|TITLE:||Operations of Redress: Orlan, the Body and Its Limits|
|SOURCE:||Fashion Theory 2 no2 111-27 Je 1998|
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THE STORY OF ORLAN
Orlan is a French performance artist whose performances, for the last seven years, have consisted of cosmetic surgery. She has taken the term "operating theatre" literally, and is embarked on a project, entitled "The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan," that consists of performing--remaining conscious throughout, photographing, filming and broadcasting--a series of operations that are totally remodeling her face and body, and thus her identity.
"The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan" began in 1990 and is now nearing completion. Saint Orlan is a persona "Orlan" (not her real name) adopted in 1971, a persona she performed by exhibiting and having herself photographed draped in billowing robes made of fabrics such as black vinyl and white leatherette. Uppermost in her intentions in creating these elaborate sculpted costumes was play with religious iconography: the figures of the Virgin Mary and of the ecstatic Saint Theresa of Bernini's famous statue were the basis of these tableaux and of a number of subsequent performances.(FN1) According to the critic Barbara Rose, the incarnation as Saint Orlan "focused on the hypocrisy of the way society has traditionally split the female image into madonna and whore" (Rose 1993: 84). This strong feminist slant can be detected in the exposure of one breast in the photographs of these tableaux, in the way it apes depictions of the nursing Virgin Mary whilst also being half-way to a page 3 pin-up.
The 1990 (and ongoing) reincarnation of Saint Orlan both marks a continuation of Orlan's earlier concerns and a break with them. Religious imagery abounds in the staging of Orlan's operations, and it is difficult to ignore the parallel between religious martyrdom and the suffering (although Orlan argues it otherwise) inflicted by surgery undergone for aesthetic reasons. Orlan's project of bodily reincarnation via cosmetic surgery has been carefully planned from the beginning. There was, however, a degree of chance at the outset of the work: "Due to speak at a symposium in New York, she felt ill, needed emergency surgery and decided to take a video crew along. The resulting tape was immediately rushed across town and shown in her place at the symposium" (McClellan 1994: 40). Further information suggests a more macabre side to this 1978 inspiration to incorporate surgery into her work: "The idea of turning surgical interventions into performance art occurred to her when she was operated on for an extra-uterine pregnancy under a local anaesthetic" (Rose 1993: 84)--more macabre because the life of a fetus was at stake, even if its chances of survival were minimal, but also because the local anesthetic would have allowed Orlan to play the role of detached observer as well as patient during the operation. Orlan's split or double role as object of surgery but also viewer of the operations she chooses to undergo is, as may already be obvious, an essential aspect of her work.
The first official installment of Orlan's self-reinvention took place on 30 May 1990. It was the beginning of a planned sequence of seven operations, each of which was to focus on a specific feature of Orlan's face. There was and is no one model for Orlan's self-remodeling; each feature is surgically resculpted to match a specific feature of a different great icon in the history of Western art: the nose of a famous unattributed School of Fontainebleau sculpture of Diana, the mouth of Boucher's Europa, the forehead of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, the chin of Botticelli's Venus and the eyes of Gérome's Psyche (these icons were chosen not for their beauty but for their mythological or historical significance--for example the androgyny of the Mona Lisa). Either pastiche or parody of the fetishistic fragmentation of the female body by male artists is clearly intended. She also uses the fragmented character of the image she is composing to effect in her operations/performances, where the aesthetic genre of the detail is advertised by the display of reproductions of just the faces of her various icons. An accentuation of this effect is created by the highlighting, on each reproduction, of the feature to be copied.
THE FUTURE FEMALE?
Perhaps the most immediately arresting aspect of Orlan's self-remodeling is the use it makes of computer technology. The new face she is on the way to acquiring was put together digitally, on a computer screen, as a mixture of her own features and the iconic ones she is three-dimensionally reconstructing. Experimentation with new technology--holograms and lasers--already formed part of Orlan's work in the 1980s. Her November 1993 operation, Omnipresence, in which implants were inserted above her eyebrows in imitation of the Mona Lisa's forehead, was transmitted live from New York to 14 galleries around the world. (This is a change that Jim McClellan (1994: 38) likens to a diabolic sprouting of horns.) During the five-hour operation the viewers in those galleries could ask the fully conscious Orlan questions by fax.
Orlan herself does see her surgical reincarnation as intimately bound up with the ever more sophisticated technology of the information superhighway. She says: "The whole core of this work is to do with the status of the human body in our present society and in the future. We're changing, mutating. We'll change even more with genetic manipulation. The body is obsolete" (quoted in McClellan 1994: 40-2).
The journalist who did the Observer piece on (and interview with) Orlan that that quotation comes from is Jim McClellan, author of the paper's weekly Cyberspace column. In the article, seemingly slightly taken aback by Orlan's remarkable pronouncement about the obsolescence of the body, he explains:
The interest Orlan's project bears for cybertheorists and cyberartists can most easily be illustrated by the comparison Orlan herself makes between her work and that of Stelarc, the Australian male artist who argues that the recent huge increase in social practices such as bodybuilding and cosmetic surgery "are the signs of a desperate, obsolete body beginning to feel it's at the end stage of its evolutionary development" (McClellan 1994: 42). McClellan dubs Stelarc and Orlan the post-human Adam and Eve. He does detect differences between the two artists, in so far as (as he puts it) Stelarc believes that DNA wants to go to space and he is just helping it on its way, whereas Orlan talks about struggling with her DNA, seemingly more aware of the body's resistance to its imminent digitalization. But Orlan does seem to see her surgical change of identity as a kind of race with technology, and does express an undeniable desire for the future. This comes out most strikingly when she says:If I wanted to create a nose like a rhinoceros, to have huge waves and bends in it, I wouldn't be able to find a surgeon prepared to do it, or a prosthetic laboratory where they would produce the necessary parts. Actually, surgeons have said to me that what I'm requesting may only be possible in 50 years' time (McClellan 1994: 40).
Her desire for self-transformation outstrips current technological capacity. This, I think, is a strong point in favor of the argument that Orlan, whatever else she is, is also a genuine experimental artist, and not just an exploiter of the hyped-up rhetoric of all things cyber.
One current of cybertheory claims that so-called "advanced" Western cultures are witnessing a gradual eclipsing of the body. Humanity is entering a new phase of its history in which any "component" of the body can be altered or fabricated. Oxygen-permeable synthetic skin will obviate the need for lungs; in fact, bodies without organs altogether will have more space for lots of lovely technology. (Who knows, the replicants--the name given to this kind of post-human being in Ridley Scott's 1982 film Bladerunner--might even turn out to be capable of love.)
However, to acknowledge that there is a tendency to deny the body, or at least a claim that it can be left behind, is not the same thing as admitting to its desuetude. Some of Orlan's critics link her work to the technologization of the body, to the increasing dominance in Western societies of technologies of the self, and this side of cyberargument seems very relevant to Orlan's project. But if one is persuaded by the validity of ideas that condone, recommend or predict the obsolescence of the body, why bother to redesign it at all?
Orlan does not have a body, she is one. And however great the modifications effected in the course of her reincarnation, she will still be one. The permanency of the self-transformation she is carrying out is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of her project; although she intends, plans and choreographs her surgical performances, the different body she is left with after each operation is not something she can totally control. Although it is at the core of her work, the art object par excellence, Orlan's body in some sense also escapes the very artistic process it makes possible. At one point in the McClellan interview she appears to recognize this, saying "The biggest danger I face as an artist is that people will become so seduced by my body, by the body in the process of performance, that they will cease to perceive me as an artist" (McClellan 1994: 42). If the audience is focusing on her body, they aren't focusing on her art; the two can never entirely overlap. A definition of the body becomes possible in which it "is," rather than any stable, grounded entity, a remainder or residue that can never be fully worked into the artistic process. Orlan's work brings out--makes visible--the paradox inherent in the very expression "body art."(FN2)
OPERATIONS OF REDRESS
In the dress and fashion industries the object is most often the female body. Dress is nothing without a body on which to hang its cut, its folds and its drapes. Other possible uses of the English "dress" (derived from the Old French dresser meaning "to prepare" and/or drecier meaning "to arrange"), such as dressing a window and dressing a precious stone or jewelry, remind us of the necessity of having an object to work on. Body and dress function as an opposition that brings more familiar sets of binary oppositions to mind--depth/surface, nature/culture foremost among them. If the body, at least prior to the advent of recent feminist theory, which has stressed its discursivity and thus its constructedness, is often thought of as a (natural) object, dress is, by contrast, studied for its signifying properties, and if conceived of as a system, for its semiotics. Dress is social and cultural, even superficial: in the words of the German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel, it is the superfluity of adornment that "allows the mere having of the person to become a visible quality of its being" (Simmel 1985). The body, on the other hand, contains reaches of depth, privacy and eroticism with which dress cannot compete. Although it might appear possible to see the body as a layered structure, in which skin covers muscles that themselves enclose a patterned arteriovenous network, it is almost always viewed as a solid, sealed, unflayable entity.
However, a completely different relationship of the body to dress can be imagined--indeed, has been imagined, and is being worn. In this section I would like to discuss the context that has brought this different relationship about, why the transformation is so important, and how the use of dress and of the body in Orlan's work, both pre-surgical and surgical, offers prime illustrations of developments in dress and fashion in the 1980s and 1990s.
Piercing, tattooing, scarring (or "scarification") and cosmetic surgery make up a group of practices that all involve the skin, and that have all risen to prominence in the West in the 1990s. They are a subset of a larger group of activities that include transsexualism, bodybuilding and rarer practices such as waist-training (corsetry has also recently begun to figure prominently in the work of major fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood) for which the term "body modification" has been coined. Many of these practices have emerged in contemporary Western urban culture from very specific removes, either social, historical or geographical. For example, tattooing was once the preserve of sailors, gypsies and criminals, whilst piercing has an intriguing past in aristocratic and royal circles, whence it somehow found an echo in the punk practice of sticking safety-pins through the flesh, as well as through clothing. Chinese footbinding and the rainforest Native Americans who wear plates in their lips are examples of body-modification practices in societies once remote from Western influence. Those body-modification practices that involve the skin usually imply permanent alteration of the body's appearance, although they are not all necessarily carried out with the intention of drawing blood or inflicting pain. Whereas tattooing appears to be a highly individualistic activity, doubtless because of the designing of motifs it involves, contemporary Western scarification seems to be based to a large degree around the shared pleasure of sessions devoted to blood-letting. The rings and studs of piercing may be used in sexual play--a good indication of the proximity of some of these practices to the culture of sadomasochism.(FN3)
In all these body modification activities, it is the skin that is being worked on. The skin has become a site of investigation, and an element in the dress of the people whose bodies have been scarred, pierced or tattooed. In the same way in which, as a viewer, it is difficult to ignore a scar or other disfigurement on the visible body of a person passed in the street, the eye is drawn to the scarification patterns, or the point at which the pierce has been inserted, on someone whose practice of body modification is evident. The identificatory sensibility that comes into play when viewing skin altered by an activity such as piercing or scarring, I am suggesting, makes its wearer even more noticeable than someone sporting the latest fashion (or the latest technology) in design or in fabrics. At the same time, the advertisement of the skin that accompanies certain kinds of body modification, and the growing currency of skin alteration as a cultural practice amongst Western urban populations, means that it is becoming impossible not to admit it to "the fashion system."
The particular point I want to make about this is that accepting the skin as an element of "dress code" does not just represent an enlargement of what we conventionally understand by "dress." It does represent such an enlargement; but it also implies at least two other important changes. The first of these is a change in the status of skin. This takes place through the destabilization of the binary oppositions that the semiotics of dress leaves in place. The skin is the border or limit between the "body inner" and the "body outer" (the visible body). It is the container on which the distinction of inside and outside depends. The skin, it begins to become apparent, is central to the underpinning of a metaphysical conception of the body. Whereas the skin has traditionally been conceived of as a "natural" layer or membrane, it becomes, when body modification practices are admitted as forms of dress, as "cultural" as jeans or polyester.
The second change, related to but perhaps outstripping the first, is a challenge to the traditional metaphysical definition of the body, in which the skin acts as its container or its "envelope" (to borrow a figure from Luce Irigaray's (1984) reading of phallogocentric philosophy). The involvement of the skin, as the border site between clothes and the body, in the definition of dress troubles the delimitation of the body as the object that is to be dressed. This challenge to the very concept of the skin as bodily container is one pinpointed by the French psychoanalyst Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni, whose book La robe was partly inspired by Orlan, and which contains a chapter on Orlan's pre-surgical work.(FN4) As Lemoine-Luccioni (1983: 98) puts it, "Once the skin is removed, there is no body left."(FN5) This insight--that the involvement of the skin in cultural practices (and in Orlan's case, in her surgical performances) challenges conventional definitions of dress and of the body--would seem to have implications for all art forms and practices--theater, performance, fashion--that can take the body as their object. Given its most radical interpretation, it completely rewrites the textuality of dress, allowing the body "itself" to be read as a kind of multilayered outfit of clothing. Printed on the sleeve of one of Orlan's assistants during one operation was the phrase "They body is but a costume."
Returning for a moment to the relationship of the skin to clothing proposed by Lemoine-Luccioni as an alternative to the familiar one, however, we can see that it neatly describes the crossover of the skin and dress that occurs in body-modification practices: "We prefer to consider the garment as equivalent to a second skin, and skin as equivalent to a sort of undergarment" (Lemoine-Luccioni 1983: 98). An inversion or invagination of this type is exactly what Orlan demonstrated in a performance in Lisbon in 1981, when she ran through crowded streets in an opaque black "chasuble" bearing a life-sized photographed print of her naked body. A policeman directing traffic who wanted to arrest her was persuaded by Orlan that there was nothing illegal about wearing such eye-catchingly printed clothing; it is, on the contrary, a mark of high fashion. Interestingly, the designer who has recently commercialized the printing of photographs onto separates in this way is Issey Miyake, who created the costumes for Orlan's 1993 operation/performance "Omnipresence." I recently saw a presenter on French television's cult Canal+ programme "Nulle part ailleurs" wearing a dress made by Miyake with a life-sized nude torso printed on it. With his autumn/winter 1995 collection Miyake broke new ground in the fashion establishment by showing his clothes on a group of women in their eighties: this versatility is an important part of his credo as a couturier, evidence of a democratic sensibility perhaps not immediately obvious in Orlan's exhibition of his gowns and hats in her work in the operating theatre (Frankel 1997: 14-19).
Despite mentioning the trope of invagination so strikingly illustrated by Orlan's Lisbon performance in her redefinition of the relationship of dress and the skin, Lemoine-Luccioni does not use it to advance questioning about the way it troubles the definition of the body. She does refer to the work of fellow-psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu, whose concept of the "Moi-peau" ("I-skin" or "ego-skin"), posits a coincidence of the child's developing ego with a "narcissistic envelope": "I employ the term I-skin to refer to a figuration used by the child's ego during the early stages of its development to represent itself as an ego containing psychic contents, on the basis of its experience of the body's surface" (Anzieu 1995: 61). Anzieu's concept of the "Moi-peau" radicalizes the importance of the projection of bodily surfaces to the formation of the ego seen in Freud's "bodily ego" and in Lacan's concept of the imaginary. The incorporation of the skin as organ of sensibility into ego-formation suggests the ego is a more sensitive and more fragile entity than it is often considered to be. But for Anzieu the skin appears to function as a bodily container whose boundaries are not put into question; the concept "Moi-peau" implies a coincidence of the limits of the body and the limits of the ego.
Lemoine-Luccioni (1983: 95) does, however, comment on the implication of the skin in question of being: "Skin is disappointing [...] But it does nonetheless suggest something to do with being." In a formulation of which part is cited by Orlan at the beginning of all her performances, she continues (1983: 95):
The skin pinpoints the disjuncture between having and being that occurs in Georg Simmel's reflections on adornment. If skin did not figure in analyses of dress during the stage of modernity commented on by Simmel, it does in the 1990s.
In the final chapter of La robe devoted to Orlan, Lemoine-Luccioni (1983: 137) returns to the question of the closure of the body, stating "The body is not closed. Nor is the garment which envelops it." Orlan's interest is not in weaving (that most archetypally feminine of activities) and the texturing of surfaces; she is more concerned with the opposite operations of rupturing and opening apparently hermetic wrappings and coverings: "Orlan un-weaves; she lacerates every enveloping layer" (1983: 143). This is most dramatically applied to the skin in Orlan's surgical work, but has also featured in her "living sculptures." In the first part of the Saint Theresa action, of which different "tableaux" were photographed for use in subsequent artworks, Orlan's breast emerged to be brandished from within the ornate drapery of her robes. (The second part of the action was more overtly destructive, including the cutting of the drapé into rags.) Amidst echoes of theatrical statues magically coming to life Orlan at a stroke pinpoints the specificity of performance and rebels against the passivity and chastity of an objectified subject of classical art history. The actions of opening and cutting she performs here with costume have been developed and radicalized in the surgical project "The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan." In the exhibition "Between Two," which recently toured the UK, there is a barely suppressed jubilation in the words accompanying the enlarged photo-plate of Orlan's face being cut away from the side of her head, "The body is open ...."
WOMAN IN SPACE: VARIATIONS ON CONTAINMENT
In this final section I would like to return to the notion of the body as container, and consider it more closely, by first discussing a series of Orlan's performances that preceded "The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan." Dress again figures centrally in these performances, which are the mesurages or measurings first executed by Orlan in 1976 in Nice, and subsequently in 1977 at the Centre Georges Pompidou, in 1978 in Strasburg, and in 1979 in Lyons, at a festival of performance art organized by Orlan and Hubert Besacier. Further measurings took place at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1983, and again at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1984 (Sarah Wilson 1996/7: 11-12).
What Orlan is doing when she places her body into a specific environment as a measure can be seen as an instance or citation of the science of anthropometry, which is a science consisting of the collection of the measurements of different human bodies for use by professional engineers and designers. According to Anne Balsamo, a feminist commentator on technology and the gendered body, anthropometry is a field with which many cosmetic surgeons have some familiarity, because of its interest in the establishment of ideals and norms of measurement which can then be used for the purposes of design. Balsamo (1996: 59) explains:
The parallel of Orlan's measurings with the practice of anthropometry brings out two aspects of her actions. The first is that her body is female, and that its use as a measure is already different from the use of the male body which has traditionally lain behind the construction of systems of measurement. Some measures, such as the foot (and other less common ones such as the cubit, which is equivalent to the length of the forearm) are so familiar that we tend to forget that they are based on the male and not the female body. Orlan's use of her woman's body as a measure cannot contribute to the imagining of universals that take the male body as a norm. Instead, her actions suggest that she envisages a different, female universal--and that there should be, effectively, a double universal, as in the thinking of Luce Irigaray (cf. esp. 1992). Orlan's measurings should perhaps be described as the practice of gynometry rather than of anthropometry, a substitution of femaleness for maleness that highlights the gendered nature of a subject of (practical) science too often and for too long assumed to be "neutral," or free of the fundamental bodily modifiers of gender and race.
There is a striking affinity between Orlan's measurings and the reflections on the relationship of gender to the use of the body in space made by Christine Battersby (1993), in her article "Her Body/Her Boundaries." Within this larger problematic, the specific issues Battersby investigates are containment and bodily boundaries, and she mentions fashion and cosmetic surgery as highly significant methods by which women may discipline the boundaries of their bodies (1993: 33). Battersby's focus, however, is the idea of the body as a container for the inner self, an idea that she finds radically foreign to her own (female) experience of what it is to inhabit a body. Seeking an alternative to the view that envisages the body as "a container in which the self is inside and protected from the other by boundaries which protect against and resist external forces, whilst also holding back internal forces from expansion," Battersby turns not to a poststructuralist deconstruction of borders, but to "a metaphysics revisited from the perspective of gender--in order to reconstitute the inside/outside, self/other, body/mind divides [...] The move into feminist metaphysics opens up other possibilities which allow us to theorize a "real" beyond the universals of an imagination or a language which takes the male body and mind as ideal and/or norm" (1993: 32).
One alternative Battersby suggests to the experience of the female body as container--which she maintains may not be a typically female experience--is that "I [speaking as a woman] construct a containing space around me, precisely because my body itself is not constructed as the container" (1993: 34). The choice of enclosing architecture as the environment of Orlan's measurings indicates that what is going on is very akin to this construction of an extra-bodily container. Whilst the performance of the action of measuring in art galleries and other art spaces may be seen as a relatively straightforward claim upon those spaces by a woman artist, the choice of an ecclesiastical edifice for a measuring, in the case of the Musée St-Pierre in Lyons, a former monastery, can be read both as an assertion of the identity of "Saint Orlan" and as the appropriation of a space heavily imbued with the history and imagery of the established patriarchal Church.
Battersby ends "Her Body/Her Boundaries" by specifying that the new feminist metaphysics she is calling for "will not appeal to an unsymbolized imaginary" (1993: 38). This introduces the final idea I would like to focus on here, which is the idea of the female imaginary, in relation both to Orlan's work with dress and use of her body in space.
Twentieth-century philosophy offers a number of different theorizations of the imaginary. An extremely lucid summary and comparison of these is given by Margaret Whitford in her study of Luce Irigaray (Whitford 1991: Ch. 3). According to Whitford, one major source for the notion of the imaginary is phenomenology ("according to Sartre's definition, the imaginary is the intentional object of the imagining consciousness" (1991: 54)), and another the work of the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, for whom the imaginary is also a function of the imagination. Perhaps the dominant theorization of the imaginary in recent years, however, has been the Lacanian one. Lacan's concept of the imaginary is related to his highly influential concept of the mirror stage, according to which a child's first glimpse of a unified image of its body is a key moment in the formation of its identity. Whereas the mirror stage describes a particular moment in childhood development, the imaginary designates an entire order that overlaps with the pre-Oedipal mirror stage, but also describes subsequent operations of the ego, such as identification and falling in love. Although the imaginary is a concept particular to Lacan, and not formulated as such by Freud, the role of the body-image in its formation has striking similarities with Freud's notion that the mental projection of bodily surfaces contributes significantly to the formation of the ego.
One idea that follows from the psychoanalytic conception of the imaginary in particular is that it (the imaginary) revolves around the role of the specular image in mental life. Since this image is based upon the outline or "envelope" of the body, dress, as well as body shape, will play a vital part in imaginary formations. Furthermore, the work of psychoanalysts has revealed that the limits of the body as perceived by the subject can undergo displacement, so that spaces to which the subject feels connected, such as its home, or a particular room in that home, act as extensions of its body image, and are as actively involved in the imaginary as the (dressed or undressed) profile of the body. This imaginary interplay of specular self-image, dress, and inhabited space, noted by Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni et several points in La robe,(FN6) indicates a way of associating them different from those mentioned hitherto, and one that is highly suggestive where Orlan's work with all three "envelopes" is concerned.
The theorist of the imaginary Whitford herself is interested in is, of course, Luce Irigaray. Whitford explains Irigaray's imaginary as follows: "[Irigaray] conflates in a single term the phenomenological definition of the imaginary (the conscious, imagining and imaging mind) with the psychoanalytic definition (the unconscious, phantasying mind) and can move fluidly between one and the other" (1991: 54).
Another thinker of the imaginary with whom Irigaray has much in common is Cornelius Castoriadis, who, in addition to formulating a critique of Lacan's definition of the term, "deploys the concept of the imaginary in an explicit attempt to understand the persistence of social formations and the possibility of changing them" (Whitford 1991: 56). Like Irigaray, Castoriadis employs the term "imaginary" to describe both a primary creative force in the mind (conscious or unconscious), and a social formation. However, the last important feature of Irigaray's imaginary distinguishes her from Castoriadis too. This is that for Irigaray, the imaginary is sexuate [sexué]; in other words, it becomes meaningful to speak of a male and a female imaginary respectively, because the imaginary bears the morphological marks of the gendered body. The body that shapes the social imaginary is not an empirical but already a symbolic one, in which a metaphorical relationship to anatomy lends particular shape-related values to thought and to culture. This enables Irigaray to argue that Western patriarchal culture is and always has been shaped by the male imaginary, meaning that its cultural products carry the characteristics of male morphology--unity, linearity and closure. The traditional dominance of the male imaginary means that the female imaginary has been suppressed and not thoroughly theorized. Several definitions of it remain possible, however, all of which are characterized by fragmentation, fluidity, and openness (and there are important similarities here between Irigaray and the "new topologies" cited by Battersby as important to her new metaphysics of boundaries, whose basic paradigms would be those of potentialities, flow and permeability). Whitford is careful to point out that these descriptions of the female imaginary should not be read in an essentialist manner, but "as a description of the female as she appears in, and is symbolized by, the western cultural imaginary" (1991: 60).
Returning to Battersby's wish to avoid appealing to an unsymbolized imaginary, the process of undergoing analysis, in which diverse psychic material not previously dealt with by the subject is expressed in language or represented (symbolized) in some other way, can be described as a process of symbolization. However, if the imaginary is considered as a social concept, the issue of the unsymbolized imaginary has more far-reaching ramifications. It suggests that the feminine as a category is consigned to unmodifiable "dereliction" within the symbolic order, unless it can be re-symbolized within that order, a transformation of the conditions of representation as they relate to sexual difference.
I would like to suggest that in Orlan's work, both approaches to the imaginary are relevant, but that the latter is much more pertinent to those of her actions that revolve principally around dress and the use of her body in space. In other words, I do not want to exclude the consideration of Orlan as a psychoanalytic "case," whose singular relationship to the symbolic order may be being seen (and may even be being worked through) in her performance projects. This is an approach to her work that has already been taken and that yields fascinating observations.(FN7) But despite the interest of this deployment of the imaginary/symbolic relationship in relation to her work, the Irigarayan insistence on the gendered and social character of the imaginary, and its potential for social and political transformation, seems to me to offer a much readier reading of actions such as her public measurings. This is simply because the representations of which these actions consist are (always) already thoroughly public, thoroughly social. In the instance of Orlan's use of her body as a measure, the emphasis may be seen to be upon the visibility of a solitary woman's body in a public space, a representation that emphasizes her femaleness, and implicitly comments upon the gender-bias both of systems of measurement and of the differing relationships of the two sexes to geometry, architecture, design, and space.
A further aspect of Orlan's measurings has even more striking resonances with the definitions of the female imaginary offered by Irigaray. This is the ritual washing of the clothes worn by Orlan during the performance, which also takes place in public. The dirty water left over from this washing is then placed in sealed jars as "relics" of Saint Orlan, a procedure also used with flesh extracted from Orlan's body by liposuction in "The Reincarnation of Saint Orlan":
In this way residual traces of the contact of Orlan's clothing with her body and with the environment are preserved, traces that could be seen as emblematic of the "scraps" and "debris" characteristic of an emergent, alternative female imaginary, as sketched out by Irigaray (Whitford 1991: 59, 67). Another account of the measuring that took place at the Musée St-Pierre in Lyons in 1979 reveals that chalk-markings made by Orlan of each re-positioning of her body in the measuring constitute another trace of the unfamiliar passage of a female body through a space whose architecture and form (a quadrangle of cloisters) connotes predominantly the closure and unity of patriarchal representation (Premier Symposium International d'Art Performance de Lyon 1980). This account also describes the vigor with which Orlan carries out the washing of her clothes, described as "an act of pressure," and the quasi-jubilation she shows after exerting this effort. This energy put by Orlan into the act of preserving representations of the contact of her body with the environment is suggestive of the kind of "excess" Irigaray also associates with a female imaginary that "jams the machinery" of patriarchal representation and can be seen seeking alternative forms, or alternatives to the traditional conception of "form" itself.
An unquestioned assumption of much work in performance is that the body constitutes the "theatrical" object par excellence. One aim of my study of Orlan's work is to investigate the possibility that she is undoing the very notion of the body as aesthetic object as often assumed in performance and theater. A number of other performance artists, such as Stelarc and Marina Abramovic, have done or are currently doing work that also focuses on the skin, and the question of whether the body can or should be thought of as a container, and by focusing on dress, the skin and the definition of the body, Orlan's artistic practice constantly raises and dramatizes similar issues. As I have suggested by drawing on the ideas of Irigaray and Christine Battersby, a reformulation of the problem of bodily boundaries and the body in space is most usefully approached via a parallel discussion of gender difference. Irigaray's concept of the female imaginary claims dynamic and transformative potential for symbolic practice involving the female body. A reminder of some words of Orlan's about her work as a woman artist is timely at this point: "Art can, art must change the world, it's its only justification."(FN8)
Kate Ince is Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her teaching and research interests are in modern French fiction, cinema and the visual arts, and in critical, literary and feminist theory. She has co-edited French Erotic Fiction: Women's Desiring Writing 1880-1990 (Berg, 1996), and written articles on Marguerite Duras, Luce Irigaray, and issues in literary theory. She is currently co-editing the Longman Critical Reader on Samuel Beckett, and writing a book-length study of Orlan for Berg, to appear in 2000.
Figure 1 "White virgin, objectively seen," 1973. Black and white photograph mounted on wood, 100cm × 100cm. (Photo SIPA Press, Paris).
Figure 2 "Atmosphere in the operating theatre before the reading of Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni for the 7th surgical operation/performance in New York, 1993." Cibachrome in vacuum diasec, 165cm × 100cm. (Photo SIPA Press, Paris).
Figure 3 "Orlan-body," Measuring of an Institution, Musée St. Pierre, Lyons, 1979. (Photo SIPA Press, Paris).
1. These include "One-off striptease with trousseau sheets," performed in Lyons in 1976, "Drapery--the Baroque," done in Venice in 1979, and "Mise-en scène pour une sainte," again in Lyons in 1981.
2. Orlan actually refers to her practice not as "body art," but as "carnal art," to distinguish it from the work of the late 1960s and early 1970s founding generation of body artists (Gina Pane, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci et al.).
3. The material summarized in this paragraph is drawn from Linda Grant (1995).
4. Lemoine-Luccioni says of the genesis of her book, in the preface (1983: 7), "Then Monique Veaute introduced me to Orlan, and I knew from the start where my own enquiry would lead me."
5. Lemoine-Luccioni 1983: 98. All translations from this and other French publications are my own.
6. "At the moment when specular experience began, when his image appeared in the mirror under the active guarantee of the mother's look, he gave himself a frame. This specular image, which in lacanian algebra is written i (o), is man's first garment" (Lemoine-Luccioni 1983: 78). Further references are p. 82, p. 90 (in the chapter "Image spéculaire--vêtement--maison"), p. 111.
7. VST: revue scientifique et culturelle de santé mentale, 23/24, Sept.-Dec. 1991. This issue is devoted entirely to Orlan.
8. Orlan, "Conférence," in Ceci est mon corps ... ceci est mon logiciel/This is my body ... this is my software, 1996/7: 85.
Anzieu, Didier 1995 . Le Moi-peau, 2nd edn, Paris: Dunod. (First edn Paris: Bordas, 1985).
Balsamo, Anne 1996. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham: Duke University Press.
Battersby, Christine 1993. "Her Body/Her Boundaries: Gender and the Metaphysics of Containment," Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts, ed. Andrew Benjamin, 1993: 30-9.
Ceci est mon corps ... ecei est mon logiciel/This is my body ... this is my software 1996/7. Catalogue to the exhibition of plates from "Omnipresence," shown Newcastle, Edinburgh and London, UK, 1996/7.
Frankel, Susannah 1997. "Between the Pleats," The Guardian Weekend, 19 July 1997, pp. 14-19.
Grant, Linda 1995. "Written on the Body," The Guardian Weekend, 1 April 1995, pp. 12-20.
Irigaray, Luce 1984. "La différence sexuelle." in Ethique de la différence sexuelle, Paris: Editions de Minuit.
Irigaray, Luce 1992. J'aime à toi, Paris: Editions Grasset & Fasquelle.
Lemoine-Luccioni, Eugénie 1983. La Robe: essai psychoanalytique sur le vêtement, Paris: Editions du Seuil.
McClellan, Jim 1994. "The Extensions of Woman," The Observer "Life" Magazine, 17 April 1994, pp. 38-42.
Premier Symposium International d'Art Performance de Lyon 1980. Lyons: Editions du Cirque Divers.
Rose, Barbara 1993. "Is It Art? Orlan and the Transgressive Act," Art in America, February 1993, pp. 82-7, 125.
Simmel, Georg 1985. "Adornment," Epigraph to Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, London: Virago.
VST: revue scientifique et culturelle de santé mentale 1991. [Orlan issue], 23/24, Sept.-Dec. 1991.
Whitford, Margaret 1991. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, London: Routledge.
Wilson, Elizabeth 1985. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, London: Virago.
Wilson, Sarah 1996/7. "L'histoire d'O, Sacred and Profane," in Ceci est mon corps ... ceci est mon logiciel/This is my body ... this is my software, Catalogue to the exhibition of plates from "Omnipresence," shown Newcastle, Edinburgh and London, UK, 1996/7, pp. 7-17.
|AUTHOR:||CLAIRE BISHOP & BORIS GROYS|
|TITLE:||BRING THE NOISE|
|SOURCE:||Tate Etc. no16 30-43 Summ 2009|
|COPYRIGHT:||The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. To contact the publisher: http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/|
Futurism & The Art of Participation: As well as being noted for their avant-garde painting, the Futurists' performances were legendary for their intent to provoke and scandalise the public. Often encouraging audience interaction, they led the way for participatory art, from Dada, Situationism and Allan Kaprow's happenings to the present. To coincide with Tate Modern's 'Futurism' exhibition, TATE ETC. brings together two art professionals to explore this history
When we talk about participatory art today we often think of it as consensual and collaborative, but when you look back to the Futurist artists their notion of participation was designed to provoke, scandalise and agitate the public. You get a good sense of this in the printed material of the time, such as the Variety Theatre Manifesto of 1913. It included suggestions for disrupting the audience such as "spreading a powerful glue on some of the seats so that male or female spectators will stay glued down and make everyone laugh"; "selling the same ticket to ten people, traffic jam, bickering and wrangling"; "offering free tickets to gentlemen or ladies who are notoriously unbalanced, irritable or eccentric and likely to provoke uproars with obscene gestures, pinching women or other freakishness"; and 'sprinkling the seats with dust to make people itch and sneeze'. Are these infantile provocations, or were they aligned with Futurism's political agenda?
If you read the descriptions of the events that the Futurists organised, you notice that they always tried to antagonise with gestures, actions and speeches. One of their most famous declarations was 'War, the World's only Hygiene'. Such behaviour provoked anger and even disgust in the public, and aimed to destroy the long-held benign contemplative attitude of the spectator which had been the standard position of art audiences in the nineteenth century. The goal was to involve the audience in an event that was organised and ultimately controlled by the artist -- even if this involvement took an adversarial form. Better to antagonise the audience than let it remain neutral.
CLAIRE BISHOP I think it's important that they're using performance as a way to do that, and specifically using variety theatre as a model for the serate (the evening performances). First, the serate were characterised by non-sequential episodes of different types of performance, such as variety theatre or cabaret (theatrical events, poetry readings, manifesto readings, etc); secondly, variety theatre is a lower-class mode of entertainment, and has a greater degree of interaction than conventional bourgeois theatre. To quote Marinetti in the Variety Theatre Manifesto again: "The variety theatre is alone in seeking the audience's collaboration. It doesn't remain static like a stupid voyeur but joins noisily in the action, in the singing accompanying the orchestra, communicating with the actors in surprising actions and bizarre dialogues." Elsewhere, he talks about people smoking in the auditorium, as it creates a unifying ambience between the stage and the audience.
At the beginning of the twentieth century people still maintained the tradition of a romantic understanding of art that was characteristic of the nineteenth century. The goal of art was to provoke deep emotions in the soul of the spectator -- such as love and admiration. The viewer was supposed to be overwhelmed, especially if it was true, authentic art. However, at the end of the nineteenth century it became quite clear that people remained mostly completely neutral and unaffected by art. This was especially true of the new democratic audiences that were not trained to love it. So the Futurists tried to provoke again deep feelings in the audience -- but feelings of hatred, resentment and disgust, rather than admiration and love. However, the goal remained the same romantic goal: to disturb the peace of the audience's mind, to let it be overwhelmed by powerful emotions, albeit negative ones.
Marinetti is quite clear that mass audiences are not to be found through books, and he writes that 90 per cent of the Italian public go to the theatre. So there's a deliberate choice of live performance as a mode of reaching people, which is then backed up by a media campaign, with press releases and reviews being sent out almost immediately after the event.
And it is important to remember that the Futurists often presented themselves as clowns. They painted themselves in different colours, shouted unintelligible words, created 'noise music'. In their own way, they were reviving the medieval tradition of Commedia dell'Arte. The Russian Futurists did the same, using the Russian medieval folkloristic tradition of lubok -- a kind of comic strip. They also painted their faces, put big wooden spoons in their pockets instead of handkerchiefs and walked through the streets, frightening passers-by.
But did the Russian Futurists back this up with media attention as well?
Absolutely. David Burliuk was especially good at that. He briefed the press before the events took place and organised the scandals. If the scandals didn't take place, he created the illusion of them for the journalists.
But they were not allied to a political position in the way that the Italian Futurists were allied to an agenda of nationalism.
Not at all. I wouldn't say that Russian Futurism was completely free of nationalism, because it was informed and influenced by icon painting, primitive painting, folkloristic poetry and a celebration of Russian provincialism. The Futurists wanted to reveal very deep archaic, even archaeological, layers in the national culture. But they were neither militaristic nor state-orientated. Rather, there was a certain political affiliation between Russian Futurism and Russian anarchism. And the tradition of political anarchism was very strong in Russia.
One could talk about two phases of Italian Futurism: an early one up to about 1917, and after that when it is more aligned to fascism and the work becomes more mediocre.
That's true to an extent, but already by 1909 you see the first manifestation of all the fascist themes in Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto. You have this promise of a new, strong, modernised, industrialised Italy coming on to the European scene. It's absolutely impossible to imagine any Russian Futurist poet or painter at that time praising the state, or wanting it to be mobilised and militarised.
But this is also partly a result of Italian art being dominated by such a strong historical tradition since the Renaissance -- and wanting to escape from that tradition.
Yes, there is no question about that. On the other hand, Russian art was as dominated by academicism and naturalism as any art of that time.
The three things that characterise Futurism for me are the politics, the provocation and the use of the media. It is rare to find these in equal measure in subsequent art.
BORIS GROYS BORIS GROYS
Futurism tried to create a total, even totalitarian, space a space that one cannot escape. It is like the carnivalistic space that was later described by Mikhail Bakhtin. If you are a part of this, you cannot escape being beaten, being insulted, being pissed on, etc. You are pushed into the active position because there is no way out of it. As a spectator you find yourself having to defend yourself against the artist, and in doing so you become a part of the artwork. I think that was a real innovation -- making the neutral, spectatorial position impossible, including the spectator by excluding the possibility of being outside.
That's a very good way of putting it. I'm interested in how Italian Futurist performance then develops into Dada, because you can see the same patterns emerging in what took place at the Dada nightclub Cabaret Voltaire (founded by Hugo Ball), but without a defined political position; indeed, they refuse existing positions by embracing nihilism and meaninglessness. One (late) Dada event is worth mentioning in particular, since it breaks with the tradition of cabaret performance. In April 1921 André Breton, Tristan Tzara and others organised a tour around the church of St Julien le Pauvre in Paris -- or rather, around its churchyard, which at the time was used as a rubbish dump. In the flyer for the event they billed this as one of several planned tours that wished "to set right the incompetence of suspicious guides" by leading "excursions and visits" to places that have 'no reason to exist'. Instead of drawing attention to picturesque sites, or places of historical interest or sentimental value, the aim was to make a nonsense of the social form of the guided tour. Like the Futurists, the Dada group also made good use of advertising and press releases to garner media attention (for example, one event in early 1920 had promised an appearance by Charlie Chaplin). A major difference from Futurism occurs when Breton comes to analyse this event (which he saw as a failure and as inducing collective depression): he no longer felt the need to scandalise the public. This becomes an important moment in the transition from Dada to Surrealism. Breton is now not interested in provocation, but in the construction of a moral position.
Well, Dadaism was also akin to a certain kind of political anarchism. This is especially clear if one reads Hugo Ball's Flight out of Time. After becoming increasingly disillusioned with political anarchism, he also leaves the Dada movement. But in any case there was a difference between Futurism and the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire or Surrealism. Futurist activities mostly took place in open public spaces. With Cabaret Voltaire you bought tickets and would go willingly to participate, as was the case with those who experienced the tumultuous reaction to Dalí and Buñuel's screening of Un Chien Andalou.
I can't imagine there being a similar reaction today to a work of art. Maybe these reports of outrage in the face of avant-garde production in the 1920s are idealised. But maybe it is also the case that viewers would attend such events precisely for the pleasure of responding with outrage to provocation.
There have been different sensibilities. If you read, for example, the diary entries of people from across the centuries about their experiences in front of art, what is interesting is that some were so impressed by a Raphael or a Leonardo da Vinci painting that they fainted, or would lose their appetite, or couldn't sleep. In descriptions of the events at Cabaret Voltaire, there are many examples of people who fainted or needed medical help. Also in the Russian audience of the same time, some people almost lost consciousness when Mayakovsky allegedly said: "Pushkin should be thrown out from the ship of contemporaneity."
Do you think there's a connecting emotion? One is out of shock and the other out of pleasure?
For a very long time people believed that there were certain religious, spiritual, moral and aesthetic values that lay at the basis of human civilisation, society, even everyday life. They thought that if these were put in question, attacked and lost, then the very basis of their existence would dissolve, everything would collapse and they just would not survive this general catastrophe. Today, nobody believes that ideal values build the fundament of our civilisation, so one can faint only at the news about a financial crisis. Earlier one believed that one could be killed by art -- in a certain magical way. Then art overcomes a distance between the spectator and itself and reaches and penetrates the spectator somehow. At the beginning of the nineteenth century you were supposed to create something so beautiful that the spectator could not escape the spell of this beauty. Or something so terrible, so ugly and repulsive that he or she could not escape the shock. But I won't say that the goal here is different. The goal is to create something that is so powerful that it undermines the capability of neutral, peaceful contemplation.
When looking at participatory art of later decades, such as the happenings, we can see that they are also coercive. For example, in some of Allan Kaprow's happenings the script defined the action and everyone participated together, with no space for critical reflection. This is slightly different from the Situationists' approach to collaborative events; some accounts exist that analyse and examine the déive. The Situationist group, particularly as theorised by Guy Debord in the 1960s, wished to suppress art -- but in order to realise it as life. We could see this as another way of eliminating a spectatorial position. It's not about one group who do, and another group who watch or observe, contemplating the products of others. Throughout the 1960s we find different modes of participation taking place in art, all done in the name of various types of emancipation. With happenings in France, produced and theorised by Jean-Jacques Lebel, it is a sexual emancipation of the body; with Kaprow participation is figured more as a kind of existential awakening that would enable participants to have a more perceptive, responsive approach to the world.
Well, everything is always about emancipation. The whole modern European culture is about emancipation. But I think the question is: emancipation from what? If you look at the late 1940s and 1950s, then it is emancipation from totalitarian space. Everything was about existentialism, about finding your true self and so on. Then suddenly in the 1960s one has a wave of a reprocessing of the totalitarian past and domestication of the totalitarian experience inside a stable framework of liberal democracies. Then it is understood as emancipation from individualism, from the isolation of the individual under the conditions of the Western bourgeois society.
So what happens to provocational participation or even "domesticated" participation (as you call it) under regimes other than liberal democracy? In the West, participation is invariably placed in opposition to a society of the spectacle. It is worth comparing it with participatory art in Latin America (under right-wing military dictatorships) and in eastern Europe and Russia (under communism). The examples from Argentina in particular, such as the performances produced by Oscar Masotta and Oscar Bony in Buenos Aires in 1966 and 1968, are quite violent and harbinger more recent work by, say, Santiago Sierra. We could also cite an action by Graciela Carnevale that seems to replicate modes of oppressive social experience that the dictatorship has put in place. Carnevale's action, which took place at the end of the 'Cycle of Experimental Art' in Rosario in 1968, involved locking the viewers in the gallery; she had covered the windows of the space with posters so that they couldn't see out, and walked off with the key. It was then a question of waiting to see what would happen; how would the viewers release themselves from this situation? Carnevale was producing a moment of incarceration which had no clear outcome. Eventually, it was somebody on the outside who broke the window and allowed people to escape, rather than someone on the inside. When I've talked about this piece in public, some audiences have been horrified that an artist would do something this coercive in the context of a series of works of experimental art. In eastern Europe there's a different mode again because of the specific relationship between public and private space and the fact that the work is produced in the context of communism.
... which is a completely different context in which to make art.
The Moscow-based Collective Actions Group (active from 1976 onwards) is a good example of participatory art under communism. Performances usually involved taking a group of spectator-participants out of Moscow on a train for a few hours, to the remote countryside -- often to snowy fields that were reminiscent of Malevich's White Square paintings. There, some of the participants would be subjected to an enigmatic experience that subsequently became a focus of discussion and analysis by the group. These analyses are gathered together in an eight-volume publication called Trips to the Countryside, edited by the main theorist of the group, Andrei Monastyrsky. I know that you took part in a number of these events, such as The Appearance (1976), in which the participant-spectators were asked to wait and watch for something to appear in a distant field. Monastyrsky then took a photo of you all watching, and later explained that you had all appeared for him. You argue that these kinds of events create a space of critical distance and spectatorship -- in short, a space of liberal democracy -- which did not exist under the conditions of communism. Under communism, everyone was a participant, and there was no "outside" space for spectatorship and critical analysis.
I think what should be very clearly said from the beginning is that communism is not a dictatorship. The concept of dictatorship presupposes the existence of a civil society which is independent of the state, which is something other than the state -- and is suppressed by the state. In the Soviet Union nobody was suppressed, because everybody was always already a part of the state apparatus. Everybody worked for the state. The relationship between Soviet state and Soviet population was not a political relationship -- not even a relationship of political suppression. It was a relationship between employer and employee. That is all. In the Soviet Union to be oppressed one has to create at first the possibility to be oppressed. One has to emancipate oneself to create a different space -- outside of the totalitarian space -- and then get oppressed. And that is what the participants of the Collective Actions Group did. In this sense the practice of this group is opposite to Western participation art. From Cabaret Voltaire to the happenings of the 1960s, artists tried to escape liberal democracy, individuation, aesthetic distance. It was a desire for totalitarian experience like the Romantic desire of the sublime. But in the case of participation art it is the experience of losing your individuality, dissolving your subjectivity in the ecstatic, Dionysian, totalitarian space -- the experience of the political sublime. As Hugo Ball says: "To experience the demise of an individual voice in the general sonoric chaos." Going to these happenings was like going to the Swiss mountains in the nineteenth century. To experience totalitarian frisson, but under the secure conditions of the Western state. In Moscow at the time we were living this frisson all the time. So in this situation one rather tries to construct artificially the position of spectator that does not exist in the society as a whole.
So the Collective Actions Group was trying to construct distance and externality?
To construct distance, construct spectatorship, construct the space of liberal democratic indecision -- because the Soviet state was already a huge participatory installation. Inside this space we were trying to create an artificial space of liberal democracy based on the separation between artist and spectator by going to this kind of desert, white desert. So it's space of nothingness. Not part of the state-occupied space. A private space, ultimately. However, it is clear that there is an intimate relationship between destruction and participative art. When a Futurist action destroys art in this traditional form, it also invites all the spectators to participate in this act of destruction, because it does not require any specific artistic skills. In this sense fascism is much more democratic than communism, of course. It is the only thing we can all participate in. So the Western participation art is a manifestation of nostalgia for an impossible dream of total destruction. And at the same time it is an act of total consumption, because the revolution of the 1960s was a revolution of consumption. Consumption is also an act of destruction. And what was a Soviet society? The Soviet society was a society of production without consumption. There was no spectator and no consumer. Everybody was involved in a productive process. So the role of Collective Actions and some other artists of the time was to create the possibility of consumption, the possibility of an external position from which one could enjoy communism. It was not a dissident position, not a position against the Soviet power. Only a very small group of dissidents were really against the Soviet power, but they actually didn't know what to do
If we are talking about destruction and participation, then a recent work comes to mind, a video by the Polish artist Artur Zmijewski called Them (2007). It revolves around a series of painting workshops between four different ideological groups: the young Jews, the young socialists, Polish nationalists and the Catholic church. Each group produces a symbolic image of their beliefs; each image is then amended by the other groups. The only rule of the game is that everyone can interfere with, amend, adjust, or destroy anyone else's image. Needless to say, it ends in complete conflagration, and the final shots show the studio full of smoke and the participants leaving the building. I think Zmijewski does actually want to achieve a progressive space of encounter, but he does this in a perverse way, by making the four groups confront each other. However, it is of course all stage managed -- in the style of reality television -- so he remains sovereign even though the events are not scripted and it is left open to people to play the game that he sets up.
I think sovereignty is a really relevant word here because the artist-sovereign controls the territory on which this destruction takes place. We have the same thing in the French Revolution, we have the same thing with the Russian Revolution -- Robespierre and Lenin controlling the space where the spontaneous collective destruction takes place.
Yes. I find it hard to be able to identify what kind of authorship takes place in a work such as Zmijewski's, where an artist sets up the rules of the game and watches it unfold, but without directing the action precisely, where the participants are given some agency. But then, of course, the artist's editing is highly selective. All the footage of the action is recovered into a 30-minute film that has a clear narrative and point of view.
Well, the artist as sovereign, as king, is not meant to do anything. He just symbolises and controls the place where everybody else does something. S/he authorises what these other people are doing. And is the ultimate author.
I think the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan is another person who is operating within the terms of Futurism today. He provokes and uses the media in a comparable way, although I believe he is lacking the political position that is so important to Futurism. One example is his work called Southern Supplies FC (1991). He put together a football team composed entirely of black immigrants and inserted them into a football league. They played matches, but ended up losing every game as they weren't very good. More important than the collaborative aspect of the work, and the use of the real-time system of a football league, is the image that circulates of this all-black Italian football team. This is very ambiguous politically; on the one hand, it's progressive (why not have an all-black football team?), on the other hand, the players are all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word Rauss (a play on raus, the German for "get out"). The word denotes a fictional sponsor, but also tells the uncomfortable truth of what many anti-immigration nationalists might think when seeing the picture. So it's a troubling image that cannot be read clearly one way or another.
We started by saying that the Futurists were extreme, but also very clownlike -- and Cattelan fits into this scenario very well. The Futurists didn't have any fear of looking laughable. And it was maybe a real emancipation, because contemporary art became very serious and so concerned with its public image. As well as Cattelan I would also include Oleg Kulik, whose early actions involve behaving like an aggressive dog, biting people and embarrassing them in the street -- but being a clown-esque entertainer at the same time. That also reminds me very much of the Futurists.
Yes. But, again, I think the thing that's lacking in all of these examples, which deal with provocation and media attention, is that none is aligned to an identifiable political position.
BORIS GROYS That's right. I think the connection here is only nostalgic. As I said, it's kind of playing with totalitarian sublime, but with totalitarian sublime that is already not dangerous.
Was Futurism the first of the right-wing avant-gardes?
Well, German Expressionism was partially affiliated to National Socialism in its early days.
It raises the question of which of the array of artistic positions we see around us today, globally, could be considered right-wing -- and is the art market?
Liberal democracy and market economy are not right-wing. I think we have to wait for that. Communism was from the beginning not unlike liberal democracy, because both of them are caring about the material wellbeing of people in the first place. That is why the war between them remained the Cold War. To create a true space of political participation one has to sacrifice his privacy -- ultimately his life. But who is ready to sacrifice anything at all today? Well, we have that now in Islamic fundamentalism. But in Western culture the tradition of pure sacrifice is predominantly a right-wing fascist tradition -- the only alternative to the liberal bio-politics that proclaim life to be of the highest value. In fact, we can see Futurism is a kind of artistic re-enactment of terrorism. There is a long tradition of Italian terrorism actually -- from the nineteenth century -- as there is a tong tradition of Russian terrorism. So that's two cultures where classic terrorism actually emerged, and also was conceptualised. So we can see Russian and Italian Futurism as a kind of nostalgic re-enactment of nineteenth-century terrorism... But against contemporary terrorism the artists have no chance in competition. The Futurists wanted to be like hurricane Katrina -- not like a shelter against it. Their every work can be understood as non -- constructive, nonobjective, senseless. Today, artists complain that they have no practical impact on society, that their projects fail, that they cannot change the world. But, fundamentally, every work is senseless and every project fails. The only difference between artist and non-artist is that the non-artist can not make the failure of his/her project a part of the next project -- and the artist can. Art is a wonderful place where you can reflect on the failure of utopia -- repeating this failure time and again. It is something that is almost impossible outside of art.
Is it? I'm not sure.
It is. It is impossible because, outside of art, failure has no value. If you fail, you just fail. But in art your failure becomes almost automatically an artistic achievement. At least you can always sell it as such.
Yes, I think that's true. I'm just a little resistant to it, because it sounds too easy.
Yeah, but it also applies to Futurismr, because all their actions failed. Neither did they create a new Italy, nor did they create a modern lifestyle...
But they gave momentum to a political project which did achieve changes and which did modernise...
And what happened? Mussolini came to power. And what happened after that? Mussolini failed. And now we don't like Mussolini, but we love Futurism because Futurism was not only a part of the fascist movement, it was also an aesthetic anticipation of the failure of the fascist movement. Futurism already reflected on the clown-esque, the absurdity and senselessness of the fascist action. It already prefigured and reflected on its kitsch aspects and complete ineffectiveness in real life. In this sense, I would say that Futurism created the aesthetics of fascism. At the same time it has shown the impossibility of this aesthetic and anticipated its failure -- and that's why we now can love Futurism even if we cannot love fascism.
Claire Bishop is associate professor in the history of art department at CUNY Graduate Center, New York.
Boris Groys is professor of philosophy and art history at ZKM, Karlsruhe, and global distinguished professor at the NYU, New York.
'Futurism' Tate Modern, 12 June-20 September, curated by Matthew Gale (head of displays and curator of modern art) with assistant curator Amy Dickson.
Costumes by Fortunato Depero for his ballet Machine of 3G09 (1924)
Gerado Dottori A Futum st Serata in Peruglo (1914) Ink or paper 21× 28. cm Courtesy Archive [Incomplete text in journal]
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in Paris in the 1920s
David Burliuk posing for a photograph in New York (c. 1920) Courtesy torway [Incomplete text in journal]
Poeter for the tour around St dullien le Pauvre church in Paris led by André Breton and Tristan Tzara as part of the Dada Sessor of 1921
Tristan Tzara reading to the crowd at St Julien le Pauvne church, Paris (1921) Courtesy BibllotFèqte Litré [Incomplete text in journal]
Hugo Ball resulting Korowons in a Cubist cost, me at the Cabarez Voltaire, Zürich (1946) Gelatin Silver print 71.5 × 40cm
The side of Hugo Ball's night to Lb Cabaret Voltaire as photogaphes in 1935 Courtesy Foundation Arp Courtesy [Incomplete text in journal]
Sol Goldberg's photograph of participants in Allan Kaprow's Women licking jom off of a cor, from his happening Housenold (1964) Courtesy [Incomplete text in journal]
Inside and outside views of Graciela Cannevale's action as part of the 'Cycle of Experimental Art', Rosaric, Argentina (1968) Courtesy [Incomplete text in journal]
Collective Actions Group's performance the Appoorence in the courtesy side outside Moscow (1976)
Still from Artur Zmijewski's © [Incomplete text in journal]
Oleg Kulik's performance The mod Dog or Last Tabco Cuorded by Alene sorber (1994)
Maurizio Cattelan Southern Supplies FC (1991) Colour Photograph, collage 11 × 100cm © [Incomplete text in journal]
Filippo Tomasso Marinetti [Incomplete text in journal] spaghetti in the late 1930s © [Incomplete text in journal]
|TITLE:||PERFORMANCE, SCULPTOR, AND CURATOR OLEG KULIK ON THE "KANDINSKY PRIZE IN LONDON" EXHIBITION.|
|SOURCE:||Modern Painters 21 no8 16-17 N 2009|
|COPYRIGHT:||The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. To contact the publisher: http://www.modernpainters.co.uk/|
Oleg Kulik left his native Kiev in 1987, when he was 26, for the brighter prospects of Moscow, a city in cultural ferment, thanks to the glasnost introduced by then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Kulik soon made a name for himself as curator of the Regina Gallery with installations transgressing the boundaries of what exhibitions should be: For a retrospective of the Ukrainian painter Oleg Golosiy, for instance, he put paintings on wheels so that viewers could arrange them as they pleased, and for a group show of Regina artists, he hired people to hold the artworks in their hands. But his greatest celebrity, or perhaps notoriety, came from his own performance art. His most attention-getting work may have been his 1994 collaboration with fellow Moscow artist and wild man Alexander Brener: Mad Dog, the Last Taboo Protected by a Lonely Cerberus, in which Kulik transmogrified into the "original animal," a man-dog. Later he made headlines with the 2005 "I Believe." The group show, curated for the Winzavod Art Center, the nexus of Moscow's contemporary art scene, questioned the role of faith and religion as a personal motive in contemporary art and art production. Public reactions ranged from the openly hostile to the enthusiastically supportive.
Kulik's latest curatorial endeavor is the "Kandinsky Prize in London," which opened October 17 and runs through December 10 at the Louise Blouin Foundation, in West London. The show features works by more than 30 Russian artists and collectives who competed for the 2008 Kandinsky Prize, which was established in 2007 by the Deutsche Bank and the Art Chronika Culture Foundation to help nurture contemporary art in Russia and whose winner receives a cash award of some € 40,000 (,000). The purse last year went to the 44-year-old Moscow-based artist Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt. Valentin Diaconov discusses the prize and the current Russian scene with the controversial Oleg Kulik.
How did the opportunity to curate the Kandinsky Prize show come about? Were you invited to do the job?
Not exactly. I presented a project -- one among many -- and the Art Chronika Culture Foundation seemed to like it more than the others.
Why have you chosen these artists?
I think that every artist I've selected for this show infuses his or her work with a little bit of individual experience. That's a rare thing, especially in Russian art, which consists of commentary and cultural studies where the artist makes a choice of what is good and what isn't good. From the individualities, I tried to construct something of a fairy tale. I'd love to present Russian art as an organic environment, a space in progress, not a showcase of finished works with distinct messages. This exhibition is a chance to create a field of communication where different energies meet. It isn't a scholarly review or a presentation of current trends.
What do you think about the controversy surrounding the divided jury's decision to award the prize to Moscow artist Alexey Beliayev-Guintovt last year?
The art scene is all about emotions. Beliayev-Guintovt was called a fascist, but he's definitely not.
How do you want to present the Russian art scene?
There are a lot of people who think that Russian art is underdeveloped. On the contrary, I think that Russian art is very progressive. It is much more refined, and it builds itself around the hard edges that exist in today's society and politics. But it wasn't my objective to make an exhibition that would present a profound overview of Russian art. That's impossible with a show that builds on the results of a competition. I'm ascribing value to artists and making statements about Russia as a whole. Basically I am playing God. For me every artist is good. My goal is to make something exciting.
If you had to give the show a title, what would it be?
"Once upon a Time in a Barn," a paraphrase of a Sergio Leone movie. It's because I really love barns, hastily built things that became barracks for workers to live in as industry grew in Soviet Russia. I love being inside these buildings when I'm in the country. The cracks between the wooden panels let flashes of light in, creating psychedelic effects. It's all about atmosphere, you see.
Are there topics that you want to explore?
Yes. I want to underline the category of process in Russian art -- the perpetual state of incompleteness that the West hardly recognizes. Our art is eternally unfinished. That's what hardly registers on critics' radar, even in Russia. Artists have a transparency complex, a psychological state when you think that nobody sees you or knows you exist. That's why Russian art managers try so hard to make an impression, to invade the Venice Biennale with numerous projects, for instance. In my career I followed a similar path. When I came to Moscow, I made glass sculptures -- transparent figurative things -- and nobody liked them. So I switched to curating shows at the Regina Gallery, one of the first commercial spaces in Moscow. Then I became a performer, created a huge scandal with my man-dog antics, got a show at Deitch Projects, and after that I felt the freedom to go on as an artist.
Tell me about your early work as a curator. Did you have to suppress your ego to work with other artists?
Curating took up a lot of my energy -- just as much as my personal projects-but the result was much more impressive. I learned a lot about art when I curated. I discovered the aesthetic and formal mechanics of art, so to speak. And the gallery was the place where I've become a spaceoholic. I understood how the white cube works.
What show do you consider your best as a curator?
"Leopards Bursting into a Temple" by Anatoly Osmolovsky in 1992. We had this space where two naked people were put into a cell and live leopards were strolling around. I think this exhibition was a metaphor for everything new and lively that appears in our life. This show gave one a feeling of authenticity in art, something unforgettably important.
You also curated a show for the Third Moscow Biennale's Parallel program. What was that about?
It was called "Spatial Liturgy #3." The number three is there because I'm counting from the "I Believe" project, which was part of the inaugural Moscow Biennale. The second event was the opera I designed for the Théâtre du Châtelet, in Paris, Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine. So "Spatial Liturgy" was third in this series, and it was based on the concept of shadow theater. My team and I filmed remakes of performances by Russian artists from the 1980s to the present day. We had 50 television screens installed in a labyrinth with special lighting effects where viewers were duplicated -- they met their shadow doubles.
So the artists who did the original performances are devoid of personality?
Yes, that's the point. Artists who never even met each other suddenly look alike and establish a virtual connection.
Will your performances be featured?
Yes, a couple.
Performance art was all the rage in the beginning of the 1990s. Why do you think it was so important to post-Soviet Russia? Is it because artists learned how to speak individually and felt the power to do so?
No, it wasn't about the power of a personal message; it wasn't about power at all. People learned to speak for themselves. These artists behaved as if they had just hatched from the egg of ideology, because they had. They had lived in a country where art was underground; it was not present in the social scheme of things. And suddenly art had this opportunity to go outside, in the street, and participate in life. Of course you could continue to create behind closed doors, but my generation felt that it's not enough.
Boris Markovnikov, Sinner from the series "Faces," 2008; Oil of canvas, 703/4 × 63 in.
Sergey Kostrikov, installation view of Pyramid, Moscow Museum of Modern Arts, 2007. Glue toilet paper, acrylic, 131/4 × 93/4 × 93/4 ft.
SERGE GOLOVACH 2007; POP/OFF/AM GALLERY/PHIVATE COLLECTION. OPPOSITE, FROM TOP: STELLA ART FOUNDATION; THE ARTIST AND KROKIN GALLERY
|TITLE:||Brian Molanphy: Clay Man on Fire|
|SOURCE:||Ceramics (Sydney, Australia) no81 16-19 2010|
|COPYRIGHT:||The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. To contact the publisher: http://www.ceramicart.com.au/|
Did I request thee, maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Milton, Paradise Lost [X.743-5]
ON THURSDAY, 16 APRIL, AT APPROXIMATELY FIVE IN the afternoon, Brian Molanphy set the world on fire with his performance, Silly Fuss in Gallery 371, Alberta College of Art + Design. The performance served to spark Molanphy's week-long show, Staring at Shadows Shimmering in the Shade, into full-flaming splendour by bringing our attention to a very important idea, 'transmutation'. Indeed, Silly Fuss showed us how transmuting environments can be deeply off-putting but are, nonetheless, vitally necessary for fostering critical creative thoughts and expressions, even in clay's domains.
To transmute is to change some thing's form, properties or nature. It is not quite the same as 'transmogrify' which implies change into something completely bizarre or 'transform' which is limited to changing tangible properties. 'Transmute' could comprise 'transmogrification' and 'transformation' and of the three is more sophisticated, without doubt, for its broad range of influence and subtle innovations. Like fire, transmutation is performance that celebrates change for the sake of change but not without honouring things certainly lost and hopefully gained and, while doing so, it demonstrates critical/creative thinking by revelling in the space between known and unknown realms. Molanphy's ceramics champion the idea of transmutation.
Molanphy's performance consisted of him entering Gallery 371 and immediately throwing his body into the task of transmuting an empty, open-topped square box of white-slipped red clay (5' × 5' × 3') into an empty tube (of similar scale), what Molanphy refers to as The Squirreled. The off-putting nature of the performance was due to a reek like faeces caused by the fermenting slip covering. Squircles, squares with rounded corners, are rarely considered offensive in an olfactory sense but Molanphy's Squircle was meant to defy conventional understandings. It appeared as a clay square surrounding a circular void that would be transmuted into a clay circle surrounding a square void. The performance was to be seen as a play in action, trying out and testing new relationships and seeing relationships that come about by chance.
The ceramist arrived clad in an all-white uniform with white leather clogs, like a surgeon ready for operating, although he did not tie back his long dark hair. Once fully engaged with the wet clay Squircle, Molanphy's body quickly became stained and soiled. Along with the smacking and sucking sounds of mud in transmutation, bits of pink raw clay stuck in his hair and beard, as one might imagine giblets hanging in a predatorial maw. This performance was hardly ordinary and testified for the greatness of other primordial mythical battles, like Hercules against the nine-headed Hydra.
Because I arrived a little late and did not see Molanphy in the room and because I am a man of letters who is unfamiliar with the ways of ceramics, I honestly initially thought Molanphy's performance consisted of him defecating in the room and then quickly leaving. I certainly recall how the smell of decay drove some people away. But once Molanphy arrived, his laborious effort, in ways both systematic and brutal, interested others and gained their sympathy. He moved round and round, folding down the top edge of the blue-gray slip-glistening Squircle, peeling its bulk, like skin off of a void, punching fist marks into the surface, showing red beneath, opening corners to uncover ash and use it to dust the Squircle and finalize a dry gray finish. Transmutation as a death rehearsal? Perhaps.
But better and more than death Silly Fuss, perceived as an intrusive happening upon staring at shadows shimmering in the shade, represented a postmodern rendering of medieval imagination. Like a gargoyle working the cornices of a 12th century church or grotesque scholia (interpretative commentary and illuminations) inscribed in the margins of ancient manuscripts, Molanphy's labour and Squircle offset its host-show's pristine certainty, apparent univocal incisiveness, temporal continuity as a narrative and logical unity as a set of ideas. Silly Fuss bodied forth a marginalised voice boldly and ironically from the centre of Gallery 371 so that dynastic oration was compromised by dialogical conversation. Staring at Shadovs's Purity and Isolation was revealed as illusionary as its apparent singular meaning was transmuted into a succession of fragmentary comments to be gathered and added to the detritus accumulating with the passing of epochs.
Molanphy's sisyphean solution to the circle-square dilemma was an effortful passion that suggested obsession of the highest order: so exclusive that it created a closed abstract system. But while manifesting a system based on a squircle's impossible hybrid geometry, the clay maker's obsession became a celebration of the absurd. While working the clay, Molanphy appeared to be thinking of a story to rival those that had excited him to the task. He spoke to the mysterious fears of his audience's collective nature and awakened in us a thrilling horror -- one to make us dread to look round, to curdle our blood and quicken the beatings of our hearts. This performed absurdity became almost luscious, truly grotesque and yet retained its brilliance as something thoughtfully inventive by seizing on the capabilities of its subject (transmutation) and powerfully moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.
Staring at Shadows Shimmering in the Shade came with a program of sorts that included Asekoff's poem, The Gate of Horn. The poem was read impromptu during Silly Fuss. The spontaneous verbal outburst may be understood as the witnessing audience's attempt to counterbalance Molanphy's intensely expressed physical relationship with the Squircle with the possibly more conventionally appropriate public performance of poetry reading. Somehow words can make safe a disconcerting viewing. This moment represented an act of public sublimation, where denial of emotional intensity informs the audience's collective narrative and becomes the basis for regaining safety at all costs. Here the audience was successfully caught in Molanphy's web of critical-creative genius, engaged in its own transmutative act and seen to be aflame in its own raw mix of carelessness and desire.
But The Gate of Horn offers more to Silly Fuss's profundity. Knowing that poetry lurked in the room while Molanphy laboured, it becomes impossible to not think that the transmutation of an absurdly monstrous Squircle represented a critical-creative reflection on ceramics itself and the craft of clay. The narrative voice behind Asekoff's poem may speak for Molanphy the performer. He says, "Forgive me if 1 seem a bit at sea / but you woke me from a dream of words / I was setting to music." Molanphy, the performer, is not happy about being awakened from his dream of words (he was late for the show, after all) and sees waking life as a potentially burdensome affair, like my Miltonic epigraph's speaker, Adam. Both appear grumpy about the prospect of having to face symbolic order's demand for meeting deadlines and acting responsibly in public. But Molanphy ingeniously corrects Adam's despair by showing how clay maker is no closer to heaven than the clay he makes. Creator and created, pot and potter, are considered one in life's Silly Fuss, burning brightly albeit briefly and pungently.
In The Gate of Horn's final lines, we imagine Molanphy, the performer, lamenting life's brevity and the loss of clear vision it seems to entail, "What do I miss most at my age?... / Seeing the stars." Milton's postlapserian Adam also complains about losing sight of stars. What we will miss most at ACAD due to passing time and the completion of Molanphy's residency is his active and engaging presence. Brian Molanphy shared his fiery critical-creative self in forms of ceramics, performance and teaching and while doing so he transmuted the college into a better place. Those of us left behind must keep the fire burning.
Christopher Frey is a professor of Narrative in the Alberta College of Art + Design's (ACAD) Liberal Studies department. Brian Molanphy completed a one-year residency as Visiting Artist/Instructor at (ACAD) in the summer of 2009. Along with teaching, the visitor publishes research, usually in the form of an on-campus exhibition near the end of the term. Molanphy presented Staring at Shadows Shimmering in the Shade from 12 to 18 April in ACAD's Gallery 371. The show was based on The Gate of Horn, a poem by Louis Asekoff, current coordinator Brooklyn College's MFA in Poetry. In addition, during the show's Closing reception, a happening occurred, where Molanphy performed in conjunction with interactive ceramic projects created by Shura Galbraith and Desiree Shelley, students from the CRMKC 222 Experimental class. The happening Silly Fuss la Sisyphean solution to the circle-square dilemma and filmed by photographers Dale Vandenberg, Joe Kelly and Larry Desjarlais.
Silly Fuss. Clay. 100 × 140 × 140 cm.
Molanphy Collapses the Squircle.
Molanphy Collapses the Squircle.
Molanphy Transforms the Squircle.
Molanphy During the Performance.
All photos by Paul Brown.
Molanphy Transforms the Squircle.
Top left photo by Dale Vandenberg.
The Squircle is Transformed (Detail).
The Squircle is Transformed Molanphy squares up the interior.
Photos by Dale Vandenberg.
Top right and above photos by Paul Browyo.
Photos by Paul Brown.
1. de Bono, Edward. The Use of Lateral Titinking. Middlesex: Pelican, 1977.
2. Brown, Glen R. "On the Margins: Ceramic Sculpture, Centering and Decentering." The Margius (exhibition catalogue). Phoenix, AZ: The Icehouse, 2009, pp. vi-ix.
3. Frey, Cecelia. A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing. Vancouver: Brindle & Glass, 2009.
4. Krauss, Rosalind. "Lewitt in Progress." October #6, Fall 1978, 46-60.
5. Perreault, John. "Fear of Clay." Artforum, April 1982, 70-1.
6. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Bedford: Boston, 2000.
|TITLE:||Unnecessary Duplicates: Identity and Technology in the Performances of Laurie Anderson|
|SOURCE:||Art Papers 24 no1 28-33 Ja/F 2000|
The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.
The first thing viewers see in Laurie Anderson's new performance, Songs and Stories from Moby Dick (1999), is a large, black-bound book on a dark stage, illuminated by a single shaft of light, its pages turning and fluttering.(FN1) Although this image suggests the importance of Herman Melville's novel to Anderson's performance, she did not create it for Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. Rather, it is one of many recurrent images in her work, appearing first as a sculpture titled Windbook (1975). Anderson is an inveterate recycler: her work is made up of units--including visual images, sounds, songs, and stories--that may begin as individual works in themselves, then reappear in combination with others as elements in Anderson's large-scale pieces. Often, these units transgress the boundaries between artforms: Windbook began as a sculpture--the same image appeared in one of Anderson's videos, and now is part of a live performance. One of Anderson's earliest performances was Duets on Ice (1972), in which she played the violin while standing on iceskates embedded in blocks of ice. Images of the skates, the ice, and the violin all reappear, without Anderson, in a section of her CD-ROM, Puppet Motel (1995).(FN2) An animated figure of a featureless man running in profile has appeared in Anderson's work since at least the early 1980s; it reappears on the CD-ROM, where it sometimes is used as a cursor, and in Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, where it appears as a projected computer animation and is also embodied by a live actor. United States (1983), Anderson's monumental, seven-hour performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was in large part a retrospective of the performances she had been making for the previous 10 years.(FN3) Puppet Motel similarly provides an archival view of her work in various media.
Anderson accepts the term "performance art" as a description of the distinctive hybrids she creates, though her artistic training was in sculpture and she has worked in both two- and three-dimensional visual artforms, as well as in film, video, and digital media. She is also a musician; she studied the violin when young and has made numerous recordings of her music. Her song "O Superman" (1981), originally recorded for a small New York label and later distributed by Warner Brothers, became a #2 pop hit in the United Kingdom, bringing an aspect of her work to a much wider audience than she had enjoyed as a visual artist on New York's Soho art scene. Her own definition of performance art is humorously broad: "Something live that doesn't look too much like theater."(FN4)
She emphasizes that her work is primarily about storytelling, comparing the high-tech devices she frequently uses to a fire around which stories are told: "Storytelling has always been about people huddling around a fire. To me, electronics has the mystery and power of fire...."(FN5) The stories and images that recur in her work reflect her obsessive themes. The focus of this article is on one of those themes, the concept of identity, particularly in relation to Anderson's uses of technology in her performances.(FN6)
One of the hallmarks of Anderson's performance work has been her penchant for technological bricolage. Early in her career, she created musical instruments, usually variations on the violin, to use in her performances. One of these, the Viophonograph (1976) consisted of a violin with a turntable mounted in its body. The bow contained a phonograph needle; as a record turned on the surface of the violin, Anderson would place the bow with the needle on it, thus playing the record. Another instrument, similar in concept to the Viophonograph but more sophisticated in execution, is the Tape Bow Violin (1977), a violin with a magnetic playback head mounted on the bridge. Anderson, who still uses this instrument, stretches tapes of various sounds on violin bows, and plays them by pulling the tape across the playback head. By controlling the speed and articulation of the bow, Anderson is able to achieve remarkable variations in pitch and dynamics as she plays back the recorded sounds. Since the 1980s, Anderson has engaged with more and more complex technologies; her performances now make extensive use of digital audio and visual displays. Anderson's latest technological innovation, the Talking Stick, appears in Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. She describes it as "a new wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound" and as a "digital descendant of turntables."(FN7) The Talking Stick is thus a direct descendant of Anderson's phono-fiddle, suggesting that one of Anderson's quests, throughout her performing and musical career, has been to find ever more sophisticated technological means of incorporating pre-existing sounds and voices into her work.
Anderson's use of Melville's novel in Songs and Stories from Moby Dick represents a new departure in her work. While she has always quoted (or perhaps "sampled" might be a better description) from other writers in her performance texts--including Melville, Shakespeare, and William S. Burroughs--she had not previously created a performance that could be considered an adaptation of another work. Although Anderson observes in her program note that only "approximately ten percent" of the text of Moby Dick appears in her piece, she does retell faithfully Melville's tale of Captain Ahab's monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale. Most of the stories she had included in earlier performances, and the ones she interpolates into Moby Dick in the new piece, seem to be autobiographical. On her audio CD The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories (1995), a recording of stories from the performance and book Stories from the Nerve Bible, Anderson states that her stories there are taken from encounters with people she has met in her travels. In this respect, there is a surface resemblance between Anderson's performance work and that of other artists of the same generation--the generation that emerged in Soho in the late 1970s--who also use autobiography. This trend gave rise to a spate of autobiographical presentations in the 1980s and to the current dominance of autobiographical storytelling in the field of performance art.
Anderson was one of the first performance artists to draw on her own life for material, and her uses of those materials have always been more complex than those of performers who simply recount their lives. The relationship between Anderson's stories and her life is much more ambiguous than it may seem. Anderson acknowledges the autobiographical origins of much of her material, but has also pointed to the moment in the early 1980s, around the time she was developing the performances that would make up the monumental United States, when she "discovered the second person and I realized I could say 'you' instead of 'me,' and that changed everything. I didn't have to stick to 'me.'"(FN8) In a monologue titled "The Salesman," Anderson defines the role of the artist as that of a spy, going on to say that she enjoys eavesdropping on other people's phone conversations in airports.(FN9) Both Anderson's movement from the first person to the second (which means she is speaking to the audience rather than about herself) and her notion of the artist as spy suggest that her work entails a measure of detachment, that her persona as storyteller is removed to some degree from the stories she tells. Indeed, the characteristic tone of voice she uses when telling stories is that of a somewhat ironic observer rather than a participant, even when the stories recount events in her own life.
That the facts of Anderson's life seem to change with each retelling raises questions about just how autobiographical her stories could be.(FN10) A story from an Anderson performance of 1978, Like a Stream, begins as follows:
"I went to a palm reader and the odd thing about the session was that almost everything she said was totally wrong. She said, 'I see here that you love to fly...' and planes terrify me. She said, "I read here that someone named Terry is the most important person in your life' and I have never known anyone with that name except once I had a fish named Terry. She gave me all this information, however, with such certainty that I began to feel I was walking around with a pair of false documents permanently tattooed to my hands. Had I known a Terry?"(FN11)
When this story reappeared in United States, the corresponding portion went this way:
"I went to a palm reader and the odd thing about the reading was that everything she told me was totally wrong. She said I loved airplanes, that I had been born in Seattle, that my mother's name was Hilary. But she seemed so sure of the information that I began to feel like I'd been walking around with these false documents permanently tattooed to my hands."(FN12)
Although the changes in the story do not reflect a move from first to second person, the story has been considerably depersonalized. The speaker no longer reveals her emotions or self-doubts to us: "planes terrify me," "I had a fish named Terry," "Had I known a Terry?" have all disappeared, reducing the degree to which the speaker seems actively present in her own experience. The change of examples from the name Terry to the place of Anderson's birth and her mother's name raises the question of to what extent the story is, in fact, autobiographical and how (or why) Anderson selected certain details for one version and others for another. The story is about identity and authority, about the way in which the palm reader's authoritative interpretation makes Anderson feel uncertain about the relationship between her identity and the outward signs of that identity, like the marks on her palms. The palm reader is familiar with a language (the language of palm lines) that Anderson cannot read; therefore, her authority is unquestionable and Anderson is left feeling that her own hands are somehow false representations of herself.(FN13) The story Anderson tells, like the lines on her palms, is part of herself and appears autobiographical, yet the differences between the two versions suggest that one, the other, or both also may be "false documents" that give no real indication of who Laurie Anderson is.
Even as Anderson tells stories about herself, she undermines the authority of those stories by leaving open the question of their truth. As Anderson herself has said, somewhat enigmatically: "There was always a question in my mind about what's actually true, and what's just another artform."(FN14) Her work is thus very different from autobiographical performance art that depends on the audience's perceiving the performer's narrative as confessional. The ambiguous ways Anderson employs her own biography and physical presence in her performances reflect the desire she has spoken of to present "disembodied stories" and to disappear.(FN15) To that end, she has performed in a white costume that enabled her to blend into images projected over her, and in a black costume that simply enabled her to slip into shadow.(FN16) Her uses of technology also reflect this desire for disembodiment and disappearance, as she employs various sophisticated technologies to disguise herself or create surrogates for herself. Her earliest uses of technology in this way involved devices that alter the sound of her voice, including the harmonizer and vocoder. By these means, she alters the pitch of her voice or splits her voice into several voices harmonizing with one another.
Her best-known use of the harmonizer is to produce the male-sounding voice she refers to as "the Voice of Authority." Anderson typically uses her "male" voice to pontificate or lecture to the audience. In United States, this voice described "the highly sophisticated (very expensive) state-of-the-art gadgetry" she used in that performance, making a point of saying "this stuff does not grow on trees" (emphasizing both the cost and the inorganic nature of the equipment). Anderson preceded and contextualized this description of her equipment with a description of a dream in which the "male" Anderson spoke of "teaching cave people how to use blenders and toasters" and read the publicity brochure for United States itself. Anderson's "male" voice thus became the voice of hucksterism, the voice that sells people things they don't really need, including performance art. In this segment of the performance, Anderson implicitly addressed accusations that she had "sold out" by accepting a recording contract from Warner Brothers and moving her work from the New York avant-garde into more mainstream cultural contexts. Anderson did not exactly defend herself--rather, she offered a more complex response in which she allowed the "male" voice to play the part of the huckster and sellout. By speaking in the first person, but distorting her voice, Anderson both identified with and distanced herself from that position. In terms of identity, Anderson used the technology to produce a voice that occupied an ambiguous territory: it both was and was not Anderson's own voice. It spoke for her, yet did not speak for her.
Another way Anderson uses technology to simultaneously assert and displace her own identity and presence is by including other people's voices in her performances through various forms of sampling. In the performance documented in the film Home of the Brave (1986), Anderson incorporates the author William S. Burroughs into her performance text. During the song "Late Show," Anderson "plays" Burroughs' voice on her Tape Bow Violin. A recording of Burroughs saying "Listen to my heartbeat," a line from another of Anderson's songs, "Sharkey's Night," is on the tape mounted on the bow. Through the mediation of electronics, Anderson's and Burroughs' voices and identities merge: the voice that emerges from the Tape Bow Violin both is and is not Burroughs'. Burroughs "authored" the performance on the tape by speaking the line, but Anderson wrote the words he spoke and controls their articulation with her bow. The voice that emerges from the instrument is Anderson's in that she plays it, yet it is not her voice on the tape. To further complicate matters, the line "Listen to my heartbeat" reappears later in Home of the Brave. This time, Anderson speaks the line, using her digitally synthesized male voice. Her altered voice sounds, in fact, very much like Burroughs' altered voice during "Late Show." It is impossible to assign this voice to either Anderson or Burroughs: it belongs to both and to neither. This technological merging of voices allows Anderson to assert her identity and presence, since it is her creation, while simultaneously allowing Anderson's voice to lose its distinctive identity by merging with Burroughs'.
Anderson has also used technology to create surrogates for herself. One of these is the male "video clone" with whom she first appeared on the PBS television program Alive from Off-Center. The clone is a short, almost dwarfish, version of Anderson who speaks in a more masculine voice, though not the Voice of Authority. Anderson has sometimes claimed that her video clone stays home and does her creative work while she ventures out into the world to present and publicize it. This is Anderson's wry comment on the wages of celebrity, that she no longer seems to have time both to do the creative work for which she is famous and to capitalize on her fame. her construction of a clone that is noticeably different from herself may also refer to another aspect of celebrity. In Home of the Brave, Anderson recounts an anecdote in which she "turned the corner in Soho today and someone/Looked right at me and said: Oh no!/Another Laurie Anderson Clone!"(FN18) (Presumably, the speaker Anderson encounters in this story is referring to people who have taken on Anderson's distinctive look as a fashion.) In this anecdote, Anderson herself has lost control of the cloning process, to the point where she is mistaken for one of her clones; the original is confused with a copy. Anderson's male video clone may represent her effort to regain control: when she constructs a clone, it turns out to be an entity that strongly resembles her but cannot be mistaken for her.
Another surrogate is the puppet who appears on the Puppet Motel CD-ROM. The puppet looks like a marionette version of Anderson, with her well-known spiky hair; it wears a black jacket and tie, and is adorned with the kind of headset microphone Anderson uses on stage. It is apparently male, however, for he speaks in the Voice of Authority. Despite his resemblance to Anderson, he refers to her in the third person. The puppet is a sort of host who speaks directly to the user of the CD-ROM; like the Voice of Authority in United States, he also tries to sell products (digital cosmetics) to the user. In one segment of Puppet Motel, the puppet offers the viewer the opportunity to sit with him and watch a video. The video turns out to be one in which Anderson debates the issue of whether dance is geographic or architectonic with her video clone. Thus, three versions of Anderson are present in this scene: Anderson herself, her video clone, and her digital puppet. One of these figures, the puppet, serves as a spectator to the debate between the other two, suggesting the detached, observational relationship Anderson has to stories from her own life. Paradoxically, this splitting of Anderson into three figures has much the same effect of disappearance as her distorting her voice or melding it with another's--indeed, Anderson has referred to her use of electronics to create new characters by distorting her voice as a "puppet show."(FN19) In Puppet Motel, Anderson is present in three different guises, none of which can be mistaken for either of the others, but the figure of the "real" Anderson enjoys no more presence or authority in this context than her replicants. In the digital realm, she and her surrogates are equivalent and interchangeable.
Anderson pursues this theme of disappearance through replication in Songs and Stories from Moby Dick.(FN20) One of Melville's more philosophical passages clearly resonates with Anderson's own preoccupations. "Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone, and he seems a wonder, a grandeur and a woe. But from the same point take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary." Through her uses of technology as means of fracturing and decentering her own presence and identity, Anderson has long explored the question that Melville raises concerning the value of individual human beings. The technological hybrids and duplicates she has created from herself suggest that the technology on which her work depends may ultimately usurp her own presence. Technological reproduction may transform the real person into an "unnecessary duplicate."
Most of Anderson's performances have featured her alone on stage; in some cases, she has been accompanied by other musicians but has remained the central figure. Songs and Stories from Moby Dick represents a new development in that Anderson shares the stage with three singing male actors. The presence of more bodies on stage brings this piece somewhat closer to conventional theatre than her previous work,(FN21) and has allowed Anderson to address the theme of duplication using living human presences as well as digital media. Duplication abounds in Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, from splitscreen video projections in which the lefthand and righthand images mirror one another, to a moment when three performers all appear as Captain Ahab, to another when two performers on stage are multiplied into a crowd by means of repeated, projected video images of themselves. Most provocative is Anderson's duplication of herself. While still the dominant presence as the creator of the performance. Anderson has become much less prominent as a performer. One performer, Price Waldman, in fact, duplicates and replaces Anderson at several points in the production. At one point, he speaks a monologue in a perfectly-pitched imitation of Anderson's characteristically deadpan delivery. Later, at the start of the second act, he reappears in a blonde frightwig to give a lecture, normally the kind of text Anderson would deliver herself, using the Voice of Authority. Waldman's voice is distorted electronically to make it sound like that stereotypically "male" voice. Anderson thus posits herself as replicable and replaceable, even in her own performance. The computer enables a man to duplicate a woman's duplication of a man's voice, and the voice's true identity and point of origin get lost in the technological shuffle.
Just as United States was Anderson's summary statement for the mid-1980s, so Songs and Stories from Moby Dick is her major work of the 1990s, bringing together many of her central themes and images. There are important thematic similarities between the two works. Both deal in distinctly American imagery and mythology, and both are organized around the concept of a search or quest. In United States, the search is for a home, a sense of belonging and identity. In Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, Anderson melds her thematic concerns with Melville's mythic story of Captain Ahab's search for the white whale. In both cases, the quests are futile--it's not clear in United States that there is a home to be found. In her program note for Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, Anderson states that she was attracted to one of Melville's "dark conclusion[s]," "the idea that what you look for your whole life will eventually eat you alive."
Anderson has addressed this issue throughout her performing career by means of her engagement with advanced technologies. On the one hand, she has used those technologies to her own ends to mutate her identity and allow herself to disappear. On the other hand, doing so always entails the risk of losing control and being eaten alive by the technology. This dynamic is one of the things that makes Anderson's work at once so accessible and so intriguing: as our world becomes increasingly digitized and mediatized, the spectacle of one woman's largely triumphant struggle with technology becomes increasingly compelling. One might see much the same risk in Anderson's transition from the artistic avant-garde into the commodity economy of popular art as a Warner Brothers recording artist. Anderson embraces such risks and has incorporated them into her performance work as productive tensions for over 20 years. Songs and Stories from Moby Dick represents a new kind of risk, that of tackling a canonical literary masterwork without either trivializing it or being overwhelmed by it. Anderson negotiates this dangerous terrain by using Moby Dick as a vehicle for exploring her own thematic concerns without treating the book as a mere pretext. Rather, Melville and Anderson are revealed to be kindred spirits pursuing similar narrative obsessions. Anderson's success in this endeavor may be a harbinger of a new moment in performance art, a time when peformers will emerge from the shell of autobiographical solipsism to take the risk of allowing their private concerns to be seen in the context of larger artistic and cultural traditions.
Philip Auslander is a Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he teaches Performance Studies, Media Studies, and Cultural Studies. His books include: Presence and Resistance:Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (1992) and From Acting to Performance: Essays in Modernism and Postmodernism (1997). His new book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (1999) examines the relationship of live performance to mass media in theatre, performance art, rock music, and legal proceedings.
Tom Nelis (center) performs in the Spoleto Festival USA production of Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, 1999 (photo by William Struhs, courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA).
Laurie Anderson performs in Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, 1999 (photo by Neil Selkirk, courtesy of Annie Ohayon Media Relations).
Performance view of Laurie Anderson's United States, 1983 (photo by Perry Hoberman, courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery).
Laurie Anderson performs Duets on Ice, 1972 (photo by Bob Bielecki, courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery).
Skúli Sverrisson and Laurie Anderson perfrom in the Spoleto Festival USA production of Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, 1999 (photo by William Struhs, courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA).
1. I saw Songs and Stories from Moby Dick at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 1999. The production will be shown at other venues, and is considered by Anderson to be a work in progress. Therefore, my descriptions here may no longer be accurate.
2. Laurie Anderson, with Hsin-Chien Huang, Puppet Motel (New York: Voyager, 1995).
3. United States was documented as a book and a sound recording released by Warner Brothers. The performance documentary film Home of the Brave (1986), which is available on video, includes some of the material from the longer performance.
4. John Howell, Laurie Anderson (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992), p. 35.
5. Laurie Anderson, Empty Places: A Performance (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 113.
6. Janet Kardon catalogues many of Anderson's recurrent images in "Language and Image, Theme and Motif" in Howell, pp. 127-138.
7. Laurie Anderson, Program Note for Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. Anderson developed the Talking Stick in conjunction with Interval Research and Bob Bielecki, a designer she has worked with for many years.
8. Howell, p. 36.
9. Laurie Anderson, "The Salesman," The Ugly One with the Jewels, Warner Brothers Records, 1995.
10. Parts of this essay, including this discussion of autobiography in Anderson, are adapted from my book Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural Politics in Contemporary American Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992).
11. Laurie Anderson, "Notes from Like a Stream," in Performance by Artists, ed. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1979), p. 48.
12. Laurie Anderson, United States (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), no page number.
13. Languages, sign systems, and the vagaries of interpretation are on-going themes that have preoccupied Anderson throughout her artistic career. Since I cannot offer even a partial summary of her treatment of those themes here, I will simply point to a statement that Anderson appropriated from William S. Burroughs as emblematic: "Language is a virus."
14. Anderson, "The Salesman."
15. In the program note for Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, Anderson describes her newest technological innovation, the Talking Stick, as "invok[ing] disembodiment, phantom voices."
16. Howell, pp. 59-60.
17. Home of the Brave, dir. Laurie Anderson. Warner Brothers, 1986.
18. Laurie Anderson, "Talk Normal," lyrics from liner notes to the Home of the Brave soundtrack recording, Waner Brothers, 1986.
19. Howell, p. 60.
20. This section is adapted from my review of Songs and Stories from Moby Dick, ArtForum 38.2 (October 1999), pp. 150-151,
21. I noted above that Anderson defines performance art as live performance that is not "too much like theater." In the same interview, she states, "I hate theater. I hate all those bodies onstage. It's too real" (Howell, p. 59).
I will be shot with a rifle at 7:45 P.M. I hope to have some good photos. —Chris Burden
Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, Venice, California, April 23, 1974
Burden: © the artist/courtesy Gagoslan Gallery, New York
Melanie Bonajo, Furniture Bondage: Hanna, 2007
Bonajo: courtesy the artist/P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
There is something iconic about the images of performance from the 1960s and '70s. The photographic documentation of fabled Happenings and other actions—by the Fluxus artists, Viennese Actionists, Nouveaux Realistes, and individuals associated with these groups, either closely or by influence: Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, Vito Acconci, Yves Klein, Adrian Piper, and others—may strike us today like rarified chronicles of some lost tribe's obscure rituals. Wounded arms, conversations with dead rabbits, leaps into the void, self-inflicted bite marks, profane orgies, scrolls unfurling like viscera from the recesses of the body . . . such actions have gained a prolonged life through photographs; they are now burnished in the imaginations of artists, critics, and art historians, to the point that at least some of them seem to be permeated by an unmistakable air of the sacred.
Photography serves performance in many ways: by saving the ephemeral instant from disappearance, by compOSing a moment at its narrative and symbolic zenith, and sometimes by banishing from the frame all that may have distracted the actual witnesses of the event.
Chris Burden's 1974 riff on Christian martyrdom, Trans-fixed, lasted barely two minutes at the Speedway Garage in Venice, California, and was seen by only a handful of people from across the street. The image of the artist's body splayed over the roof of a Volkswagen bug—to which Burden's hands had been nailed by an assistant—represents the masochistic excesses of body art of the 1970s and has come to symbolize the violent ethos of its time. Burden's subsequent ironic presentation of the hand-piercing nails in a glass-and-velvet vitrine, as in a saintly reliquary, has not diminished the legend or the conceit of extreme self-sacrifice in the name of art.
Ana Mendieta's performances seem to reference pre-Christian iconography. Although the body and the earth were the sites of her actions, she relied on photography to frame and transmit her ideas. We are invited to imagine her actions as they unfolded, but in effect, for most of us today, the photograph is necessarily the prevailing work. Much of Mendieta's performance imagery is so straightforward and seemingly absolute that we do not envision how or under what conditions they were made: it is as if the image came into existence as an apparition, or a kind of virgin birth. The reality, of course, was less miraculous; just outside the frame of Imagen de Yagul (Image from Yagul; 1973), for example, Mendieta's fellow graduate students at the University of Iowa were chatting and keeping an eye out for security guards, while her teacher Hans Breder danced around with camera in hand, taking multiple shots. Breder later said of this process: "Ana's work translates beautifully into photography. The original action was not always riveting, but the process of photographing transformed the work."
The goal of much performance and Conceptual work of those years was the dematerialization of art: an attempt to separate art from precious materials and pretentious institutions so that it could exist in more pure, less compromised forms. Photography was understood and utilized as a functional medium meant to produce an affectless record, without the taint of style or authorship. That photography was a distinct discipline with its own history and aesthetics was rarely considered; for many, it was seen simply as a means either to document transitory actions or to separate the viewer from direct engagement with an object. (It is of course important to distinguish this utilitarian mode from the performance images by photographers such as Peter Moore and Dona Ann McAdams, who well understood the cultural significance of performance art and the necessity to document its events, personalities, and trends—and who did so with rigorous creativity.)
As curator Ann Temkin has pointed out, the ongoing power and influence of Marcel Duchamp's 1917 Fountain is largely transmitted through the images Alfred Stieglitz made of the "original" urinal. Beyond photography's documentary utility, its ability to distill and embellish the aura of radical process is one reason photographs are essential to the history and posterity of performance. Perhaps the days of groundbreaking body art are in the past, but the documents of that era have been transformed from visual marginalia to images that are every bit as foundational for today's artists as the canvases of Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso were for earlier generations.
So if photography has affected performance, how has performance affected photography?
A performative attitude may be seen in the widely diverse works of Nikki S. Lee, Vik Muniz, Steven Pippin, and Katy Grannan, to name just a few contemporary artists who produce "photographs" as if the word should be framed by quotation marks. That is to say, they embody an attitude toward photography that is informed more by Conceptual art than by the lineage of Great Photographers. In Lee's case, it is impossible to peel away the performance from its documentation. Whether hers are "good" photographs by conventional standards is more than irrelevant: the very amateurish quality of her pictures is essential to her investigation into establishing identity through the mundane ritual of the snapshot.
The distinction between the documentation of live performance and of actions staged specifically for the camera is often deliberately blurry. Indeed, taxonomy begins to fail us as we seek to peg certain works under identifying rubrics: the elaborate tableaux imagery—curator Jennifer Blessing terms it "performed photography"—of Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, Roger Ballen, and Cindy Sherman, among others, for example. But clearly these photographers' works have more in common with both the legacy of fine-art photography and the narrative concerns of theater and cinema than with the visual archive of performance art.
Parallel to the growing ambition and ubiquity of narrative-scenario photography over the last couple of decades has been an incremental (but significant) shift away from the "heroic gesture" in performative imagery toward something more relaxed and playful. Most contemporary artists do not appear to aspire to the mythological status attributed to the founding figures of performance (Matthew Barney is a clear exception here). There is a lighter touch, for example, in the works of Gabriel Orozco, an artist who flits between materials and media like a modern-day trickster. Yet even though the camera has become an indispensable tool in his transformation of the everyday, Orozco has expressed a lack of interest in the conventional concerns of photography. Instead, photography for him is a way to erase the line between the found and the arranged. Cumulatively, Orozco's seemingly casual imagery offers an inventory of minor delights. These arise not only from the whimsical nature of his "finds," but also because it is unclear whether the arrangement of objects within the frame is the result of the artist's intervention or if he is just the luckiest and most sharp-eyed flâneur in the world. His shuffling of products in the supermarket, where cat-food cans balance on watermelons, for instance (Cats and Watermelons; 1992), is sweetly hilarious, showing just how easily the categories of the prosaic world can be undermined and reimagined. And the humbly elegant Extension of Reflection (1992), which depicts the transient marks of a bicycle's tracks through a pair of puddles, is astoundingly economical in its evocation of things both earthly and celestial.
Yves Klein, Leap into the Void, 1960.
Klein: © 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS). New York/ADAGP. Paris/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Art Resource, New York
Intrigued by the canonical status that many performance images have attained, and by how these often chaotic and impromptu events had been formalized through photography, Hayley Newman created a faux archive—she calls it an "aspirational portfolio"—for a nonexistent performance career. One action, Crying Glasses (An Aid to Melancholia) (1998), was purportedly created over the course of about a year, during which the artist traveled by public transportation in England and Germany while wearing dark glasses equipped with a pump system to deliver a constant stream of tears trickling down from beneath the lenses. The work was actually photographed (by Newman's collaborator Casey Orr) over the period of a week, but by utilizing varying cameras and photographic materials, and supplying the work with evidentiary texts in which the dates, locations, and circumstances are fabricated, the artist creates a seemingly larger performance, in the vein of those by Adrian Piper and Bas Jan Ader. Here, the document is unreliable evidence, a masquerade on at least two counts: this is neither a woman truly weeping on the subway nor is it a record of an authentic yearlong performance. Remarkably, despite its deceits, the image remains affecting, evoking both compassion and wry acknowledgment of the power of photographs to compel in spite of their artificiality.
Melanie Manchot explores the boundaries of trust and intimacy in a range of works in performance, photography, and video. Gestures of Demarcation (2001) is a series of six photographs in which a naked Manchot faces the camera in a variety of urban and rural environments, while an androgynous figure, facing away from the camera, tugs at the artist's naked skin. Like a contemporary Saint Sebastian, Manchot seems unaffected by the repeated violation. Yoko Ono's Cut Piece comes to mind (a Happening first enacted in 1964, in which audience members were asked to join the artist onstage and cut away at her clothing with a pair of scissors), as do several of Marina Abramovic's performances, in which viewers were invited to interact and even violate the artist's body with an assortment of implements. By contrast, with Manchot's works, although we may experience a visceral reaction to the intrusion, the event is enacted solely for the camera and not for a live audience: the viewer is thus never personally implicated in the breach of the artist's physical boundaries.
To paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the body does not occupy space like an object or thing, but instead inhabits, animates, or even haunts space. In Erwin Wurm's "one-minute sculptures," the body performs or experiences a slapstick rebuke of personal space and social etiquette. Wurm cloaks his Conceptualism behind the deadpan nature of the snapshot in pictures such as Looking for a Bomb (2003), in which a kneeling man reaches deep into another man's pants; Inspection (2002), in which a woman sits with a friend in a restaurant while stoically enduring a man's head thrust deep into her blouse; and the self-explanatory Spit in Someone's Soup (2003). These rude interventions in the everyday are part of Wurm's larger project Instructions on How to Be Politically Incorrect.
If all we saw of Lilly McElroy's work was a single photograph of a young woman frozen in midflight, we might construe it as simply an embarrassing moment of drunken excess. But the cumulative effect of her series I throw myself at men (2006—8) transforms an indecorous act into a playful riff on late-night desperation. McElroy describes the series as "loving and cruel . . . literal and clumsy, a cross between physical comedy and earnest confessional." That's a fair assessment of these deliberately awkward moments in which the artist/protagonist flings herself toward apparently unprepared male subjects. Like Girls Gone Wild meets Yves Klein's Leap into the Void (1960), I throw myself at men combines low-rent barroom behavior with a performance artist's bravado. The cheap spectacle is made all the more pathetic by the pedestrian style of the photographs, in which the flash fills and flattens every reckless action and grimy barstool.
William Lamson is unique among this group in that he was an accomplished photographer who produced finely composed portraits and landscapes in the social-humanist tradition before deciding to spend more time in front of the camera than behind it. Crediting Roman Signer's "action sculptures" as a catalyst, Lamson now works in sculpture, video, and performance, as well as photography. His performance-inspired photo-series Intervention (2007–8) could be described as documents of temporary urban earthworks. As if to convince us that the world is full of these lesser epiphanies if we would only open our eyes to see them, Lamson's simple and direct photographs allow us to imagine stumbling upon random poetic collisions of materials, such as a helium-filled balloon strategically placed to blind a surveillance camera; a ladder made of twine and bananas, scaling a tree; a discarded mattress pinched into a bald tire like an elderly man squeezing into his old military uniform.
Ana Mendieta, Imagen de Yagul (Image from Yagul), 1973
Mendieta: © Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection/courtesy Gaterie Lelong, New York
Joseph Beuys is said to have consciously drained his performances and installations of color in order to distance his work from real life, desaturating his actions to make them more like black-and-white photographs. Beuys understood the photographic document not simply as a necessary footnote to the main event; rather, the image had the talismanic authority to transmit his disembodied power through time. Nonetheless, viewing the iconographic record of 1960s and '70s performance art, you get a sneaking sense that if you were not there, you were sinfully absent from a hallowed event—you missed Jesus walking on water because you were too young, not hip enough, lived in the wrong town, or were just too lazy to go out that evening.
It is a paradox that photography and performance, tied as they are to the transitory, fused to create such an august archive of dramatic images. The utopian themes that were circulating in the 1960s and '70s were often embodied in the redemptive gestures of performance art. The shine may have faded on the messianic promise of image and action—but in fact it may be healthy not to indulge such romantic fantasies anymore. Mia Fineman writes of Orozco's photographs: "At times, it seems like he is simply adding punctuation to the prose of the everyday." This notion articulates the more earthbound ethos that marks our diminished expectations of art and life.
Some of Melanie Bonajo's photographs, for example, reveal an attitude that finds temporary solace in the humor of dispirited futility. With echoes of Charles Ray and Martha Rosier, Bonajo's Furniture Bondage series (2007–8) presents an array of young women, trussed to the saddest assortment of generic domestic items. Unencumbered by any duty to the heroic, yet still capable of provocation, Bonajo's photographs present a cruel joke, as if Ikea had promised salvation but delivered only unrelenting boredom. We laugh, and then an uncomfortable shudder of recognition chills our bones.
Melanie Manchot, Gestures of Demarcation II, 2001
Manchot: courtesy Robert Goff Gallery, New York
Lilly McElroy, I throw myself at men #14, 2008.
McElroy: © the artist/courtesy Thomas Robertello Gallery, Chicago
Erwin Wurm, Inspection, 2002
Wurm: courtesy Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
Gabriel Orozco, Cats and Watermelons, 1992
Orozco: courtesy the artist/Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
William Lamson, Intervention 11/14/07, 2007.
Lamson: courtesy the artist
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|TITLE:||"Life is getting faster, the art has to go slower"|
|SOURCE:||Art Newspaper 19 40 O 2010|
|COPYRIGHT:||The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. To contact the publisher: http://www.theartnewspaper.com/|
Marina Abramovic on the pain of sitting still, being the black sheep of the family and working with Robert Wilson
The undisputed grande dame of radical performance art. for over four decades Marina Abramovic has been using her own body to make intense and often deeply shocking works which explore her own mental and physical thresholds as well as those of her audience. Her artistic ordeals have included cutting a five-pointed star in her flesh before whipping herself and lying naked on a cross of ice: walking for 90 days on the Great Wall of China and sitting in an underground chamber, weeping, singing and scrubbing a pile of increasingly malodorous cow bones in the intense heat of the 1997 Venice Biennale. Earlier this year a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York not only spanned Abramovic's prolific career but also included her most minimal and, arguably, most gruelling live work to date -- The Artist Is Present -- in which she sat motionless in the museum's atrium all day, every day for the entire three-month run of the show while members of the public queued to sit opposite and gaze at her for unlimited periods of time.
The Art Newspaper: This is your first solo exhibition in London in over a decade and your first with the Lisson Gallery -- I'm surprised it's been so long.
Marina Abramovic: I was 21 when I first came to London and I went first thing to the Lisson Gallery to see Art and Language. Nicholas [Logsdail] was in the gallery and I was scared to death even to talk to him -- I always wanted to work with him and I never did. Then he comes to see me in Manchester and he proposed to me, "Marina, do you want to be my Louise Bourgeois?" and I said yes. Then he came to see me on the last day of my performance at MoMA. I finished my 735 hours at 5pm, and at 4pm on the same day, Louise Bourgeois died. So now we have the famous Lisson show!
TAN: Among the most recent works at Lisson are three photographs of you cradling and lying down with a white lamb.
MA: After The Artist is Present at which I was exposed lo the audience for three months without seeing daylight, I fled to the south of Italy. I needed to go back to nature, to do something very pastoral, to lie under a tree and hold the lamb and have the idea of something very domestic and very simple. I needed to smell the grass and the sheep shit! We've forgotten simplicity, that's not what our life is about any more. I really feel that we are ending an era, we are ending this materialistic approach to art, we have to go back to earth, back to nature and I have this enormous urge to communicate this need...
TAN: Why the lamb?
MA: I started with a black lamb as I always felt... like a black sheep -- I never fitted anywhere. When I was doing performances in Yugoslavia they thought I was insane: my mother and father were questioned in communist meetings about what was wrong with me. So I was thinking, OK, I have to do something with black sheep but I [was] drawn much more to this just-born white lamb. It's very metaphysical and anybody from the public can project into it. If you are Catholic you can project Catholicism, Jews can project Judaism, the Orthodox can project Orthodoxy. It is very simple -- it's the kind of lamb that goes through so many different cultures and is a symbol of purity and innocence.
TAN: The idea that you need the response of the public to complete and create your work has always been crucial but, lately, you have been involving the audience more actively, whether in the individual encounters at MoMA or also in last year's inductions at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester when you dressed the audience in white coats and put them through a one-hour programme before they could view work by the other artists.
MA: The audience is always perceived as a group and I really wanted to have the experience of one-to-one, where you take them out of the group and it becomes an individual experience. Art changes so much but we never change the attitudes of how to perceive art. There is no education of the public as to how it can behave or what it has to do to see new art, new ideas and especially performance. I think I am educating the public. In MoMA I created a kind of zone of life where you could come in and sit on this chair. During this three month period I looked into 1,656 pairs of eyes and I never set a time limit, so one person sat for seven hours, two people for six hours and there was an enormous [number] of people who sat for four hours [or] for three hours. I was incredibly overwhelmed by the reaction -- I didn't expect people to be crying and getting into it in the way that they did.
TAN: How did you relax at the end of the day?
MA: It was so painful I could hardly put my arms up to take my dress off! Sometimes I couldn't even have a massage -- I had pain in every muscle in my body and I took lots of hot baths in vinegar and sea salt. And I didn't talk to anybody! I only talked to the nutritionist, to the security guard and my assistant for three months. But the worst part was every 45 minutes during the night I had to drink water because I had to take enough liquid for the next day, and then pee and sleep. So every 45 minutes it was: drink, pee and sleep, which was horrible in the beginning but later on I become like an automaton, a Swiss watch. I became totally vegetarian and I lost about 16 kilos. In the morning I had a lentils and yoghurt and then in the evening also a little food. Last liquid in the morning at 7am.
TAN: And no trips to the bathroom during the performance?
MA: No. All the stories that I had diapers and stuff were not true. It was willpower, complete control -- it was crazy.
TAN: Apart from the Lisson show, what are you working on at the moment?
MA: In Madrid I'm rehearsing every single day with [Robert] Wilson. He is directing this theatre piece for the Manchester Festival in the summer of next year which is called "The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic" with [actor] Willem Dafoe and [musicians] Antony and the Johnsons. Basically it's about life and death and Willem Dafoe is great, like a very sarcastic narrator of my life. It's about childhood and insane stories, almost like slapstick, which is refreshing. I am playing my mother, which is the worst fear I have in my life. I have had so many problems with my mother -- it's my pure nightmare come true!
TAN: Tell me about the Marina Abramovic Institute.
MA: Right now I am putting all my efforts into my new institute of performing arts which is
Abramovic's early work: AAA-AAA, 1978, left; Rest Energy with Ulay, 1980 opening in 2012 in Hudson [New York state]. The main emphasis will be on long-duration works. I want to ask non-artists and young artists to develop long-duration works, everything from six hours onwards, not just performance. I want to see long-duration opera, dance, video, film... all different media. It is very simple: life is getting faster, the art has to go slower.
TAN: Your recent show at MoMA and Tino Sehgal's at the Guggenheim both categorically underlined that performance art has come in from the margins -- how do you feel about that?
MA: In the history of performance art there has never been [such support from] two major museums like the Guggenheim and MoMA! But it is also to do with the economic crisis -- every time there is an economic crisis performance comes back in from nowhere because it's cheap! I'm so happy with the economic crisis -- the worse it is, the better for art. The economic crisis is the most healthy thing to revive performance.
Marina Abramovic is showing at Lisson Gallery, London. 13 October-13 November, www.lissongallery.com
Back to nature: Marina Abramovic, Portrait with White Lamb, 2010 Marco Anelli and Marina Abramovic
Born: 1946, Belgrade, (former) Yugoslavia
Education: Academy of Fine Arts Belgrade; Academy of Fine Arts, Zagreb
Selected solo shows: 2010 Museum of Modern Art, New York; Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
2008 Gallery Brito Cimono, São Paulo
2007 Kappatos Gallery, Athens 200S Museo Nacional Centra de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
2004 Fondazione Roma Europa, Rome; Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky 2002 Galleria Lia Rumma, Milan 2001 Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC 1999 Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki
|AUTHOR:||Grau, Donatien Donatien Grau|
|TITLE:||Lady Gaga AND THE AGE OF POP PERFORMANCE ART|
|SOURCE:||Flash Art (International Edition) 44 no277 98-100 Mr/Ap 2011|
|COPYRIGHT:||The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.|
THERE IS SOMETHING rotten about the old ideal of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Attending a concert of Lady Gaga's Monster Ball tour proves it beyond any possible doubt: the first part is performed by a New York band named Semi Precious Weapons, whose lead singer explains how it's all about "motherfuckers," "fucking New York," "Champagne" and "doing sexual favors." Dressed as an ambivalently sexualized entity, he walks and dances on high heels, trying to express his metaphysical Dionysian energy. The problem is, it just doesn't work. It all looks incredibly fake, and the whole pattern of a "rock star" that he seems to follow looks nothing but sadly exhausted. The only moments when he was able to provoke the audience's reaction, during the first part of Lady Gaga's concert in Paris, were precisely when he mentioned, shouted, invoked the name of "his Lady." His stage performance did not represent "an event," so to speak; as the philosopher Alain Badiou would put it, it was something that exists per se. Therefore, Semi Precious Weapons' difficulty in reenacting the ideal of the rock 'n' roll ethos may well embody the very end of that form of performance.
Rock 'n' roll is dead -- that painful reality needs to be faced. Even the Rolling Stones are becoming older and older... Hence the need to reinvent musical culture. And Lady Gaga has found an efficient and creative way to reshape it: by connecting it to contemporary art. Indeed, she has collaborated with contemporary artists such as, most notably, Francesco Vezzoli, with whom she did a performance at L.A.'s MOCA in 2009, inspired by Sergei Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes; Damien Hirst, who designed the piano she used then; and Terence Koh -- she has been part of his famous "Terence Koh Show" online, and he has designed a piano for her as well. It appears fairly obvious that she relates her activity as a pop star to the medium that is becoming a mainstream form of contemporary art: performance. As a consequence, she is redefining the meaning of the word, from the common syntagm "a musical performance" to "performance art with music" -- or, to use her own words, "pop performance art." That expression is in itself incredibly significant, as much as it is ambiguous. "Pop performance art" can be understood as "pop performance/art," i.e., the art of a pop performer, that is to say a pop star, or it can be interpreted as "pop/performance art." There once was a "pop art" that was supposed to reframe art by taking into consideration the impact of popular culture; now, there would be a "pop performance art" that would propose new perspectives for performance itself. In other words: Is Lady Gaga the Andy Warhol of performance art? And is there in her work the same ambivalence as in Warhol's duality: an extreme association between visual energy and insights on deep philosophical questions?
The very concept of "pop performance art" would be impossible if it weren't formulated today. As such, it is the perfect form of "contemporary art," a creation of a certain time period. Indeed, since "The Artist Is Present," Marina Abramovic's show at MoMA, performance has probably become, in its own way, the most popular format for art. In New York, everyone does performances: waiters in cafés do performances during the weekend; models, when it's not fashion week somewhere, do performances as well. And the unique success of "The Artist Is Present" epitomized and made visible this revolution inside the art world. It's not by chance that, when asked about "the limit," Lady Gaga cites Abramovic as her main inspiration, as a "limitless" ideal.
It is a commonplace to connect Lady Gaga to Madonna: they both have Italian roots, they both picked Italian-sounding names. But among many differences between the two, one might note the most fundamental one: they don't belong to the same time period. Madonna, in the '80s, was indeed friends with Andy Warhol, but her main acquaintances were fashion photographers such as, of course, Steven Klein. She didn't say she was a "performance artist" -- which would have been rather insane, since the relationship between her appearances on stage and Vito Acconci's or Joan Jonas's work was quite loose. Whereas, on the contrary, in the age of Marina Abramovic's "pop performance art," it doesn't seem that strange for a pop star to claim a certain sense of familiarity. The name itself makes clear that times have changed: using "Madonna" as a stage name means that you relate to sanctity and religion -- i.e., to the ancient world of Catholicism. Even if you want to shock the audience, it is still from the point of view of sacrality that the impact is intended. On the other hand, "Lady Gaga" is much more of a hybrid: Lady also relates to the Virgin Mary, hence, to the heritage of Madonna's transgression, but Gaga is reminiscent of Queen's song "Radio Ga Ga" (1984) -- that is to say, it relates to pop culture itself. It mirrors its pop-cultural identity.
Lady Gaga's attempt to be seen as, in a way, an actual contemporary artist could easily be mistaken for another token of what the French theoretician Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle: in such a social context, "pop performance art" would be just a new fashion for the spectacular to dominate human beings and to challenge their autonomy of mind. And of course, since, in the end, a musical performer expresses his or her talent in huge concerts, it also has a sense of "rowds and power," as Elias Canetti would put it. All these people dancing together follow the lead of the singer, they follow Lady Gaga's lead, in the exact contemporary equivalent of what Debord described in The Society of the Spectacle (1967). As he states it: "Where the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings -- dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior." Lady Gaga's world is indeed made of images that are designed to strike the viewer and to shock him or her: the meat-dress she wore for the MTV Video Music Awards is a perfect example of that.
As such, there is a certain form of synesthesia in this pop performance art she suggests: the audience is at the same time a group of viewers, attending the spectacle, which is seen as the most fascinating reality. As she herself says to the crowd dancing at her concert, "You're gonna remember that you are a goddamn superstar and that you were born this way." By doing so, she produces a manifesto for a redeemed version of the society of the spectacle: indeed, it is no longer considered to be an instrument of oppression, a form of oppression in its own right. On the contrary, the oppression brings its own redemption: the spectacle has been transformed into a fairy, into a Monster Ball. It has been turned into its own Monster, into its own "phenomenon." If Lady Gaga is "gaga," it is over her own audience: she creates the illusion that these ordinary people who just come to see a pop star live, these crowds of workers, are her "baby monsters," as if they emanated from her identity as the "mother monster."
Of course it is an illusion, but this illusion exists during the performance: this little woman, nearly a girl -- she is 24 -- pretends to incarnate the anger, the energy, the magic of all these human beings. It is what pop stars are here for, obviously. But there is something different about Lady Gaga, an idea of sacrifice that could relate to Marina Abramovic's famous piece Rhythm 0 (1970), in which she provided viewers with objects that they could use upon her body. As Gaga says herself: "My little monsters, I'm gonna be brave for you. I want you to forget your insecurities." She sacrifices herself, not only for her audience as audience, but for the individuals that are part of it. Hence, she doesn't really address them as a group, but as a gathering of identities. She is Lady Gaga and not Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta anymore, and that is because her self has disappeared into the persona she embodies on stage, the persona that is made up of the encounter between her and all the "weird people." It is not meaningless that she wants to unite the feelings of all people that are generally seen as "outsiders," gays and transsexuals in particular. Her features are not those of a person anymore; they are those of a symbol. Lady Gaga collects all the identities of her spectators -- she unites all of them, and her vision of pop performance art has a lot to do with the reinvention of the Ego. Indeed, her public figure is the result of the fusion of two very different conceptions: this symbolic perspective, that turns her into an expression of collective fulfillment; and another theoretical view, which is a renewal of the Platonistic concept of enthuziasmos. In a dialogue entitled Ion, the Greek philosopher Plato has Socrates explaining that a poet cannot be rewarded for his work, because, in the end, he is not the person in which the production originates: it is a god, a "theos" that comes inside of him and insufflates the piece of poetry he finally delivers to the world. As such, it appears very clearly that Lady Gaga is "enthusiastic" in Plato's sense. And since we are in the age of pop performance art, and not of rock 'n' roll anymore, this revolution has an impact on her identity: "You can be whatever you want," as she puts it. You can exist beyond the categories of beauty -- a concept that is recurrent in the lyrics of her songs -- or ugliness, beyond ideas of truth and falsehood. Among the inscriptions present on the stage of her show, one of them is particularly significant: "sexy/ugly." Not "beautiful/ugly," but another dichotomy, or perhaps, equivalence. One may ask: wouldn't it be Lady Gaga's final goal to make ugly things look sexy? And in that sense, she could accompany a fundamental shift in the morals of contemporary beauty, which is that ugly can be sexy, and sexy is perhaps the new beauty.
Knowing that, one is better prepared to understand the passion she shows for her attire, why she uses so many costumes on stage. Madonna has the same habit of changing looks, but not so often, not as much in one concert as Lady Gaga. By doing so, the new pop star attests that identity nowadays can only be conceived through multiplicity. She is a nun, a whore, a devil, an angel. She is a poor child threatened by a monster -- she is a monster herself, as well. In this way, we perceive that her actual self is a fusion of all of these fictional personae. Pop performance art happens only during show time, during all the public appearances in which the pop-star-artist has made the world her stage. Aside from this public performance, we don't know anything about Lady Gaga -- nor do we want to. Like Andy Warhol, her personal life does not interest us. Or not really. Because what matters, more than anything else, is that during the time of the performance she creates a whole new world that is open to her "monsters." That illusion is called art.
Donatien Grau is an editor and scholar based in Paris, where he teaches at l'Ecole Normale Supérieure There, he co-organizes, together with Hans Ulrich Ohrist, "Les passations de l'esprit," a program involving contemporary artists and writers.
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga, was born in 1986 in New York.
ANDREW KERTON performs Pokerface, a performance piece by Keren Cytter and Andrew Kerton. View of the performance at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm. 2010. FRANCESCO VEZZOLI. Le gant d'amour (After de Chirico and Jean Genet). 2010. Inkjet print on canvas with metallic embroidery, custom jewelry, and paper in artist's frame. 74 × 61 cm. Courtesy Gagosian. New York/Los Angeles/London/Rome/Paris/Geneva/Hong Kong/Athens. MAC Viva Glam Spokesperson Lady Gaga performs on stage at Tabloid. Tokyo for the MAC Aids Fund. Courtesy MAC. MAC Viva Glam Spokesperson Lady Gaga performs at The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) Gala at Cipriani, New York. 2010. Courtesy MAC.
Raúl Ortega Ayala, Last Supper, The David Roberts Art Foundation, Fitzrovia, London, April 6, 2009; Harminder Singh Judge, The Modes of Al-Ikseer, in Triple Bill, Shunt Vaults, London, April 13–14, 2009; Amanda Couch, Dust Passing, SPILL Festival National Platform, National Theatre Studios, London, April 18–19, 2009.
Food shares with performance art its brief life span. Both are ephemeral in essence. As an organic, perishable substance, food is subject to change, decay, and ultimately dissolution—if left to its own devices. In culinary matters as in performance art, the period of preparation usually outlasts that of the actual consumption. A great deal of investment and effort often disappears without a trace, having fulfilled its function of nourishing our bodies and souls.
Using food in performance art is not in itself new. Some of the earliest practitioners of this art form—including Carolee Schneemann, Allan Kaprow, and Fluxus artists—had repeatedly turned to food in their work. Edited by Linda Montano, an issue of High Performance specifically devoted to “Food and Art” first drew attention in 1981 to the symbolic, economic, social, and religious implications of food explored by later generations of performance artists. The Montreal-based “Orange: A Festival of Food and Art,” which in 2006 set itself the task of acting as a “think tank” on present-day art exploring our relationship to food, testifies to a recent surge of interest in this subject.
Launched in 2007, London’s SPILL Festival of performance, live art, and experimental theatre made food and eating a theme of one of its informal discussion forums, the Spill Salons (Salon 2: “Feasts,” April 13, 2009), designed to stimulate debate on some of the major strands of artistic practice featured in the festival. Three weekly feasts punctuated the latest SPILL Festival (April 2–26, 2009), giving fifty artists and members of the audience a further chance to share thoughts, food, and wine in a convivial, albeit theatrical, setting. Held at the Toynbee Studios in London’s East End, with red velvet curtains and bright spotlights to set the scene, the feasts were a performance in themselves. [End Page 67]
Coinciding with this year’s SPILL Festival, the three performances examined below, staged at different locations in central London in the span of two weeks, revolved (in one case quite literally) around food in its hieratic and ritual dimension. Foodstuffs loom large in sacred rites and functions of all religions, whether animistic, polytheistic, or monotheistic. Under the guise of sacrificial offerings, promised lands of milk and honey, prohibitions of one kind or another, they are repeatedly alluded to in the Bible as in the Qur’an, in sacred Buddhist as in Sikh texts. Yet this particular, highly symbolic function of food tends to be overshadowed by debates surrounding food production, consumption, and the waste that it generates, subjected to intense scrutiny by performance artists in recent years.
Coming at food from divergent aesthetic directions and cultural backgrounds, Raúl Ortega Ayala’s reenactment of the Last Supper, drawing on the research of food historian Daniel Rogov; Harminder Singh Judge’s churning of the Ocean of Milk to the sound of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” in The Modes of Al-Ikseer; and Amanda Couch’s Dust Passing, involving home-grown ashes and foodstuffs ground to dust, lend themselves to comparison in so far as they gesture at sacred symbolism and rituals in the Judeo-Christian tradition, on the one hand, and in Hinduism and Sikhism, on the other.
All three artists have worked with food before. They have incorporated materials as varied as milk, meat, sugar, and their by-products into their individual practices, using them in imaginative and daring ways. Food is not an artistic medium in any ordinary sense of the word. When used in performance, it is generally deflected from its primary function. It becomes an object of contemplation rather than of instant sensual gratification. But as an organic and originally live matter, it can be an unruly, slippery object. Each in its own way, the three performances attempt to capture the process of transformation that food undergoes and grapple with its volatile nature.
Scant mention is made by either Matthew or Mark of the food that Jesus and his twelve apostles consumed on the momentous occasion that spawned countless theological controversies—and just as many pictorial representations. Inspired by the findings of food historian Daniel Rogov, who speculates on the likely nature of the sacred repast (exact science it is not), the Mexican artist Raúl Ortega Ayala set about reconstructing the “original” ingredients, cooking methods, and serving implements that went into the making of it. First performed in Holland in a gallery space that used to be a church (Hotel Mariakapel, Hoorn, April–May, 2003), the site-specific performance and installation of Last Supper commissioned by the David Roberts Arts Foundation was recreated on the evening of April 6, during the week leading up to both Easter and Passover celebrations.
Twelve members of the public (unknown to the artist for the most part) had been invited to join in the meal, enacted before an audience while simultaneously being filmed from different viewpoints and photographed. According to Raúl Ortega Ayala, it took four to five days [End Page 68] to prepare the food for a performance that lasted just over three hours, from the moment when the first guest sat down at the dinner table—gesturing in its lay-out and seating arrangement at Leonardo’s masterpiece that has come to epitomize the Last Supper—until the final stragglers cleared the floor. The artist not only provided and served the food but also performed traditional hospitality rites such as washing his guests’ feet in warm water scented with fresh coriander and mint.
At first cautious and tentative, the mock-apostles gradually eased into their roles, tucking into their food with gusto, enjoying the sensual pleasure of having their feet washed, and growing more animated by the minute, no doubt assisted by the freely flowing Galilean wine. The experiment would have been worth conducting if only to see how twelve strangers would perform in an artificial yet at the same time eminently familiar setting, that of a dinner party. The Last Supper was not unlike a reality TV show in this respect, albeit one with an unusual premise.
As with all dinner parties, the different courses lent a natural rhythm to proceedings. The supper, pace Daniel Rogov, bore an uncanny resemblance to a Passover meal with all its inherent symbolism. Fresh parsley dipped in salted water to start with, representing the tears shed by the Hebrews in Egypt; then marror, grated white horseradish mixed with various herbs to evoke the bitterness of exile, and matzo, flat unleavened bread commemorating the haste of the exodus that left no time for baked bread to rise; followed by a simple vegetable soup made with goose breast from Borough Market, the food Mecca in South London; and as main course roast lamb, traditionally served to guests of note on such occasions. In lieu of dessert, there were fruit, green almonds, and nuts cracked with plates (for want of any other implements). Forks and nutcrackers had yet to be invented apparently.
The table displaying the disorderly remains of the feast, from which only those food items that stood the risk of becoming a health hazard had been removed, later formed the centerpiece of a group exhibition on migrant labor and service work, At Your Service (David Roberts Art Foundation, April 17–June 27, 2009). It was accompanied by a video documenting the performance, recipes presented with characteristic irony as “a rough guide to cooking the Last Supper in London,” and a map showing where the locally sourced ingredients had been found. Taken together these formed tangible traces of a fleeting time-based performance.
Souvenirs or “field-notes” gathered in the course of a lasting quasi-ethnographic immersion in a given milieu or activity—the office world, gardening, and the catering industry—are a recurring feature of Raúl Ortega Ayala’s practice. But their role in this instance goes beyond that of a memory-aid recording a particular event. In the context of the Last Supper, it is at once absurd and unsettling to read a list of ingredients needed to make roast lamb or to be told that marror should be prepared preferably the night before so as to marinate. It removes the sacred aura of an event such as this, turning it into a mundane and secular occasion. To have random strangers impersonate the twelve apostles fulfills a similar, equally subversive function. [End Page 69]
Top: Last Supper, performance by Raúl Ortega Ayalal at The David Roberts Foundation, London 2009. Photo: Thierry Bal. Courtesy the artist.
Bottom: Dust Passing, Amanda Couch, SPILL Festival National Platform, London 2009. Photo: Sîan Williams.
[End Page 70]
A fascination with the macabre pervades Raúl Ortega Ayala’s ongoing Food Series. In Melting Pots, for instance, first presented in Montreal at the 2006 Orange festival and more recently at The Hague in the Foodprint exhibition (June 27–August 23, 2009), he charts the transformations of metal debris from the Twin Towers, transported by boat to India and there turned into pots and pans, before using these to create the replica of a buffet photographed at the “Windows on the World” restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center. One of the Obituary Menus exhibited alongside the remains of the Last Supper in a chilling variation on the theme, itemizes the breakfast that John F. Kennedy consumed on the day of his assassination. An even more disturbing piece, titled after the woman who donated the milk (Alejandra Ortiz-Reynoso) in an allusion to the once widespread practice of wet-nursing, presented cheese made with mother’s milk in a bowl next to crackers, to be sampled at your own discretion.
A square pool filled to the brim with a dubious-looking white substance giving off a rancid smell is not everyone’s idea of an elixir, nor of the mythical Ocean of Milk for that matter. But then again not many Londoners have heard of, let alone tried to imagine the churning of, the Ocean of Milk, which is as resonant for those familiar with Hindu epics as the Last Supper is for Westerners steeped in Christian culture. This central episode of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and other Hindu legends, depicted in a stunning bas-relief at Angkor Wat, relates how the gods and demons, the devas and asuras, jointly pulled on serpent Vasuki wrapped around Mount Mandara, rotating it to curdle the Ocean of Milk in an attempt to retrieve the precious objects sunk in its depths, including the elixir of immortality. The word “elixir” comes from Arabic Al-Ikseer; hence the title of Harminder Singh Judge’s work performed as part of Triple Bill at Shunt Vaults in London during the SPILL Festival.
Clad in a lavish brocaded sarong and looking the part of a bearded Indian sage, the artist rotated atop a small square platform with churning-tubes attached to it dipping into a creamy-white substance that had begun to coagulate in places. Whirling dervish he was not. Rapt in concentration for the duration of the performance, which on the second evening was shortened by fifteen minutes to about half an hour, Harminder Singh Judge revolved achingly slowly above the Ocean of Milk, letting the message scrawled in neon letters on a girdle strapped to his waist (“Pick up the receiver and I’ll make you a believer”) sink in bit by tantalizing bit, degree by degree, until he had come round full circle. By which stage you were more likely than not to have forgotten the beginning, whichever bit you started at that is, depending on where you happened to be seated.
The unexpected release of almost palpable tension came in the form of blasting lyrics of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” that erupted against the backdrop of indistinguishable drone-music, crackling in places and setting your nerves on edge even while you were engaged in an act of group meditation, whether consciously or not. This powerful climax was made more energizing still by the [End Page 71]
The Modes of Al-Ikseer, Harminder Singh Judge, Shunt Vaults, London 2009. Photo: Charlie Levine.
[End Page 72]
sudden appearance of two turbaned men who gingerly stepped into the pool beating dhol drums—traditional Sikh instruments widely used in pop music—to the sound of “Personal Jesus.” The two musicians, sporting identical white kurta pajamas, respectively embodied the devas and the asuras in the myth of the Ocean of Milk, in which the gods prove every bit as evil and deceptive as the demons.
The milky waters, according to the Mahabharata, are eventually transformed into clarified butter as a result of the churning contest between the devas and the asuras. It was anticipated that the gargantuan quantities of milk used up for the inaugural performance of The Modes of Al-Ikseer at Shunt Vaults would yield two hundred and fifty kilograms of “ceremonial religious cheese.” An Ocean of Milk even of seemingly modest proportions (six by seven meters and only one-inch deep), I was stunned to hear, still calls for one thousand, two hundred liters of milk. Enough to keep a local economy going, once you get around the logistic difficulties involved in transporting and storing dairy products which go off quickly. And that is exactly what Harminder Singh Judge hopes to achieve as he makes plans for the piece to go on tour using even vaster quantities of locally-sourced milk, undeterred by the mitigated success of the pilot scheme at Shunt Vaults. In the end, only a few token blocks of ceremonial cheese had been produced on that occasion.
Harminder Singh Judge sees milk as a symbolic foodstuff with maternal nurturing properties. Gaston Bachelard, who discusses milk in the chapter on “maternal and feminine waters” of Water and Dreams, a work informed by psychoanalytic methods, would doubtless concur. But Harminder’s fascination with milk and food in art more generally has its roots in Hindu and Sikh worship. Milk is poured all over statues of Hindu gods in religious ceremonies. Communal kitchens, feasts, and food sharing at temples are a means of eradicating social divisions between members of the Sikh community. The artist draws on Sikh ritual involving food, and milk in particular, for his interactive piece entitled Chonkarey Maro (Fierce! Festival, Birmingham, May 2006), as well as for the 2007 Live Sermon, a twelve-minute sound piece performed for video in which the priest stood in a tray of milk.
With Amanda Couch’s evanescent Dust Passing, selected for the National Platform at SPILL Festival of Performance, we revert to biblical symbolism once again. Echoing in its very title Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, a long exposure photograph of a year’s worth of dust gathered on Duchamp’s 1915–23 The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), the piece is largely secular in inspiration. Duchamp himself was drawn to dust in so far as it constitutes an unwonted artistic material, and not because of its underlying religious connotations. For months, he let real dust accumulate inside conical cylinders known as the “Sieves” in the lower half of the work, later fastening it with varnish between two glass panes.1
And yet the words associated in Christian liturgy with the burial of the dead—“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—inevitably came to mind as one [End Page 73] watched dust particles gradually collect on the artist’s body, lying bare beneath a sieve suspended from the ceiling in the first incarnation of Couch’s piece, Dust Falling. Its live performance took place in the crypt of Shoreditch Town Hall in London at the opening of Heart of Glass, a group show curated by Flora Fairbairn as part of the Concrete and Glass festival of art and music in October 2008.
Inside this particularly evocative space, reminiscent of ancient catacombs, the supine figure shrouded in a protective coating of dust conjured images of the plaster casts of Pompeii’s victims; except that this body was visibly alive, undulating beneath its velvety, moth-like mantle with every sharp intake of breath. The face alone had been covered to guard its orifices against dust’s subtle incursions. In the words of Celeste Olalquiaga, whose meditation on dust in The Artificial Kingdom feeds into Couch’s performance, dust has the ability to turn things inside out or to make the inside outside, as in the case of Pompeii’s body casts.2
Contrary to the dust captured in Duchamp’s Large Glass and in Man Ray’s photographic record of it, the substance featured in Amanda Couch’s two dust pieces was manufactured. The artist originally intended to pulverize her own belongings so as to extract their hidden essence in the time-honored fashion of alchemists, more recently revived by British artist Michael Landy. She eventually settled for a mixture of ashes collected from her father’s fire and foodstuffs from her own kitchen, such as flour mixed with ground lentils, various herbs, powder sugar, coffee, and tea. All these substances carry intimate associations for the artist and some, sugar and tea in particular, appear in her other works. In New York Tea Party (September 2007), for instance, Couch was joined by two other “ladies,” their faces dusted with powdered sugar, for a tea ceremony staged on an industrial estate in Brooklyn. The tea service used on that occasion, a replica of her parents’ china set, was made of sugar paste using a recipe from an early modern cook book.
Much like ingredients in a recipe, feathery ashes combined with ground foodstuffs retaining faint traces of their original color rested in mounds on top of the sieve, a desert landscape of death and life rolled into one. This composite mixture only truly became dust once it emerged out on the other side of the sieve, purified of every last dreg of color and life. As the powdery mass gradually diminished in size, bits of lentils, herbs, and other residue came to form a frothy rim around its outer edges, like seaweed washed up on the shore. Meanwhile, specks of dust accumulated on the artist’s body spread beneath the sieve, draining it of color and slowly dissolving its contours.
A distinct imprint of the body on the dust-strewn ground formed the only visible trace of time’s passage at the end of the performance in Dust Falling. But in its latest avatar, Dust Passing, the inverted image of the body gathering dust gradually appeared, as if by magic, projected on to a screen inside a specially built camera obscura. The audience first absorbed the image, walking around it in the sunlit space where the actual performance unfolded, before entering and feeling its way around the parallel universe of the camera obscura, a metaphor for the mind’s eye. Watching the contours of the body progressively [End Page 74] deepen as your eyes slowly adjusted to darkness was a spiritual exercise in its own right. By capturing the moving image of the performance on screen, which can be developed to form a photographic record more complex than Man Ray’s Dust Breeding that had inspired the piece in the first place, the process of creation has come full circle.Agnieszka Gratza
Agnieszka Gratza is a freelance writer and art critic based in London. She has published articles on Renaissance cultural and intellectual history, and is currently working on a fictional account of the Annunciation.
1. Robert Shapazian, “The Modern Movement,” in Mike Weaver, ed., The Art of Photography 1839–1989, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989, 231.
2. Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, London: Bloomsbury, 1999, 96. [End Page 75]