March 23, 2010

Work or Recreation?

The discourse around “reperformance” is heating up again, partially because of the Museum of Modern Art’s current Marina Abramović show (The Artist Is Present) in which several of Marina’s seminal performance art pieces are recreated by other performers. Perhaps not coincidentally, MoMA has also been running a series of seminars and panels on performance art and how this once “uncategorizable” and often ephemeral art form can be ushered into the 21st Century. The most recent MoMA workshop drew a large crowd (including “old school” performance art luminaries Joan Jonas and Abramović, plus “youngsters” like Terence Koh, Tino Sehgal and Tehching Hsieh) and the sometimes heated interchange yielded some intriguing positions.

On the one hand, Abramovic, in partnership with curators Nancy Spector for 2005’s Seven Easy Pieces and currently working with MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, presents her case for the necessity of “reperformance” as a way of locking in its wavering and fragile position in art history. Given that most performances are governed by the twin components of time and space, their existence at best can be judged temporary. However, Abramović wants performance to be controlled by its practitioners and she feels that an artist’s performance can be sanctioned and “reperformed,” thereby attaining an archival relevance for institutional validation. This would be a way, as Marina put it, “to take charge of the history of performance” because if the original performance artists cannot control their work’s reception by the public other artists (presumably) may attempt unsanctioned performances. In any case, Abramović says we must do something because these (younger?) artists “will do it anyway when you’re dead behind your back.”(1)

My position on Abramović’s “reperformances” has been stated here before and I remain staunchly certain of the probability that we will soon be seeing numerous maligned “reperformances” as other artists muddle their way through sad, sloppy renditions of Chris Burden’s “Through the Night Softly” or poorly staged replications of Yves Klein’s anthropometries.”(2)

I tend to agree with Joan Jonas who was also vocal at MoMA’s workshop and said that “there’s never a way that you could repeat the original thing; it just can’t be done.” Her position gets to another heart of the performance art matter that performance is about the physical presence of a particular performer. As Chrissie Iles, curator at the Whitney Museum, said during the talk, “To my mind you can’t recreate performances that rely on the power of the presence of that artist.”

The difficult truth of this idea of “reperformance” begins to reveal itself as ultimately a debate over the commodity status of artwork. Performance has always been about a moment; an event that occurs within a specific space and time as presented by and through the physical body of the artist. Within the contemporary “tradition” of performance art (from the 1960’s to the present) there has been little to sell other than documentation (photographs, film or video) or residual artifacts (props, costuming or stages). The idea that younger artists like Sehgal could coax a museum into buying “editions” of their work is a relatively new tactic and one that bears watching.

In any case, the question about “reperformances” is whether they become “artworks” or mere recreations of the original and better versions. If performance art is codified around spatio-temporal concerns coupled with a particular artist’s presence then a later “recreation” in some other time and space, with all the political, social and philosophical permutations that other entails, is absolutely another “artwork,” entirely removed from the original sources, influences and putative meanings.

Thus, the only reason for a “reperformance” seems to be its possible marketability and this is troubling. To devalue the essence of this once uncategorizable, transgressive and empowering art form as more simulacra for the marketplace would be shameful. As true “recreation” it is easy to see that “reperformances” may seduce with the playful opportunity to revisit the past; a kind of intellectualized and self-regulated “slumming” in Bohemia. However, we should always remain aware that this “recreation” is not a “work” of art.

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1. This and subsequent quotes from the MoMA performance workshop were taken from Carol Kino’s New York Times article, “A Rebel Form Gains Favor. Fights Ensue.”

2. Burden was one artist who refused to have his previous performance art “reperformed” by Abramović for her Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum. It is hoped that Burden’s stance will inspire other performance artists to similar critical positions.

March 11, 2010

Watch The Paint!


A few weeks ago I gave a gallery talk at the Hirshhorn Museum on Allen Ruppersberg’s As the Crow Flies / How I Miss the Avant-garde. I hustled down to the Hirshhorn early because I wanted the chance to find out if Al’s piece could still be handled by the public. When originally shown at the 2008 Armory show, the piece, composed of several multi-colored, laminated posters with perforated holes along their top edge, was able to be handled by viewers and re-arranged on the wall-mounted L-hooks that accompany the piece.

The museum guard in the gallery wasn’t sure whether it could be handled since there was no text that explained that it could. I explained to him that it was originally intended to for public interaction. I then called Ryan Hill, the Hirsh’s curatorial research associate and witty Pop provocateur, and he clarified that Al’s piece was now installed according to the curators' decision and could not be handled.

When the audience for my talk arrived, Ryan and I engaged in a brief repartee about this initial interactive aspect of Al’s work and how it has now become part of the Hirshhorn’s collection and no longer available for the museum’s visitors to “re-hang.” I then suggested that we might consider this artwork analogous to a car that had been purchased: when an original owner puts a car on sale, he would allow people to give it a “test drive” to try it out. Now that the Hirshhorn has purchased the work, we can think of it as being “parked in their driveway.” They have the right, as new owners of the commodity, to effectively close-down that interactive component: it’s now “hands off” and “watch the paint!”

This situation poses interesting questions about those works in art history that were originally conceived to be touched, handled or manipulated by the viewer. In fact, some of these objects would not be fulfilling their manifest intention without being handled. For instance, Robert Morris’s 1962 Card File was conceived as a work that documents its own creation in the many notecards within the work. Without being able to read Morris’s various statements and thoughts that were involved in “making” his work, the viewer would not be able to fully understand the nature of the work.(1)

Al’s piece hangs in the Hirshhorn in a particular curatorial fashion that exhibits one dimension of the work. Composed of these posters with printed text (names of famous “avant-garde” artists with birth dates and dates of death, terse phrases about “me and you”) one of the ideas this work addresses is the vulnerability of meaning by allowing text to be partially masked by over-lapping and adjoining posters. This alteration of the potential meanings leaves this work in a potential state of “becoming” where the work has many installation possibilities.

I am struck by the sad fact that the conception of some artworks like Al’s exist temporarily whole, as the artist intended, up to that point when the artwork takes on its “valued” commodity status, especially in the sense of being in a museum collection. Obviously, if the work was bought by a private collector then that collector would have the right to interact and participate in the re-installation and re-arrangement of the posters.

Again, the car analogy is the only way to come to a compromise and conclusion to this dilemma by the fact that we consider that artworks are ultimately a commodity. Once purchased, whether by private collector or a museum, the artwork can be “parked” yet this may prove to negate or diminish these kinds of participatory, interactive artworks and keep them from achieving their potential goals.

[The Hirsh has a podcast of my gallery talk HERE.]

Image: As the Crow Flies / How I Miss the Avant-garde (2008); Ink on paper with laminate; dimensions variable; as installed: H22xW476 inches). © Copyright 2008 by Allen Ruppersberg; photograph courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

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1. We should not forget Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise or Franz West’s “adaptives” which were also meant to be shaken or handled, respectively.

March 5, 2010

Tempo Rubato


In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth, a number of CD’s came out this year, one of which I promptly ordered and am currently enjoying. A collection of previously unreleased recordings from 1959 and 1967, Argerich Plays Chopin spotlights the great Martha Argerich’s earliest recordings. Ranging from “Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23” (when Martha was 18-years-old) to a concert performance of “Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58” (at 25), these are rare glimpses of an impressively brilliant talent already in full-bloom; at 16 she had won both the Geneva International Music Competition and the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition..

Particularly impressive (or controversial depending on whose critique you prefer) is Martha’s use of tempo rubato, the slight tempo variances of a musical composition in the interpretation of a performer by shortening or lengthening a note here or there. Classical music is quite often played in rubato and not just Chopin but Liszt, Brahms, and many other compositions have been open to individual expressions of the performers.(1) As one music scholar noted:

“There is in music no absolute rate of movement. The tempo, as we usually call it, depends on physiological and physical conditions. It is influenced by interior or exterior temperature, by surroundings, instruments, acoustics. There is no absolute rhythm. In the course of the dramatic developments of a musical composition, the initial themes change their character, consequently rhythm changes also, and, in conformity with that character, it has to be energetic or languishing, crisp or elastic, steady or capricious. Rhythm is life.”(2)

This speaks to me of art, specifically an artist’s life as a “performance” throughout the span of his or her life. We have bursts of speed in our production and in our thought, possibly affected by youthful vigor or ambiance, and just as often we have durations where little to no work is actually made. This evidentiary development of our “production,” marked by peaks and valleys, plateaus of thought alternating with deserts of doubt, seems to be the nature of our journey as artists. We may each experience tempo rubato as artists and Martha playing Chopin provides an exquisite accompaniment.

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1. For an example of Martha's tempo rubato, listen to her playing of Nocturne No.16 In E Flat, Op.55 No.2.

2. Paderewski, Ignacy. “Tempo Rubato” in Success in Music and How it is Won (Henry T. Finck, ed.), New York, 1909/1927 [reprinted in Polish Music Journal.]