Performa 07

October 27 – November 20, 2007

James Cohan Gallery. Long March - Xu Zhen. “In Just a Blink of an Eye”. Photo by Ellen Pearlman

Rose Lee Goldberg the director of the visual art performance biennial Performa 07 deserves an honorary key to the City from Mayor Bloomberg as a high/middle/low/brow cheerleader for the arts. New and improved over Performa 05, with over 100 events, Performa 07 had something for everyone: educational and academic panels, dance, theater, a radio station, films, a convenient tie-in with the first Asian Contemporary Arts Fair, the commission of ten new works, the exhumation and examination of seminal old works and even fun and games with haircuts proffered by kids. Assistant curated by Defne Ayas, lasting a whopping three weeks with up to eight mostly free events a day, the scope was unusually generous.

Critics used to make decisions on matters of artistic importance, then artists took over. Now auction houses determine the value and importance of art, except for what they can’t buy and sell, like performance art. Thousands of dollars were spent to recreate Allan Kaprow’s 1967 work “Fluids”—stacked blocks of ice piled into a rectangle in front of Cooper Union. As the ice slowly melted, onlookers gaped and snapped pics with their cell phones, children fondled the cubes, and deliverymen touched it for good luck. How do you market that? Save and package the gritty puddles? Well, actually, package and sell the photographs and videos, an issue discussed in “You Didn’t Have To Be There, Photography, Performance and Contemporary Art” with Goldberg, Vanessa Beecroft and Marina Abramovic co-presented with the Aperture Foundation.

Artists make art to reflect the times they live in; producers and fundraisers enable artists. The audience gambles by viewing the works. In Marie Cool and Fabio Balducci’s “Untitled (Prayers)” everyday objects like paper, thread, salt, and scotch tape investigated the poetics of space, tracking and delineating borders and boundaries though simple, spare actions like walking by pieces of folded white paper and watching the breeze from Ms. Cool’s footsteps softly rattle the paper. Some people loved it. Some didn’t. That’s how it goes when you take spectacle and entertainment and transform it into a coded and recontextualized language of nuanced gesture.

The themes of nuance and decoding were particularly heightened in Jerome Bêl and Thai dancer Pichet Klunchen’s provocative piece at Dance Theater Workshop. Bêl, a recalcitrant Parisian dancer, took two years off to rethink his approach to performance as entertainment. As a solution he sought to give nothing by spending most of his time standing still, but became so inquisitive, droll and witty that he instead wound up offering the quintessential modern dilemma; cross-cultural taboos mixed with loss of the sacred. Bêl’s inaction and stasis played against David Bowie’s 1983 hit, “Let’s Dance,” seemed like a riposte to redundant and relentless pirouetting and notions of Western dance perfection.

China dipped its toe into the pond by staging Xu Zhen’s “In Just a Blink of an Eye” cosponsored by the James Cohen Gallery and Long March Gallery of Beijing. Two migrant workers from Chinatown were recruited to enact the moment of falling over in impossible-seeming twisted stances. The piece succeeded insofar that viewers glanced at the convoluted human forms, noting their existence in the most perfunctory way, and left. It’s a scene repeated by somnolent Americans as they pass thousands upon thousands of undocumented migrant workers underneath their very noses. Long March also sponsored Qiu Zhijie’s “The Thunderstorm Is Slowly Approaching,” which uses the traditional Chinese Dragon Dance, except that the dragon and ten dancers were clad in army camouflage. Appearing first in Chinatown and then crashing the staid halls of the Contemporary Asian Art Fair up at Pier 92, it was more about fun and spectacle than adding anything new or original to the genre.

If we don’t know where we come from, how do we know where we are going? The art historian in Goldberg made sure to include a rock solid recreation of Allan Kaprow’s seminal “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” the 1959 progenitor of Happenings. Though the thrill of attending a groundbreaking event was gone, the brilliance of the thoroughly choreographed and meticulously written directions was still there. The piece just shy of turning 50 years old—was, in the vernacular, still “awesome.” By presenting art through time-based pieces that used the flotsam and jetsam of language, painting, photography, lighting, sculpture, motion, dance, spoken word and theatre, it displayed the mental and theoretical gymnastics necessary for such a radical break. It was a once-in-a-generation inspiration that grew out of Kaprow’s explorations in John Cage’s New School classes in experimental composition and helped kick off a new strain of performance art as we know it.

The hidden gem was “Dance after Choreography” two nights at Anthology Film Archives of archival tapes from the Fales Library at NYU, presenting work by the Grand Union Dance Company and from individuals affiliated with the Judson Dance Theater. Douglas Dunn, Nancy Lewis and Yvonne Rainer of Grand Union gave live running commentary on the raw black and white experimental works that are as fresh and invigorating as when they were first made.

The films, which featured Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, David Gordon Dunn and Barbara (Lloyd) Dilley, showed the genesis of much of what is now known as contact improvisation. Dunn forthrightly admitted they had no idea what they were doing at the time but just did it, an ethos in keeping with the era’s enthusiasm for unabashed exploration. Elaine Summers and Meredith Monk spoke after the Judson screenings. Monk’s film, “16 Millimeter Earrings,” an early work made when she was in her twenties, ranks right up there with Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau in its version of straight up American Surrealism. Summers’ “Judson Fragments” showed extremely rare excerpts of performances by James Waring, Fred Herko, Carolee Schneeman, and Deborah Hay. Yvonne Rainer’s “Hand Movie,” a five-minute dance of nothing more complicated than her hand, and Bruce Nauman’s “Pinchneck”—two minutes of neck contortions—reemphasizes how so much could be done with so little, before corporate sponsorships, private donors and university budgets were even on the horizon.

Contributor

Ellen Pearlman

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