Marianne Vitale’s “The Missing Book of Spurs,” her commission for Performa 13, features half-naked women in corsets, a man in assless chaps, and “natives” in outfits inspired by traditional Native American clothing; it features blocks of wood, a wooden sculpture that looks like a torpedo, and a large, old-fashioned wooden bar; it features loud music, a smoke machine, and erotic dancing. It is a big spectacle. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s anything else.
Vitale is best known for her beaten-up, smoked-out wooden sculptures that look like they’ve been through hell. Her Performa commission picks up on her interest in the Old West and turns it into a performance: the setting is an old bar and brothel from the 19th century, and many of the characters are the ones you’d expect to see in a Western, from the Madam to the drunken barfly with the knife. But everything is a bit more extreme here — the characters madder, the action bigger, the dialogue less coherent. It’s like a Western on a bad trip.
The hour-long performance, which takes place at Vitale’s vast Long Island City studio, is broken into chapters, with each one introducing a new character or set thereof. The scenes with dialogue are mostly broken up by musical interludes. So we move from the brothel women dancing, rubbing up against each other, and writhing on the floor to loud, pulsing music, to a tiresome monologue delivered by the barfly (Billy Cancel). As a kind of segue, a girl (India Menuez) gets hit over the head with a beer bottle and cries for at least five minutes while a boy (Bennett Williams) chops wood.
If this sounds scattershot, that’s because it is. A performance need not have a narrative to succeed, but it must have something, be it compelling acting, standout costume and stage design, or a novel premise. “The Missing Book of Spurs” has moments and glimpses of these things — Water’s (Walter Gambín) meandering monologue, a few minutes of mesmerizing dancing by the character called You (Caleb Addison), consistently great music by Mike Stroud — but not enough to carry it. It plays up old stereotypes without actually taking them anywhere new.
The next night I left grandiose chaos aside and filed into a small room at Third Streaming to see Clifford Owens. He was also performing as part of Performa 13, although not a commission, and in conjunction with the ongoing exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. Thursday night’s show was the fourth in a week-long, five-part series titled Five Days’ Worth, curated by Adrienne Edwards. It was called, simply, “Dad.”
All of us roughly 85 audience members took off our shoes before packing tightly onto the carpets laid down in the space. The room was hot. On one white wall, to the right, hung a photograph split into two parts: Owens facing what looked like his father on a couch. Bisecting them was a portrait of a man, possibly the same older one, wearing a hat with a crescent and stars on it. The same crescent and star symbol floated over him.
An audio recording began to play. It was difficult to follow — an old man spoke most of the time, and his speech was coherent but rambling, jumping from his ideas on religion to theories of race and civilization. He had discovered the representative of God on earth, he said. This was, perhaps, Owens’s dad. Occasionally, another, younger man’s voice asked questions.
The recording played and played. People got restless. Some closed their eyes. A handful left. Two women in front of me began writing notes to each other on a piece of paper — “I’m hungry!! :)” Occasionally, a black hand would appear on the edge of a white curtain hung at the front of the space, fixing, rearranging it. A ghost of movement.
Some 15 or 20 minutes later, the recording stopped, and Owens stepped out from behind the curtain. He knelt down, turned his back to us, and asked softly into a mic that wasn’t on if we had any questions about his father. “Where did your father come from?” someone shouted. Owens spoke again into the nonworking mic, asking if we could hear him. Then he disappeared behind the curtain.
When he returned, a few minutes later, he was holding a camera. A man in the back of the room began playing a soprano saxophone, and for the rest of the performance, the sound of the saxophone filled the room while Owens worked his way through the crowd, kneeling down in places, squeezing himself in between the packed bodies, taking photos. People posed and mugged for him; he smiled and focused before sometimes shooting them, sometimes whisking the lens away to look elsewhere. He was casual and comfortable as he invaded people’s space, sometimes leaning on them to get up. He muttered to my friend at one point, “My knees are killing me.”
Twenty minutes later, the music ended, and Owens announced that the performance was over. No one got up at first; we all sat there, suspended, waiting for more. “No, really, that’s it,” he said. Then, slightly quieter, “I need a cigarette.”
It wasn’t, honestly, much. I had never seen Owens perform before, but given the tales of kissing and confrontation, I was expecting more. (Upon seeing my pre-show tweet, one friend had responded, “Be careful.”) Like Vitale’s piece, there was no narrative, just a hodgepodge of elements placed together. Yet there was something so captivating about “Dad.” Its hodgepodge departed from a clear theme. And Owens has an incredible magnetism; in the intimate space of Third Streaming, 85 people couldn’t unglue their eyes from him.
The contrast between Vitale and Owens made me worry a little about Performa — whether, as essentially the only blue chip event of performance art today, it’s falling prey to the art world trend of ‘bigger is better.’ In the case of Vitale’s commission, there’s no question that scaling back and homing in would have improved the quality of the show.
For its commissions, Performa generally takes visual artists who’ve never worked in performance before and asks them to create something in the medium. It’s an exciting premise, but one that also raises questions. Is that the best approach to expanding the medium? What about a system that paired performance novices like Vitale with performance pros like Owens? Or one that sought out emerging performance artists and helped them get off the ground? Or a Performa that set aside one commission for facilitating a performance by an established artist on a much larger scale than s/he could do otherwise? (A parallel might be James Turrell’s site-specific work this summer at the Guggenheim.) There’s a unique opportunity in pushing artists’ imaginations to places they’ve never been; there’s also something to be said for cultivating an existing field. The perfect Performa may be a more even mix of both.
Performances of Marianne Vitale’s “The Missing Book of Spurs” continue at her studio (5-01 46th Road, Long Island City, Queens) through November 23.
Clifford Owens’s Five Days’ Worth took place November 18 through 22 at Third Streaming (10 Greene Street, Soho, Manhattan).
Both events are part of Performa 13.