We’re approaching a pivotal point in the progress of performance art in which the once rogue medium is becoming canonized, institutionalized, and historicized. If the epic Marina Abramović retrospective at MoMA, The Artist is Present, wasn’t enough to convince you that the early group of performance artists are becoming anointed saints, the recent retrospective at Galerie Lelong of the late Ana Mendieta is another step forward. Yet the two exhibitions present parallel methods of exhibiting historical performance art, the first focused on recreating performances, the second on exhibiting artifacts. I see the latter Mendieta exhibition, Documentation and Artwork, 1972 – 1985, as the far more successful.
Where the much talked about Abramović exhibition made attempts to “restage” iconic performances that the artist completed in the past decades, the Mendieta exhibition takes a more documentary approach: the exhibition is made up of performance maquettes, photos and relics from the artist’s life and output. From snapshots taken by friends to more artistically controlled documentary photographs and videos shown on small, old TV monitors, the completed performances exist entirely in their artifacts. And the artifacts are extremely powerful, evocative objects. Such is the case with the artist’s “People Looking at Blood, Moffit, Iowa” (1973) photographs and video of pedestrians walking by an installation in which blood and dismembered organs drip from a stoop onto a square of sidewalk.
The photo snapshots and documentation of “People Looking at Blood” are striking in a way that a gallery recreation could never be. The original context, the street in the 1970s, is lost, so why bother attempting to recreate a performance with the same stage presence in gallery space resolutely devoid of emotional meaning? The magic exists in the real objects, the real documentation in a way that it doesn’t at all in the re-staged performances of Abramović’s MoMA retrospective. Yes, Abramović’s actors are performing an intensive, rigorous act by having their hair tied together or perching on a crucifix-evoking bicycle seat, but in the end these stagings largely came off with an air of carnival sideshow, a quality induced by the re-stagings’ own spectacle: we are allowed to re-consume these historical performances as titillating “shows” rather than harrowing works of art. It’s all about the context, or lack thereof.
Isn’t the rule in art that once someone’s thought of it, you can’t do it again? Or at least have to do it differently? Abramović’s actor-minions weren’t different enough; in the end they paled against the presence of the artist’s own artifacts and videos. The Mendieta exhibition, on the other hand, is content to give us the real relics and leave it at that, exhibition as reliquary instead of your dad dressed as Santa coming down the chimney.
Ana Mendieta’s Documentation and Artwork, 1972 – 1985 ran at Galerie Lelong from October 28 to December 11, 2010.