When an Immovable Object Meets an Unstoppable Force

Carsten Höller’s slide at the New Museum (image via Gothamist)

On Sunday, my Hyperallergic Weekend colleague Claudia La Rocco published a piece in The New York Times titled “Museum Shows With Moving Parts,” which explored the expanding presence of dance in museum settings:

In recent years the form has become a high-profile fixture in museums, galleries and international exhibitions. What at first seemed like a run-of-the-mill trend has developed into a thoughtful integration. In New York, visual arts curators are increasingly scouting contemporary theaters; museums are examining how to collect ephemeral work and strengthen their performance departments. […] And performance series are being incorporated into historical surveys.

The article goes on to describe the factors contributing to this development, including the longstanding interaction of dance and visual art, which has been especially rich since the advent of Modernism — most notably with the impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, who brought together the choreography of Léonide Massine, the designs of Pablo Picasso, the music of Eric Satie and a scenario by Jean Cocteau for the landmark ballet, Parade.

And then there is Performance Art, with its aesthetic underpinnings in the Dadaist Café Voltaire and early art/theater hybrids like Wassily Kandinsky’s Yellow Sound. Long the antithesis of the object-based curatorial mindset, Performance Art ironically became a museum sensation with the blockbuster Marina Abramović retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010.

To our tally of moving parts, we can also add the omnipresence of film and video in museums, alternative spaces and commercial galleries, as well as the Relational Aesthetics of practitioners like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tino Sehgal and Carsten Höller, whose 2011 solo turn at the New Museum required visitors to drop their stance as observers and become active participants (wearing upside-down glasses, whizzing through the building in a tube, floating naked in an isolation chamber) in order to fully apprehend the art.

There are dissenters to the idea of museums extending their reach to include a deliberately ephemeral form like Performance Art. The steps necessary to preserve it and present it to the public (documentation in the form of text, photographs, film and video, or outright re-creation) are worlds away from the original experience.

Such institutional involvement, however, is a reflection of the prevailing philosophical and political contexts behind the renewed vigor with which artists are currently exploring the immaterial.

As La Rocco points out, theories like Relational Aesthetics connect “the rise of live art with the shift from an industrial economy (in which objects are privileged) to one centered around interaction and experience.”

We cannot escape our political and economic moment, as much as we would like to, especially now with the presidential election pealing into overdrive. Tim Griffin, executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen, tells La Rocco:

We’re reaching a moment that is a good decade in development, if not more […] People who are making work, regardless of their discipline, want to be in culture as it exists, responding to changing conditions. And, on the other hand, no doubt there is an appeal to interactivity. It’s more attractive to audiences on some level.

Motion has permeated anything it can be injected into, from billboards to Internet ads. It’s fun and it’s irritating, a seduction and a distraction. It is also, as Griffin suggests, a self-evident wellspring of creativity: culture is as inescapable — high, low, middlebrow, commercial and pop — as politics and economics, and artists respond to what is in the air, especially if it’s flickering.

The problem with art objects, as it were, is that they just hang on the wall or sit on a pedestal or floor. Still they persist despite the multiple attempts over the past half-century to dematerialize them. Is it possible that the onslaught of moving images and living humans across their habitat will at last sideline their significance?

The article quotes Jenny Schlenzka, an associate curator at MoMA PS1, as flatly declaring, “The exhibition is in a crisis”:

The object that doesn’t move, in a show for three months, in a white cube: that format is also 150 years old, and it doesn’t really work anymore. The magic got lost. That’s why we as curators look to performance.

That’s a pretty harsh assessment — especially coming from someone who helped organize one of the most enthralling exhibitions in recent memory, Into Me / Out of Me at MoMA PS1 (2006). That show, albeit video-heavy and pivoting on the use of the body, often the artist’s body, as a means of expression, deftly played projections, monitors, discrete objects and installations off one another as a sequence of emotionally immersive experiences.

Installation view, “Into Me / Out of Me,” June 25–September 25, 2006, at MoMA PS1 (photo by Matthew Septimus, courtesy MoMA PS1)

Schlenzka also received a Yoko Ono Courage in the Arts Award this year for her role in reviving a performance piece (first presented at Documenta 12, 2007) for the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with Performa 11, Combatant Status Review Tribunals, pp. 002954–003064: A Public Reading. For the four-hour reading, performers took various roles to reenact a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal, using the proceedings’ unedited transcripts as a script.

Although I was initially put off by Schlenzka’s suggestion that exhibitions devoted to the “object that doesn’t move” are obsolete, it is more productive to think of it as coming from a well-considered place. In that way, it is similar to the notorious remark made by composer Pierre Boulez in his youth that the best thing to do with an opera house is to burn it down.

Boulez, of course, went on to conduct transcendent performances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Wagner’s Parsifal, as well as the transformational 1976-1980 Bayreuth Festival Der Ring des Nibelungen under the direction of theatrical enfant terrible Patrice Chéreau.

Boulez’s point, of course, was that operatic practice had become ossified, and if it were to regain cultural consequence, it needed to be shaken to its core.

Has the ground been moving under visual art’s feet to such an extent that it needs an overhaul to recover the magic that Schlenzka contends has been lost? Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg takes a less confrontational tack, though he seems to be thinking along the same lines. He tells La Rocco:

Performing arts raise such profound questions about what we in the visual arts are doing […] So what are the boundaries, if any? What is the role for museums in general, and what is the role for the Whitney particularly? It’s thrilling.

The essence of human interaction is double-edged, offering both communion and risk. We desire contact but fear unpredictability. To encounter a performance in a place ordinarily devoted to objects parceled out for display is at once bracing and threatening.

It may seem axiomatic that action-based art and object-based art are at cross-purposes. One engages us with the speed of life, highlighting the blurred succession of a vanishing past, fleeting present and variable future; the other banks on timelessness, inviting a quiet contemplation informed by a constancy ranging beyond the borders of our own birth and death.

However, they can also be seen as complementary, elucidating each other’s strengths and contradictions. What are their formal properties if not containers: one determined by the materials employed by the artist, and the other imposed by the chance circumstances of time and place?

And what are containers if not circumscribed modes of experience, concentrations of ideas that are internally directed in the case of objects, and externally directed in the case of actions?

We would seem to be at a moment in which externally directed ideas, which are much better suited to social, political and confrontational art, have seized the imagination of the creative and curatorial classes. And these ideas carry a good deal less baggage; their boundaries — as Adam Weinberg suggests — are far more fluid between dance and theater, theater and performance, art and not-art.

Sarah Maxfield, who is identified by La Rocco as “a dance and theater artist and performance curator,” sums it up neatly in a statement in which she expresses her concern that museum professionals tend to frame performance “in terms of visual art. And visual art is so much better at codifying its history.”

While I disagree with Schlenzka’s judgment that exhibitions have lost their magic, it is worth speculating whether the codification of contemporary art, which can sometimes feel as instantaneous as microwaved popcorn, has contributed to a blinkered vision of where it can go and what it can be.

In this regard, the rattling of museum walls by dance and performance is a course correction, a realignment of the membrane between art and life.

A perfect balance of the two modes — object and action — would witness a continual interplay of selection and expansion: a blowing-apart of old forms by the ceaseless surge of events, and the winnowing of experience through a renewed and rigorous formal structure. But nothing’s ever perfect.

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