The Performance Anxiety series, curated by Ventiko, stages a monthly performance buffet on the Lower East Side. From what I saw, the artists exploit the unique potential of performance art that is its dangerous immediacy. Someone you don’t know is present in front of you with more potential to break social codes than the other bodies typically encountered. You don’t know what that body will do to her- or himself, to you, or to the person next to you. There doesn’t seem to be a script. This implicit danger is what makes performance art audiences different from other art audiences: they genuinely like and seek out the frisson of risk. It’s the audience that is often anxious, not the performers. The lineup of performances I observed took place at Gallery Sensei on the Bowery on May 6. Six artists were featured and the work generally broke down into two camps: the first, and most riveting were the performers who played with the explicit threat of harm or demolition. The other artists were less interesting in their concern with enacting a ritual, or creating an experience of contemplative readiness. The former group made me appreciate what this work can do.
The evening really kicked off when Geraldo Mercado began running from one end of the gallery to the other, barely stopping himself in time to avoid defenestrating himself, or running into audience members. Then he started disrobing. He got down to a white tee, and his underpants with a band spelling out (ironically?) “protect this house.” He kept saying, “It’s going to be okay,” after almost every action, making eye contact with us in the audience. At some point I keenly felt it wasn’t going to be. I got more tense when Mercado took several big bites out of a large white onion, chasing it down with a can of beer. Eventually he puked some of that back up into a clear bowl with the help of his two fingers down his throat. He then scooped up red and black paint with his mouth to spew onto a canvas beneath him, which he later hand signed with a flourish. Long after I thought about how that mantra of “it’s going to be okay” has become an empty signature line in moments when I’m trying to be soothing.
Ayana Evans, who is the artist I had originally gone to see, also conveyed a sense of bodily risk, though she did so with a gesture towards the codes that govern femininity. She started out in full makeup, ankle-length blue dress and heels and proceeded to do chair dips all over the gallery space, eventually moving outside with her chair to do them in the street, in traffic at the nearest intersection. Evans’ performance is clearly about physical labor, and specifically about women’s work, the labor that they do to maintain a hold on an idealized notion of womanhood, particularly while enduring the duress of stressful tasks. Yes, it’s work that can stop traffic, but it’s also work that takes its toll on that body when the audience’s gaze shifts to something else.
The wildest action came with Myk Henry’s piece, which consisted of him setting out a variety of items on a long canvas sheet: an apple, an old saber, a bottle of wine, pantyhose, a clear bowl, etc. He posted signs asking us to text him instructions on what to do with the props. Audience members participated. Soon the apple was sawed in two, Henry was wearing the pantyhose and the wine bottle was shattered by the saber, which is the only moment when Ventiko seemed to be genuinely concerned that things were cycling out of control.
The rest of the performers, Angeli, Sindy Butz, and Nyugen Smith, presented work that mostly evoked ceremony. Butz staged a mock funeral where she handed out red roses and black umbrellas in order to mourn the passing of several freedoms including “academic freedom” and “freedom of thought.” Their pieces all felt slightly more focused on creating provocative visual tableaux vivants and less on finding the possibility of what the body might do in the moment no one who is watching will have an answer for. For those interested in experiencing that, this series is worth keeping an eye on.
Performance Anxiety is an ongoing series of performances curated by Ventiko and staged at venues on the Lower East Side.