Five From the Whitney Biennial Martin Kersels


“This is a funny guy” was the this unsolicited comment offered to me by a visitor to the Whitney Biennial as he contemplated 5 Songs, the sculpture-cum-performance set by Martin Kersels, installed in the museum’s lobby. A miniature stage composed of five orange, black and white movable modules, the piece emanates a sense of hedonist pleasure realized through glam-on-a-budget fantasy. The modules include a Laugh-In worthy dance cage replete with a few hanging beads, and a performance platform with a built in prop room, stocked with all manner of rock accoutrements, including fright wigs and (should the need arise) a lint roller. The overall effect is Minimalist sculpture hijacked by a 1980s heavy metal cover band—artistic paternity in the hands of someone who can take a joke.

Which is not to discount Kersels’ objects as mere sight gags: the stage pieces are not just gestures to the mere notions of performance. Kersels has created a performance program, Live on 5 Songs (with the help of Renwick Gallery’s Leslie Fritz, who assisted Kersels in devising a list of artists, musicians and choreogrpahers), which is an integral aspect of the artwork. Last Friday, Live on 5 Songs hosted Melinda Ring, who performed with Kersels in his 2001 video piece Pink Constellation. Ring held “auditions for a fully imagined but never to be performed work specifically designed for Martin Kersels’s sculpture,” as she calls it The next performance, on March 12 at 6:30pm, will feature choreographer Milka Djordevich and composer Chris Peck, who have made the rounds this season with lo-fi, contemplative explorations on the relationship between music and dance. Lo-fi is key here: “I warned [the performers] that it’s not a theatrical space,” says the artist. “I said, ‘you’re not going to have a dress rehearsal, lighting designer or a sound engineer. This is all shoestring: you just go out there and do your thing.'” LEFT: SKETCH FOR 5 SONGS. COURTESY THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART.
The work is mobile, and the pieces re-emerge in distinctly new configurations for each performance. Every time a performer goes on, the sculptures are rearranged (by art handlers) according to the guest artist’s whims. “If the next performer wants to switch it around, [the stage components] can go together in a different way,” says Kersels. “And then it stays that way until the next performer comes in.” In this way, Kersels  problematizes the notion that this artwork’s precous gestalt that takes on a different life at the hands of the performers who use it.

The piece is about sharing the spotlight, although Kersels is quick to point out that it wasn’t created out of sheer beneficence. “I wanted to bring the body back into the gallery. And rather than do some kind of extended performance, I wanted to bring in the prosthetics of performance—a stage or a prop. And I wanted to make those things sculptural and performative, to be activated by live bodies.”
Kersels is a Biennial veteran, having previously participant in the 1997 edition. A Los Angeles resident and co-director of the Program of Art at Cal Arts, Kersels’ work was exhibited in a 2008 retrospective exhibition, Heavyweight Champion, which was shown in the Santa Monica Museum of Art and at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. For the past few decades, the artist has created works that often explored the body and performance, with an agenda that feels both personal and pop-cultural.

In works like Fat Iggy (2009), the artist, who possesses a generous frame, photographed himself as the performer Iggy Pop, on a mutually grander (physically) and smaller (fame-wise) scale. The work introduces the idea that, in the culture of performance, one’s corporeality is one’s reality. Tossing a Friend (1996), a series of color photographs featuring the artist hurling his smaller pals toward the sky, explore the ways that humans negotiate their bodies, and the ways in which one’s size dictates one’s effect on people. With Live on 5 Songs, Kersels seems, in part, to transcend the notion of a personal body entirely. By suggesting the idea that a performance can be given by someone else, yet still belong, in part, to an artwork, Kersels has produced a distinctive and timely investigation of ownership and authenticity in performance art.