The Big Clean-Up

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

Adam Pendleton, 26, known primarily as a painter and conceptual artist, paces back and forth on a podium. He's a young, shaven-headed, very handsome black man, nattily dressed in a white sport coat, and he's preaching about language—cribbing from the poetry of John Ashbery, speeches by Larry Kramer, intoning in a voice reminiscent of Jack Handy's "Deep Thoughts." He stomps a brightly colored shoe on the podium. Behind him, a black gospel choir hums and sways rapturously in its robes, and the accompanying band responds to his call, ebbing and flowing with his passionate, if amateur, oratory. Substitute Jesus for Ashbery and change the venue—we're at the cavernous Stephen Weiss Studio—and we'd really be in church. This is a seamless, upscale, elegant performance—enjoyable, inoffensive, and not especially challenging. It could run on the Upper West Side with no difficulty. Is this performance art?

If you asked RoseLee Goldberg that question, she'd answer with an emphatic yes. The South Africa–born author and art critic is the curator of Performa 07, New York's recently minted performance-art biennial, which Pendleton's show is a part of. A month-long festival spread out over 74 city venues—including spaces like BAM and the Zipper, and art galleries such as Metro Pictures and White Columns—Performa is a cornucopia stuffed full by Goldberg and her team, all without corporate sponsorship. Frustrated by what she calls a recent "lull" in performance—"it seemed repetitive, there were too many monologues"—Goldberg mounted her first Performa two years ago specifically to encourage visual artists to take risks with "time-based" work, or what the British now call "live art." The rechristening seems deliberate, as if to cast off a messy, inappropriate past.

In fact, Goldberg's idea was never to revisit the gritty, low-budget operations of the sort that made performance art famous, the type that proliferated in the East Village during the '80s at P.S. 122 and ABC No Rio, making New York the center of the performance world. Instead, Goldberg envisioned linking street-wise experimental venues with the establishment. "There wasn't a level between the Kitchen and BAM," she says, explaining Performa's mission.

Back in the day, most performance artists wouldn't have dreamed of the high gloss that BAM has come to represent. Performance used to mean getting naked, chanting dirty words, smearing chocolate all over yourself, talking about homosexuality, and thumbing your nose at Ronald Reagan. In short, it meant the NEA Four, a group of performance artists who sued the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 because they'd been defunded for the "indecent" content of their work. Karen Finley's act became national news after she and her 1986 performance piece Yams Up My Granny's Ass received a riveting profile from C. Carr in the Voice. During the act, Finley, exorcising the spirit of abuse, smeared canned yams all over her butt and squealed profane words—inadvertently making a scapegoat of herself, exposing the nation's rabid aversion to female public indecency, and sparking a controversy that eventually blew up in the Supreme Court.

While the other three of the NEA Four were quietly awarded compensatory money in 1993, and the organization ceased funding individual artists, the case National Endowment for the Arts vs. Finley wasn't decided by the Supreme Court until 1998. In that ruling, the court determined that Congress hadn't violated the First Amendment by refusing government funds to work it considered offensive to "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." The decision was 8-1, with David Souter the lone voice of dissent.

No yams, raw or otherwise, are likely to crop up at Performa 07 (which runs through November 20). But don't blame the biennial alone for performance's newly glossy edges: Something's clearly in the air, especially in the theater-y and dance-ish wings of performance. The Wooster Group, renowned for fragmenting and juxtaposing high and low art, has staged a tech-savvy Hamlet at the Public Theater; John Fleck, another of the NEA Four, has become a TV character actor; a third, Holly Hughes, teaches performance at the University of Michigan. Similarly, performance group Elevator Repair Service (this writer's former cohorts) have generated glowing reviews for their six-and-a-half-hour production Gatz—which features every last word from The Great Gatsby—while Radiohole, a drunken party that occasionally erupts into theater, is riffing on Moby-Dick. Dance/film pioneer Yvonne Rainer has created a piece for Performa that revisits the 1913 performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Dedicated iconoclasts haven't cozied up to highbrow culture this way since Rasputin charmed the czar. The commissioned piece that Goldberg describes as "my dream of what Performa can be" is Cast No Shadow, a stunning, precise dance/video piece by British filmmaker Isaac Julien and choreographer Russell Maliphant that explores three different voyages, including the journey of Matthew Henson, the first black man to reach the North Pole. Fascinating to watch and technically seamless, the performance is beyond chic—it makes some of BAM's regular programming look cheap.

According to Mark Russell, former artistic director of P.S. 122, the issue isn't just that these artists have become established, or cowed by legal battles over censorship and indecency, but that younger artists are engaged with too many modern problems to spend time excavating the past. "This generation doesn't even remember who the NEA Four are—or were. Their struggles are not so much about sexual or gender transgression; they're about living in an overmediated, consumerist world. What [older artists] considered outrageous or political is not as outrageous now—we have The L Word."

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.

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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