 explored the vibrant performance art scene that flooded this city only a few decades ago. The artists covered in the exhibit took multidisciplinary approaches to create radical and thought-provoking works that challenged traditional artistic boundaries. Without artistic “rules” or conventions to break, any medium could constitute art, any location could be a performance space, and nothing was off-limits. While it was certainly exciting to see these types of ephemeral works presented in a museum setting, the exhibit simultaneously raised a number of questions related to the conservation and continuation of performance art.

What survives from a performance that is, by nature, fleeting and evanescent? The curators certainly did not have a drought of material; in addition to photographs and film footage, the exhibit included costumes, set pieces, programs, artists’ notes, and other “leftovers” from performances. Being able to closely examine a diverse array of materials added a new dimension to my understanding of these works. Although it is impossible to completely recreate the performance as it was originally conceived, these materials potentially offered information that wouldn’t have been readily accessible during the original performance, such as the artist’s score or notes.

One piece included in the exhibit was Laurie Anderson’s Duets on Ice (1974-75). In both New York City and Genoa, Italy, Anderson put a speaker inside her violin, which played a pre-recorded loop of music while she simultaneously played her violin live. Meanwhile, she wore ice skates with the blades frozen to blocks of ice; when the ice melted, Anderson would stumble and fall. The show was over. Although Anderson, unlike many of the other artists represented, has obviously gone on to achieve celebrity status in the music and performance worlds, the curators (thankfully) did not give her disproportionate fanfare; in fact, Duets on Ice was reduced to a slideshow of black and white photographs. Is this representation still a meaningful presentation of Anderson’s work? Can contemporary audiences still grasp the essence of the piece? In the actual event, Anderson dissolved the distance between the work and the spectator by interacting with the audience; I am not even sure that the piece would have existed without the active participation of the spectators, who happened to pass by Anderson while she played her violin. Some of the piece’s meaning, therefore, came from how the spectators spontaneously reacted to Anderson. The photographs did not capture this reaction; an oral history or accounts from people who witnessed the work could have been useful. Additionally, there was no sound element. I would have liked to hear the song Anderson played during Duets on Ice. I imagined that the pre-recorded violin played one song, while Anderson played something dramatically different, but that is purely speculative. Many works in the exhibit included sound or video recordings; were those really not available for Duets on Ice? I was personally unable to fully appreciate the work with so many holes in the presentation, yet I was glad to learn about this aspect of Anderson’s early performance career.

From the performances of Yvonne Rainer to Stuart Sherman and everything in between, Rituals of Rented Island offered viewers a multi-sensory experience, with no two works exhibited in the same manner. Although I felt that the exhibit was a little disjointed and lacking a clear structure, it undoubtedly raised important questions about the documentation of temporal art. How can we commemorate these important, yet inherently fleeting, works? Is it counterintuitive to put these pieces, many of which were anti-institutional, into a museum setting? The largest takeaway is that the exhibited pieces certainly have not lost relevance forty years after their creation; yet, they do need to be more thoroughly discussed, perhaps with a new conservation vocabulary, in order to ensure their continuing legacy.

Interestingly, not only does the Whitney Museum exhibit works of past performance art, but it also has made an effort to present the works of contemporary performance artists. The same day I visited Rituals of Rented Island, I saw choreographer Sarah Michelson’s 4 (which was completely independent of Ritual of Rented Island) performed on the luminous fourth floor of the museum. This performance wasn’t Michelson’s first premiere at the Whitney; her Devotion Study #1 - The American Dancer won the 2012 Bucksbaum Award at the Whitney Biennial. Like many of the works in Rituals of Rented Island, Michelson’s piece defied clear-cut artistic boundaries; while it certainly had dance, theatrical, musical, and audio/visual elements, it did not fall into one distinct category.

Will 4 ever make it into a museum exhibition? I will be curious to see how the Whitney archives and documents this work as well as the other new pieces they present in their performance platforms. Perhaps the simultaneous efforts of presenting older and newer works will help the Whitney curators devise the most effective ways to conserve and exhibit performance art, which is often excluded from the larger art historical narrative. Although it had its flaws, Rituals of Rented Island was a step in the right direction toward integrating performance art and the museum by allowing for new dialogue concerning conservation practices of performance art, which will hopefully lead to further exploration of these topics.

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