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For over fifteen years Peggy Phelan’s astute characterization of performance art has remained persuasive. This is due in equal parts to the elegance of her formulation and to the radical social possibilities her understanding of the medium implies and permits. “Performance’s only life,” Phelan contends, “is in the present. Performance cannot,” she continues, “be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. Performance’s being . . . becomes itself through disappearance” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London and New York: Routledge, 1993, 146; emphasis in original). Phelan’s contention is predicated on an insistence that performance is inherently “nonreproductive” and thus irreconcilable with the “machinery of reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital” (148). For Phelan, because the space of performance is free from the strictures of the social world, it offers performers and audience members the chance to experiment freely with new social models; here lies the fundamental value of performance art. The Getty Research Institute’s exhibition Evidence of Movement: Documenting Performance Art implicitly contests Phelan’s conclusion and questions the assumption that the essential and singular identity of performance art lies in the originary event, suggesting instead that since the 1960s artists have attempted to reconstitute and even re-perform their performances using various documentary strategies.
Drawn principally from the Getty Research Library’s deep holdings, Evidence of Movement presents a range of documentation in a variety of media that recalls and reanimates performances from as long as forty years ago. Photographs are the most obvious form of documentation, and the exhibition is rich and suggestive in this area. The twelve photographs and two text panels that compose John Baldessari’s airy and elegant Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts) (1973) are both whimsical and provocative, particularly in the context of Phelan’s characterization of performance art. The inclusion of this piece in the exhibition implies that the curators understand the work at least in part as a performance. However, in this case, as in others—such as Suzanne Lacy’s Travels with Mona (1977–78)— it seems patently obvious that the performance was simply the necessary precondition for the creation of a suite of compelling photographs. One might imagine Baldessari launching three balls into the air and then scrambling clumsily for his camera to capture their alignment (or lack thereof), but in this work it is the photographs that are the primary object, while the “performance” is simply part of the process.
Less choreographed photographic documentation yields a different set of questions and often packs a more formidable auratic punch. A signal example is a photograph taken by Hans Malmberg of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1964 performance, Elgin Tie. This image derives its charge from the partial description of the performance offered by the photograph, and from the effect this exerts on the viewer’s imagination. Rauschenberg is shown ensnared by a makeshift mess of ropes, hovering over a large metal barrel that is mounted precariously on a cart. The image cannot and does not attempt to recapture the necessarily ephemeral performance itself. As an independent object, the photograph is an appeal to the viewer’s creative instinct and an invitation to participate in the reconstitution of the performance, even if that reconstruction proves ultimately—perhaps inevitably—to be erroneous. The empirical details of the performance are less important than the literally boundless narrative possibilities suggested by the photographic still.1 Malmberg’s image is not a summation of the event but an assertion that performance as a medium may only exist—may only be re-performed—in the mind of the viewer.
Perhaps even more effective in this sense are Paul McCarthy’s and Mike Kelley’s often abject performances, which are represented in Evidence of Movement by small, almost unintelligible snapshots whose appeal is entirely contingent on the intense curiosity their opacity engenders in the viewer. A photograph of McCarthy’s performance Monkey Man (1980), for example, is taken from below and shows the artist naked and smeared with an unidentifiable substance making his way circumspectly along a wooden beam. In an intelligent act of curatorial restraint, the exhibition does nothing to demystify this image or to narrate the events that gave rise to the photograph. Instead the viewer is forced into an uncomfortable act of close scrutiny that yields few if any conclusions.
Other forms of photographic documentation are conceived to concentrate the meaning of a given performance into a single frame and organize the viewer’s understanding of what transpired. These images are often explicitly staged and quite directive. For example, the Viennese Actionists—a loosely allied group of artists that included Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Günter Brus—produced jarring, visceral photographs of their often bloody performances. These images have a gory, magisterial quality entirely distinct from the self-conscious snapshot character of pieces like McCarthy’s Monkey Man. A photograph from Nitsch’s performance of 1978, Das Orgien Mysterien (O.M.) Theater (The Orgies Mysterious Theater), 59th Action (Los Angeles), shows a flayed and desecrated animal carcass, ritualistically attended by a gathering of passive observers. While the diabolical imagery is obviously the work of a determined twentieth-century avant-gardist, the theatrical, even classical composition draws on conventions of history painting to freeze a moment and burn the image into the viewer’s mind. In this case, the event becomes the image.
In other instances, the performance becomes animate in the space between text and image, or more specifically—as in the case of Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy (1964)—in the space between what the artist anticipated would happen and what actually transpired. In a nicely conceived wall-mounted vitrine, Schneeman’s dog-eared typewritten script is accompanied by a series of small photographs documenting the corresponding multi-person performance. The lack of any obvious correlation between script and recorded action illustrates vividly the unpredictable, capricious nature of performance art, and lends credence to Phelan’s contention that live action fosters moments of radical, unregulated experimentation.
One of the most captivating elements of the exhibition is a series of five video screens built into the wall outside the gallery that display performance work by Kwak Duck Jun, Terry Fox, Yvonne Rainer, Skip Arnold, and Sonia Andrade. Andrade’s work Fio (Wire) (1977) is by far the most gripping of the group. Staring impassively at the camera, Andrade begins to wrap wire around and across her face, violently compressing her nose, cutting deeply into her lips and distorting and sculpting the supple flesh of her cheeks. Her process is calm, violent, and deliberate; and the close, frontal camera view admits no extraneous action or imagery.
A final example of performance explicitly intended to yield an object—albeit a performative object—is Tony Oursler’s magnetic, haunting work Talking Light (1996). Installed unobtrusively in a corner of the rear gallery, Oursler’s light dangles from the ceiling and flashes in time with fragmentary statements and guttural noises played on an uninterrupted seventeen-minute loop. Presumably the “performance” was the moment the artist recorded his voice; if so, this tenuous qualification stretches the ontological definition of performance art to encompass performative objects. But this minor quibble is neither here nor there, and, in fact, the productive pressure this exhibition places on conventional understandings of performance art is its primary strength. The various trace histories of performance art presented in Evidence of Movement suggest that while the performances themselves are a thing of the past, performance documents exist in the present and demand analysis not simply as “evidence” but as independent objects that generate meaning distinct from the events they ostensibly represent.
Curator, Department of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; PhD candidate, Courtauld Institute of Art
1 For the details of this performance, see Nina Sundell, Rauschenberg/Performance, 1954–1984: An Exhibition (Cleveland: Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 1984).