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This is the third part of the Sculpture is Dead series by John Powers of Star Wars Modern. There are four chapters in the series and this week Hyperallergic published the first part in three posts. They appeared on Monday, yesterday, and today.

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Left, Marina Abramović, “Holding Milk” (2009); right, Antony Gormley, “Domain LXIX” (2009) (click to enlarge)

One of the definitions given by the Oxford English Dictionary for sculpture is, “as a type of silence or absence of movement of feeling.” After 700 hours of sitting ‘still as a statue’ and silently engaging a series of 1400+ visitors at MoMA, Abramović has completed what is being hailed the longest work of performance art. Paradoxically, Abramović has engaged the phenomenological experience of Robert Morris’s engagement with dance. “The Artist is Present” and the other stock still performances recreated for the MoMA retrospective resemble what the historian Maurice Berger describes as, “the passive operational, and task orientated choreography” of the Judson Dance Theater. Berger explains:

Deconstructing the style, conventions, and aesthetics of Ballet and Modern Dance, these choreographers—who in addition to Morris, included Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer—advocated the elimination of narrative and the employment of everyday movements in their dances.

In the late spring of 2001, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project [SEE ENDNOTE] re-staged a series of Judson Group dances at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a show called “PAST Forward.” Baryshnikov described the performance as “an extraordinary investigation of pedestrian mentality.” I remember it as one of the best dance performances I have ever seen. Films of the original performances were projected above the stage, then they were faithfully re-staged, finally, the seven-person troupe would perform a variation. So for instance, David Gordon’s “The Chair” was first shown as a black and white film of a scruffy dancer in street cloths climbing, sitting and stepping on, folding and unfolding a standard metal folding chair. This was followed by Baryshnikov re-enacting the exact same movements with a very similar chair. This whole exercise was pretty boring to be honest, but then, without signaling that anything had changed, Baryshnikov switched it up and began to run through the entire piece, move for move, in reverse. That was followed by all of the troupe reenacting the dance precisely, move for move, but slightly out of sync. I was no longer bored. I was totally caught up in the weird symmetry of it.

Left, Gap’s “Khaki Swing” Ad (1998); right, Marina Abramović, “The Lips of Thomas” (1976)

That said, something was lost in the jump in scale between the intimacy of the first Judson performances and the monumental White Oak re-stagings. The original dancers were funky, mop-headed down-town types, pedestrian for their time. The White Oak dancers attempted a pedestrian look, however Baryshnikov and his troupe (even the slovenly Mark Morris) could not avoid looking extraordinary. The Gap had been running a series of ads directed by Mike Mills around that time of an all white sound stage filled with young people in Gap khakis swing dancing. The Khaki Swing were great ads. As I watched the White Oak performances, I remember thinking that they would make a fantastic Gap ad – Khaki Judson. (Perhaps the problem was the leap was not ambitious enough. It is possible the London Summer Olympics could be saved from themselves if Danny Boyle were to embraced a truly monumental postminimalism. He should couple Clare Brew’s smart postminimalist light show with a massive Judson-based performance — imagine pedestrian flocking on a scale of the Beijing opening ceremonies — London could challenge the neo-Nuremberg pageantry of the Chinese Communists with the democratic pedestrian mentality of the woolly-headed Judson crowd writ large.) Abramović does not suffer from the leap in scale between her performances from the early 1970s to the weight and spectacle of “The Artist is Present.” Her retrospective has the same miraculously successful attachment to its origins as Richard Serra’s Torqued Elipses have to his first lead props.

Gormley, according to Mitchell, conceives of the human figure as a place, the only place he has ever occupied. Abramović has made herself, her actual person, a place and a destination. That the two have made their selves monumental this spring, only blocks from one another is nothing more than a coincidence, that both have evoked death is not. Both these artists have a career-long relationship with the sinister end of the corporeal. Gormley’s figures when posted on the beach would never be mistaken for idle bathers, they have more in common with a man standing on a ledge. His exploded and dematerialized figures are, if anything, far more fey than his solid metal castings. They’re apparitions. Abramović career is loaded with even more sinister imagery, from beating her chest with poor Yorick’s skull (“to be or not to be”), to the the-Great-Wall-of-China of breakups (in it’s blank-faced procedural candor, “The Great Wall Walk” (1988) rivals the historic romantic suicide of Romeo and Juliet — it was a conceptual folie à deux).

Right, Chris Burden, “Shoot” (1971); right, Antony Gormley, “Event Horizon” (2010) (click to enlarge)

The “historically bounded category,” of sculpture is overloaded with memento mori. Classically monuments, mortuary or not, are intended to out live their makers, and so the “logic of the monument,” as it is handed down, can be hard to discern from the logic of death. Krauss identified modern sculpture as a kind of cenotaph, but instead of a marker for an empty grave it is a homeless marker, a monument set adrift from site — “siteless.” What Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” and Gormley’s “Event Horizon” make clear is that siteless is not deathless.

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ENDNOTE: In addition to Baryshnikov, the White Oak Project includes choreographer Mark Morris and the dancers Raquel Aedo, Emily Coates, Rosalynde Le Blanc, Michael Lomeka, Emmanuele Phuon and Tadej Brdnik.

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John Powers

John Powers is a sculptor. He was born in Chicago and received his MFA from Hunter College. His work has been shown at PS1MoMA, Exit Art, Grand Arts, The Kohler Arts Center, Caren Golden, Art Omi, The...

2 replies on “Sculpture is Dead: Art, Not Suicide (Part 3/3)”

  1. The memento mori aspect of sculpture is well-ingrained, you’re correct. I’m still sorting out my experience sitting with Abramovic. I felt no connection at all, unlike the crying people, it seems. I sensed boundaries, the rules that she imposed on the piece, the cameras, my awareness of being inscribed. There is something deathly about it. The video cameras, the still photos, and the archiving of both seem to point to the fact that the piece should survive past those 3 months of the performance. I suppose this is the way that the memento mori pervades Abramovic’s latest piece–a feeble attempt to survive past the present.

    And a footnote to Khaki Swing: it’s not all that successful as a bit of swing dancing. It did have its place in the history of the Lindy Hop revival, but I’m glad things have progressed. A few people are starting to approach the greatness of Frankie Manning’s swingout in Hellzapoppin’, which every Lindy Hopper will agree, is the best swing dance choreography ever put on film.

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