Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 2016
Mechtild Widrich Performative Monuments: The Rematerialisation of Public Art Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014. 256 pp.; 68 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (9780719091636)

In Performative Monuments: The Rematerialisation of Public Art, Mechtild Widrich examines the relationship of embodiment, memory making, and especially documentation to the meaning of monumental, performative, and audience-oriented art in post-World War II Europe. Ranging from former Yugoslavia to Austria and a split Germany during the Cold War, Widrich expertly discusses artists from each region, including VALIE EXPORT in Vienna, Marina Abramović in the former Yugoslavia, and Joseph Beuys in Germany. Widrich’s art-historical exegesis of these artists’ works and the history of their reception leads to a sophisticated and deft unfolding of historical events alongside analyses of documents, photographs, interviews, and theoretical debates around particular performance works (realized or imagined). Her argument centers on the premise that many of these famous performance works are debated within various forms of documentation, including the fact that some of them never took place at all. Widrich shows that their impact lies precisely in this space of contestation, which expands beyond the ephemeral quality of performance based on embodiment in a particular space and time to a more fluid manifestation depending on different audiences, the artist, history, and the contemporary moment.

Widrich organizes her materials using four different categories fundamental to her argument about performative monuments and public art: documents, audiences, sites, and monuments. While all of these are interconnected, Widrich dedicates a chapter to each category, continually widening the reader’s understanding of how elastic each category is and how easily perspectives can be altered when one, two, or more categories are posed against each other. Widrich’s success lies in avoiding short routes or mythologizing any particular artist, work, or theorist. Instead, she asks fundamental questions that unhinge one-dimensional approaches, moralistic judgments, or absolutes.

In the first chapter, Widrich unpacks the relationship between what is considered “live art” bound to a time, space, and context, and the documentation of such art in what she describes as “texts and grainy images and recordings” (14). In her thorough explication of the tensions found within the history of the discourse around performance art, Widrich makes clear that it is precisely (and perhaps even ironically) the documentation of performance which made it possible to establish an understanding of performance works as ephemeral acts. In fact, it is the documentation in various forms of reproductions that enable the foundation for new meanings with every audience. Applying J. L. Austin, Judith Butler, and performance theorist Philip Auslander, and drawing on works such as EXPORT’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960), and Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s fictional self-castration performance in 1965 (which did not feature the artist himself but Heinz Cibulka), Widrich argues that a performance work lives within the documentation of the performance, be it the form of a “doctored” photograph, interview, or textual documentation. Without flattening out the difference between a live action and documentation, Widrich continually insists on the fact that “different audiences . . . are being produced” (25).

The fact that reception histories of performance works matter is made palpable by Widrich’s emphasis on some of the most well-known instances of falsifications of histories or misunderstandings based on inconsistent documentation, gossip, contradictory artist statements, or simply the jumping to conclusions based on viewing photographs. For Widrich, “photography must be a privileged medium of the performative dimension of performance” due to “its dual capacity of acting as quasi-legal document of the past (a convention applicable even when the photographs are staged) and of offering an experiential re-enactment for the viewer in the present” (27). Summoning the famous case of art historian Kristine Stiles correcting the false histories surrounding the performance works and death of Schwarzkogler, as well as drawing on EXPORT’s own inconsistent stories about Genital Panic, Widrich demonstrates that much of what has entered the history of performance art never took place in real time and space, but that the works nevertheless become performative monuments that animate and provoke audience engagement and the rewriting of history over time.

Re-performance is an especially interesting case of documentation for Widrich, a point she makes clear with her discussion of Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces (2005) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and in particular the artist’s reenactment of Genital Panic. While Widrich remains skeptical about the ways in which Abramović and the Guggenheim chose to narrate and historicize EXPORT’s original work from 1969, she closes this chapter by arguing that Abramović’s version became a performative monument, “an artifact that points to the past without simply having been part of it” (33). As Widrich aptly shows throughout the chapter, the work as performed by Abramović never took place; rather, the artist imitated a photographic record that has come to most prominently represent EXPORT’s action, although it was not the performance proper but a photograph taken to represent—not document—the performance work. While the controversy around EXPORT’s Genital Panic is well known in the literature on performance art, Widrich offers a new reading of reenactment that expands the discussion of performance to include processes of commemoration through art within the public realm, dependent on an active audience. As she argues, performance can become a kind of monument, translated from the German word Denkmal, that is, “a mark for thinking,” because of the element of “social commemoration: rituals establishing new relations to the past event” (34; emphasis in original).

As such, the position of the audience is central to Widrich’s study, which she analyzes more diligently in her second chapter. Here, Widrich pays close attention to the reception of performance, such as the well-known 1970 Vienna Book, which became one of the most important historical documents on the Viennese Actionists. Instead of assuming certain responses by a live audience to Viennese Actionists’ works, Widrich concentrates on the discrepancy between an imagined audience present during a performance in the past and a reading audience of a published book on performance at any given time. Widrich’s strength lies in asking probing questions about the encounter with the book itself, as well as in offering careful historical accounts of how photographs and documentations of performances were distributed (many of which are contradictory), not in order to dismiss the falsifications of history, but to demonstrate their potential for new meaning. As she writes, “photography, and modes of performing for the camera, not only admit visual reportage of the event, but provoke us imaginatively to grant the images historical meaning, a meaning set to work in the present” (59).

The third chapter then turns to the former Yugoslavia, where Widrich explicates how the “site” of a monument or performance has a specific relationship to documents, audience, the making of history, time, and individual imagination, all of which allow performance works to be conceived in the minds of viewers and researches. For Widrich, site represents “a place in the past where a documented performance joins the real world” (104–5). Using Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (created in 1981, destroyed in 1989), Widrich shows how through its removal and public debates it significantly expands the ways in which to understand the site of a work and its performative dimension. Or, in Widrich’s words, “as the significance of the work shifts from a steel monolith to a matter of principle, its site shifts as well” (106). Especially welcome is Widrich’s nuanced reading of the “moral” obligations of an audience to respond to the ethical dilemmas artworks often pose. In her analysis of Abramović’s Rhythm 5 (1974), Widrich draws on Milanka Lečić’s argument that the lack of audience intervention when Abramović lost consciousness in the burning star was not due to the audience’s lack of civic responsibility; instead, the audience failed to understand that Abramović’s action was dictated by the temporal condition of ritual, a cognitive rather than moralistic failure. This distinction between the audience’s cognitive and ethical failure is important in a time when criticism of performance works often privileges the didactic and viewer-oriented outcomes, as well as passes judgment on the moral character of a given audience. Widrich urges a more in-depth discussion of the political and conceptual content of performance art, its documentation, and the expansion of its site to include more than the location and social context of the time. As she states: “What results is a temporal layering of fact and fiction in need of documentation and historical discourse so as to come into being” (131).

In her final chapter, Widrich turns to the question of how authority operates in monuments (and their performativity) within the prevalent culture of commemoration, national identity, and guilt in the context of post-World War II Germany. As she rightly notes, the “memory debate in Germany” is central to understanding what she calls “the new monument emerging from it,” laden with political weight and conflicting readings (145). Just how difficult it is to establish the right way to make memory becomes apparent in her discussion of Jochen Gerz’s and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s Monument against Fascism (1986); the debates preceding and following the concept for, and raising of, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005); as well as the 1976 German pavilion at the Venice Biennial. According to Widrich, the rejection of the commemorative monument as authoritarian led to a nostalgic understanding of what politically conscious art could mean: “less a plan for the future than the mourning of a future that never came to be” (149).

In her analysis of Beuys’s Tram Stop at the Venice Biennial, Widrich points out that while he destabilized the idea of the static monument, he reinscribed the authority of the artwork elsewhere: in the body of the artist photographed working by the monument, which for Widrich results in “turning monument into a performance document” (154). Here, Widrich drives home the argument she makes about the performative monument in the categories she describes throughout the book: the documentation of Beuys erecting the sculpture serves as the main site of the performance now, evident to an audience viewing the photographic reproductions of the work (even if they saw the actual installation in Venice). It is not the Venice Pavilion that holds the authority of the site, or the ephemeral experience of the work, but rather the photographs carefully chosen by the artist, a point Widrich repeatedly makes throughout the book. In other words, an experiential and ephemeral work now becomes “rematerialized” for the public. But Widrich also points to the irony of the abdication of authority as a political decision on the artist’s part, who in turn becomes the bearer of a performative authority replayed and reasserted to audiences in the future. As she notes, “In the absence of political common ground, Beuys’s Venice monument replaced the political authority of the nation with a kind of charismatic authority of the individual who belongs to it” (156).

Widrich’s reading of performative monuments remains inquisitive, questioning, and flexible to multiple viewpoints, and she impresses with her meticulous research of the relevant contexts. However, at times she also leaves her readers wanting. For example, for those who are more familiar with the East European art context, her discussion of Sanja Iveković and Braco Dimitrijević remains situated in the shadow of Abramović’s oeuvre, instead of focusing on these works in their own right. At the same time, while Widrich discusses some of the most well-known artists and artworks, she also focuses on details often ignored or dismissed by others, and offers up refreshing perspectives, such as her reading of the site of the interview as a performance, which she claims in the case for EXPORT’s Genital Panic (21). Above all, Widrich’s text reminds us that performance art has its own monumentality, which is not solely bound to the body of the artist or performer, but which is integrally linked to, and summoned by, its future audience.

Jasmina Tumbas
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University at Buffalo