Performance art seems best served by the presence of an audience. So much is lost when one can’t feel the audience sweating, groaning, chanting along with the performer as he or she tests its physical, emotional, and psychic limits. At “Rituals of Rented
Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama — Manhattan, 1970–1980,” an exhibition at the Whitney on early performance art, there are no live performances in the space of the galleries. Instead, they’re represented by whatever archival material remains from the original happenings — photographs, scripts, notebooks, drawings, costumes, installations, and, in some cases, grainy videos playing on televisions. Most of the documents will read like hieroglyphs to those who weren’t at the original performances — or those who haven’t done research on these ephemeral moments of art history.
Many of the artists represented in the exhibition, including Jack Smith, Laurie Anderson, Mike Kelley, Robert Wilson, Vito Acconci, and Ken Jacobs, now stand as icons with cult followings. But if the
exhibition is any indication, the art they made during this period of New York
history — the ’70s, which creative types
today idealize as a sort of free-wheeling utopia, and my Irish Catholic parents, who grew up poor in the Bronx, remember as a horrifying war zone — is solipsistic and dull with a few marked exceptions.
I don’t blame the artists. I blame the
curation, which provides a script for each action and then denies you the action itself. Missing is the flamboyant outrageousness of a man like Jack Smith, who decked himself out in lamé and glittery eye makeup to perform works like “The Secret of Rented Island” (1976–77) in which he cast a plush pig and a pair of toy monkeys as characters to play out the dialogue from Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1882). Frequently, the performance began well after midnight and lasted for over five hours. In writing, this sounds like a snoozefest — but beholding Smith in all his glory, manically gliding around his stage, presumably captivated his audiences.
The original spectacle is represented in the exhibition by a 90-minute slide show synced to Smith’s taped dialogue and sound effects. Without Smith, the performance falls flat — hardly a visitor the morning I was at the exhibition stopped for more than 30 seconds to watch the puppets on the screen.
The performances in the exhibition work best when in their original states they incorporated mediums like television. Michel Smith, a video artist and stand-up comedian who resembles Tony Danza, frequently recorded his work to be shown on televisions. At the Whitney, his subsequent videos are nestled into freestanding displays created from ephemera — boxer shorts, neckties, suitcases, kitty litter boxes — related to his original sets. At the far end of the room, the video component of Secret Horror (1980 and 2013) literally called to me — in the low drone of repetitive dialogues being emitted from other rooms, Smith erupted into a belting rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Closer inspection reveals that he does
so with a determined face while swinging his arms in a spasming dance. In the background, a bevy of “bedsheet ghosts” dance along with him. The scene was so funny that I stuck around for 13 minutes to watch it play again. It suggests the surreal comedy in shows like The State (1993–1995) or Food Party (since 2009), but also the videos of young contemporary artists such as Eugene Kotlyarenko. One could
almost imagine Kanye West, the aspirational cultural maverick, incorporating early Michael Smith into one of his weirder music videos.
In a tiny corner of a gallery sits a
television screen playing excerpts from Claim (1971), a performance staged by Vito Acconci in which he sat, blindfolded,
at the bottom of the stairwell and swung
at members of the audience who came near him. The pull of the piece is in the
violence — on the video, Acconci is depicted blindfolded and chanting aloud his thoughts like self-anointed preacher on a subway platform. Acconci later said that the performance tested his social and
psychic limits — it set the stage for the
rise of “psychodrama” in performance art, in which artists like Julie Heyward performed works such as Shake Daddy Shake (1976), which told the story in words, songs, and film clips of her preacher
father’s battle with a neurological disease. Apparently, people present at the original performance were moved to tears — I guess you had to be there.
Intriguing on a base level is the installation devoted to the Kipper Kids, a duo who exposed their penises, blew farting noises, dumped SpaghettiOs on the stage, and boxed each other wearing prosthetic noses and jockstraps. In the realm of high art, they are the descendants of Viennese Actionism. To the most, they may look like the spawn of Laurel and Hardy, setting the groundwork for television shows like Jackass. Their lewd screwball translated well on television. But Yvonne Rainer’s this is the story of a woman who . . . (1973),
a droning meditation on relationships, falls flat without the presence of Rainer herself, a figure much admired for the physical beauty of her movements.
I left the exhibition pondering the
merits of performance art — was it the fault of the curator that the iconic work didn’t move me, or is performance art a medium that I just don’t connect with? Such questions spurred me to attend All the King’s Horses . . . none of his men, a performance by Dave McKenzie presented as part of Performa 13, the contemporary performance biennial running in New York until November 24. The program billed it as a “critique of African-American representations in the media,” but all I saw was a well-groomed black man wearing tap dancing shoes, smearing chalk all over himself and the floor, chanting mantras, and listing the names of candy bars while he stomped his feet. The audience gave him 20 minutes before they started fidgeting. Afterward, Canal Street, with all of is garbage and glittering lights, seemed a far more interesting stage on which to experience the performative aspects of life in New York City.