Performance art doesn’t have to be so heavy. It can be light, like diving head-first into the trash, in Tamar Ettun’s case. Some write off whimsy in art as juvenile shenanigans; others counter that it offers a precious release from the day’s stresses, empowering you to face tomorrow’s bullshit with renewed vim and vigor. The pro-folly crowd won big last Wednesday, turning Madison Square Park upside-down with performances both droll and quizzical.
The evening’s title, “The Last Days of Folly,” has many layers to it. To start with the most obvious: the lazy days of summer are ending and the hustle and bustle of fall are revving up. The event also commemorated the last days of Rachel Feinstein’s exhibition Folly, which put three sculptural reliefs that look like architectural installations — a Rococo mini-palace, a house on a cliff, and a sailing ship — into Madison Square Park.
“Folly” is also the term for a frivolous structure in an aristocratic garden, like a faux Temple of Diana that you can’t actually enter. Its raison d’être is to be seen in the distance from a relaxed viewpoint, giving the eye an aesthetic treat as it takes in the surrounding landscape. In keeping with that tradition, Feinstein’s three architectural creations could not be entered by visitors or performers. Instead, they added a splash of scenery to the park all summer and served as backdrops and set pieces that enhanced the performances on September 3.
For example, when Lil Buck brought the jookin style of street dancing to the stage, there was a marvelous interplay between his black-and-white checkered shirt and the strident black outlines of Feinstein’s “Cliff House” (2014) behind him. The jagged lines and twisted angles of his body mirrored the cliff’s sharp edges. At the same time, jookin is smoother than flexing or break dancing, and this smoothness found an echo in the folly’s white surfaces. “Cliff House” and Lil Buck’s performance spoke to each other visually.
Allison Brainard and Cara Chan’s troupe of dancers also took center stage in front of “Cliff House,” amid gallivanting through the park all night. When one dancer reached up to the sky, her arms reflected the swaying tree branches atop Feinstein’s piece (and the real trees, in the background). The bright red of her costume looked brighter and more vivid against Feinstein’s black and white. Strong visuals like these often give performance art the ethereal edge we crave.
Six ballerinas from the Joffrey Ballet School had a similarly formal effect. The young women danced to one of Claude Debussy’s “Arabesque” pieces (1888–91), with choreography by Sofia Coppola in collaboration with Jo Matos and Irene Hogarth-Cimino from the Joffrey Ballet School. The dancers’ linking arms and careful leg placements created triangles of negative space, which mirrored the many triangular forms in the cliff, house, and tree branches beside them. In traditional Islamic art, an arabesque is a rhythmic interlocking pattern that often features triangular forms, among other motifs. This piece felt like a living, moving arabesque.
Other artists activated Feinstein’s “Rococo Hut” (2014), including Molly Lowe and her performance of a pile of bodies “engaging” with each other. The piece looked like a version of a famous Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of shrouded lesbian sex in Mexico City (which is on view now at the photographer’s big retrospective in Paris). The round and curvy forms of the bodies looked extra voluptuous against the hut behind them, and the peach costume skin stood out in the green grass. These visual counterpoints made Lowe’s performance delightfully more base and bizarre.
Away from the follies, Cynthia Rowley played a human fountain. Casting sassy glances at passersby, she tested all the different ways she could direct the water’s trajectory, as if the streams were sculpture. “Tableau vivant” is the term for living statutes — when a performer is mostly stationary in a piece. With “l’eau” being the French word for “water,” Rowley made her title an irresistible pun, “Tab ‘l’eau’ Vivant.”
Were there deeper messages in these works, beyond the let-your-hair-down-and-revel release? It’s hard to answer, but there did seem to be some bite hidden under all the folly. Tamar Ettun’s “It’s Not A Question of Anxiety” made me wonder if my mind was in the trash. At first the piece struck me as a slightly absurd prank, but as I sat with it I thought of Buddha’s proverb: “It is a man’s own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways.” That was followed by Lao Tzu: “If you correct your mind, the rest of life will fall into place.” Whether your head is in the trash is something only you can answer. But performance art can be richer when you approach unpacking its meaning as you would a zen riddle: it’s a mirror. How you try to solve it tells you about yourself.
Was Cynthia Rowley’s isolation about tantalizing us with her unavailability like Aphrodite floating on the foam? Is Lil Buck’s dance style about finding the smoothness amid the jaggedness life throws at us? Were Allison Brainard and Cara Chan asking us to see the wisdom in jubilation that so many adults forsake? It’s up to you whether you see just folly or veiled riddles about the human condition. I had it both ways. An overactive imagination has always served me well when viewing art.
As dusk fell, a haunting Tony Oursler video was overlaid on the sails of Feinstein’s third and smallest piece, “Flying Ship” (2014). The projection featured a woman’s face with wide open eyes and mouth. Was this a siren leading the ship in the trees astray? For all the love that folly deserves, the video seemed like a reminder that too much of it can lead you off course and wreck your ship — an intrepid warning as the audience left the park to partake in whatever else exciting and dangerous things come with another night in New York.
“The Last Days of Folly” took place on September 3, 5:30–8:30pm, in Madison Square Park (Flatiron District, Manhattan).