One lesson gleaned from Clifford Owens’s “Anthology” is that submitting to other people’s instructions doesn’t rule out first-person provocation. For this project, Owens solicited performance scores from a multigenerational and interdisciplinary range of African-American artists, 26 of whom responded; PS1 offered Owens a summer residency to enact them and then an exhibition that documents the results. There are also a number of live performances scheduled during the show.
The scores naturally vary enormously, not only in content but also in degrees of specificity, and Owens has taken liberties with all. To William Pope.L’s cryptic prompt, “Be African American. Be Very African American,” Owens responded by having a young black performer follow a long and winding path through the building, marked by a line of broad white tape; the line—but, notably, neither the performer nor Owens—is shown in a series of photographs. More dynamic is the artist’s interpretation of Lorraine O’Grady’s similarly open-ended score (roughly: think of “another”—animal, vegetable or mineral—and create a record of your thoughts). In this case, Owens interacted suggestively—in fact, the videos documenting this performance are frankly, and hilariously, lewd—with a chicken and various cut-open vegetables.
Among other script donors are Maren Hassinger, Terry Adkins, Glenn Ligon and Senga Nengudi. In response to Steffani Jemison’s Regret Piece, which urges, gnomically, “Experience Regret. Do Not Apologize,” Owens (who is 40 years old and black) had himself photographed while being patted on the ass by one young white guy and having his shirt ripped open by another, and finally standing still while a young white woman pours what looks like a can of beer over his head. In the final image, Owens’s face is a portrait of wide-eyed, open-mouthed outrage.
But most provocative by far is Kara Walker’s score, which called for Owens to “French kiss an audience member. Force them against a wall and demand sex. Then turn tables and assume the role of victim. Accuse your attacker. Seek the help of others. Describe your ordeal. Repeat.” In a pre-exhibition performance documented with photographs and a video, and another undertaken after the show opened, Owens was faithful to the first element only, which was plenty. At the performance I saw, another performer read the instructions aloud, repeatedly, while Owens strode up and down a hallway crowded with a mostly young, multiracial audience. At longish intervals, Owens chose one after another onlooker, and kissed him or her, with energy but neither aggression nor great displays of passion. Instead, the audience members’ acute self-consciousness—and furtive observation of one another—provided the dramatic tension.
Violating the boundary that separates artist from audience is of course a mainstay of performance art, and Owens has crossed it before, although this is the first time he has brought race to the forefront (in part to redress the dearth of attention to black artists working in the discipline). But by resisting, however variably, the instructions he received, he also acts out intramural tensions in a way that further complicates—and enlivens—questions of who is in charge, who is watching and who is being seen.
Additional performances are scheduled for Feb. 11 and Mar. 11. The show travels to MOCA, North Miami, in late 2012.
Photos: Clifford Owens: Anthology (Kara Walker), 2011, one of five C-prints, 16 by 24 inches. (left) Anthology (William Pope.L), 2011, one of 20 pigment prints on aluminum, 14 by 11 inches. (right) Both at MoMA PS1.