Sunday, January 02, 2000

"Perform" by Jens Hoffmann and Joan Jonas

Jens Hoffmann and Joan Jonas

Revolutions are often brought to art by young rebels, restless and impatient with the categories and conventions they encountered, keen to create something "new, different". For better or for worse, they take on the shape of dramatic conflicts with the old dogmas, as the revolutionaries (try to) establish new points of view, codes, methods. The 20th-century avant-gardes have exploited this mechanism to its full potencial, and beyond. They fought for modernity (futurism), or peace (dadaism), or the "true inner self" (a lot of the avant-garde of the 60's and 70's). But they fought - they were loud even when they were fighting for introspection.
What struck me in Perform was that these works are not loud. Some of them might be noisy, many are engaged and rebellious. But they are all serene, discrete. They know their place in the order of things, or maybe they simply don't pay much attention to it - in any case, the serenity prevails. What changes is the thing. You see, a revolution does take place, because of the way those artists concentrate on the object, the way they allow themselves to speak through it, or rather, to create the right conditions to make it speak. They do not demand, they do not state. They do things. Take the French artist Boris Achour, who in his L'Aligneur de Pigeons ("Pigeon Aligner") creates a narrow trough filled with corn that through its linear shape aligns the pigeons that eat from it. It is a small gesture that brings order, or blinks an eye, or does, something. The intervention is small enough to make it accessible, believable, to make me want to keep on watching. Or reading for that matter, since the descriptions of the individual performances are rather short. But we get the hang of it. We swing from one story to another, and every now and then an alternative idea might come up: the book should have some blank pages for notes. Fortunately, the margins are large.
The key of the book is simple: performance is not where we might think it is. It can surprize us in a photo, a building, a dance or a man that imitates his own father (Roberto Cuoghi). It is not necessarily about the very broad idea that anything could be a performance. It is much more about discovering how performance travels from one work to another, how its dynamics transform, how they fit different forms of expression. That is why a "classical" performance, like Allan Kaprow's Yard, can be found next to a sculpture (say, Yinka Shonibare) or a huge pizza (Paola Pivi): if today's creators often switch from one discipline to another (though a pizza-only specialist would be something, wouldn't it?), the audience does it much more. The only ones that seemed to remain behind in this "art zapping" phenomenon were the critics and theoreticians. Now, the gap has closed. What helped was the change in the attitude of the artists themselves:
Our first performances took shape as complicity exercises, like simple acts through which we tried to find each other's rhythm, such as by knitting and undoing the knitting in alternating patterns. (...) The problem was that (...) our first performances were exactly as embarrassing to watch as only performance art can be. You know, when it comes to a point where the toes of the audience really start to hurt and everyone but the performers gets soaking wet from sweating.
- Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset put it quite bluntly: performance art used to be a creepy experience. Everyone would be feeling quite uncomfortable, and if you felt that, it meant the performer was "certainly onto something". These times are slowly, yet surely heading for an end. Of course, some great classics remain. But even here, Joan Jonas knew how to choose the right work: Marina Abramović is shown through her astonishing Balkan Baroque, in which she
scrubbed the flesh off [bloody beef] bones for five days, six hours a day, while singing, almost hypnotically, songs she remembered from her childhood.
(remember Abramović was born in Belgrade, and the work was presented in 1997). This is my favorite piece by Abramović, as it stays with us, without running away too quickly into life-and-death metaphors.

Performance art seemed to stagnate for some time - it was too easy to guess what to expect. No revolution can remain original forever. If it could, it would be a terrible view. In Perform, we see how the ideals of the performance art of the 60's and 70's were integrated into new ways of doing things, how they got a new twist - and gained the freshness I hoped to find.
I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts
- John Locke, quoted in Perform (discover it at Amazon)

(date of review: June 13, 2005)

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