The Big Clean-Up

Has performance art lost its edge? Is that a bad thing? A visit to Performa 07.

Furthermore, the confrontational, shocking style of '80s performance art was of a piece with the political tenor of the decade: Many activist groups had artists as members, people who used performance to further leftist causes. Queer Nation staged kiss-ins, ACT-UP organized die-ins. And in terms of in-your-face rhetoric, there wasn't much further one could go than Finley's food-wearing or Ron Athey's BDSM blood rituals without attracting the attention of the NYPD. But nowadays, you're more likely to see a hipster in a T-shirt reading "Where Is the Outrage?" than expressing actual outrage. Many artists have adopted a subtle approach to social targets. Russell describes a piece by Canadian writer/artist Darren O'Donnell in which he visits random strangers' houses along with 10 friends as part of a project he calls Social Acupuncture. As Russell suggests, younger live-art practitioners have recognized that the social fabric itself—once galvanized around AIDS, and occasionally gathering force online—needs some rehabilitation.

A stab at avant-garde gospel: Adam Pendelton: The Revival
Paula Court
A stab at avant-garde gospel: Adam Pendelton: The Revival

While Goldberg's mission to get visual artists involved in performance again is an exciting one, it's also risky, and some of the work falls flat. Nathalie Djurberg's Untitled (Working Title Kids & Dogs) pits a group of grotesque claymation figures of color against an army of street dogs, senselessly mocking the violent conflicts of Third World people from a position of privilege. While less infuriating, some of the other work appearing at Performa focuses on the ordinary and attempts to restore intimacy to modern life, at the expense of artistic bite. Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya's Bring Me the Head Of. . . consists of a dish prepared by a chef at Freeman's restaurant in the shape of a teddy bear's head, for sale as a work of art. Christian Jankowski invites spectators to his roof at 10 a.m. to watch him exercise. And in David McKenzie's I'll Be There, the artist sits on a bench and waits for people to talk to him, a project so passive and modest it might make you wax nostalgic for a performance artist like Mimi Goese, who sang in a rock band and walked on broken glass.

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