KANSAS CITY, Missouri — There’s an amazing show about contemporary performance art, and it may be coming to an art venue near you. Having just left the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, curator RoseLee Goldberg’s exhibition Performance Now is like a touring indie rock band, minus the live performers. Through video and documentation, it stars the likes of Marina Abramović, Guy Ben-Ner, Kalup Linzy, William Kentridge, Laurie Simmons, and Ryan Trecartin. It’s imperative to catch this show now — before the work therein becomes performance art history.
Performance Now offers a stellar line-up of some of the most important performance artists working today, although getting all of them together in one space isn’t always easy or successful. I didn’t have a chance to watch every piece, for instance — curating approximately 20 video works sprawled out over three rooms isn’t exactly conducive to full attention spans.
The show’s only other flaw, at least as presented in Kansas City, was a technical detail: awkwardly competing noise levels. At one point I had to ask an employee to turn down the volume on Christian Jankowski’s participatory “Rooftop Routine” (2007), for which he asked people across New York City’s Chinatown to hula-hoop on roofs simultaneously, thus marking the city as a giant playground. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to join in with provided hula-hoops. After the volume on Jankowski’s piece diminished, I could hear Guy Ben-Ner’s “Stealing Beauty” (2007), in which dialogue is crucial. In this piece, Ben-Ner and his family stage conversations in IKEAs across the world. Simultaneously humorous and serious, Ben-Ner, his now-ex-wife, and his two adorable kids undertake a Marxist critique of capitalism and the familial structure. The camera swiftly cuts from IKEA to IKEA, as languages change letters and Ben-Ner swaps one bed for another.
From Abramović, we have “Seven Easy Pieces” (2005), for which she reinterpreted and performed works by five performance artists from the 1960s and ’70s who inspired her: Bruce Nauman’s “Body Pressure” (1974), Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed” (1972), Valie Export’s “Action Pants: Genital Panic” (1969), Gina Pane’s “The Conditioning” (1973), and Joseph Beuys’s “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (1965). In doing so, she physically embodied the history of performance art. She also performed two of her own pieces — “Lips of Thomas” (1975) and “Entering the Other Side” (2005), thus taking an opportunity to examine her work as a performance artist through the lens of her othered self. Abramović originally performed “Seven Easy Pieces” over seven nights at the Guggenheim; re-presenting them here adds an archival quality, the documentation of a once-live and energetic work.
In a related vein, William Kentridge’s humorous “Drawing Lesson 47 (Interview for New York Studio School)” (2010) shows him interviewing himself as a mirrored reflection. His two selves represent the artist’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde — the free-flowing, creative “good guy” and the self-critical, always-beating-oneself-up “bad dude” compete with each other.
Works on the second floor at H&R Block Artspace included the poignant piece “Ukungenisa” (2008) by South African artist Nandipha Mntambo, in which she assumes the masculine-gendered role of the bullfighter in the titular abandoned arena, where black Mozambicans once fought in front of the colonial Portuguese. Moving alone and for no one but the viewer of the video, Mntambo calls to mind an androgynous adolescent dancing in a room of their own. Her video reminds us that, despite more accessibility through the internet, performance art always returns to the physical body.
Performance Now will travel to the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, Middlebury College Museum of Art, in Vermont, and the Delaware Art Museum — and that’s just the schedule through 2014. The exhibition operates in the Abramović-raps-with-Jay-Z moment, a time when there’s little distinction between some performance artists and celebrities. So although the show celebrates the form, it’s also post–performance art, in a way: if video killed the radio star, the internet killed the performance artist.
For that reason, the show leaves one with questions about the medium’s future, specifically: what challenges does the internet present? There’s a fine line between performance artist and internet performance artist, something that people like Jill Pangallo and Jillian Mayer consider in their practices. While Abramović is becoming an internet-driven brand herself (whilst rubbing shoulders with celebrity/reality TV star/artist/Paul McCarthy’s wannabe twinsie James Franco), how many of the future “children” of performance art are creating their work online? And what does that mean for the field today?
Performance Now was at the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute (16 East 43rd Street, Kansas City, Missouri) from August 17 to October 12. It opens at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, Russia, on November 21, and other venues thereafter. Check the website for details.