The Whitney Museum’s show of contemporary work, “Off the Wall,” opened last week, the most recent in a slew of institutional attempts to preserve and display performance. Featuring 30 performative actions of work authored from 1946 to the present, curator Chrissie Iles’ survey focused on performance-based works that marshal the body as an artistic medium or tool, employing the museum’s architecture as a stage, and disorienting that site in the process. The show extends issues raised by Marina AbramoviÄ?’s “The Artist Is Present” at MoMA. Both exhibitions foreground the ways the performer manifests in the exhibition space, and how their presence mediates the viewer’s experience.
JOHN BALDESSARI, I WILL NOT MAKE ANY MORE BORING ART, 1971 AND 2010. COURTESY THE ARTIST
While “The Artist is Present” experimented with reinterpretations of AbramoviÄ?’s durational and personal work, Off the Wall remains truer to historical integrity. Case in point: John Baldessari originally instructed students enrolled at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to repeatedly write his work’s title, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971), in vertical columns, like a grade-school punishment. The Whitney’s is the first recreation of the piece, and in this version the museum asked art student volunteers to write on a gallery wall in one-hour shifts. The monotonous task drew consistently large crowds throughout the evening, arguably using sarcasm and expressivity to defeat the aim set forth by its text. Like AbramoviÄ?’s grueling brand of performance art, Baldessari’s piece is about endurance—but in this case, the artist transforms himself into a remote operator, outsourcing conceptual labor to surrogates. Alex Remnick from the University of Pennsylvania recounted how performing the exercise induced a kind of ocular disorientation as the interminable wall began to vibrate from close range. The incessant text has even migrated upstairs, where as part of Christian Marclay’s current exhibition, “Festival,” patrons scrawled variations including “is this boring art?” on Chalkboard (2010), an evolving graphic score generated by audience members and periodically interpreted by live pianists.
Simone Forti’s Striding Crawling (1977) visualizes the absent artist as a telepresent specter while subtly prompting participation. A multiplex hologram of Forti hovers within a Plexiglas cylinder, resting atop three brick supports. The dancer and choreographer’s miniaturized image is illuminated by a single tea candle in an elegant hybrid of high and low-tech aesthetics. Circumnavigating the sculpture, one sees a sequence of everyday movements indicative of Forti’s Judson School roots. Witnessing another visitor rocking side to side encouraged me to try the same-Forti’s image responded with a halting advance and withdrawal. I then made wide circles around the room, and the broken stuttering became a more continuous flow. The choice of whether to participate or watch from a distance is here removed; viewers become unsuspecting collaborators the moment they enter the gallery space. Shifting groups of patrons and Forti’s duplicate become unlikely partners engaged in an ongoing improvisation.
Vito Acconci enacts a more aggressive dance as he spars with his own counterpart in Shadow-Play (1970). The artist materializes via prerecorded documentation of a contrived performance. The video’s content is in fact a double entendre on the word “shadowboxing.” Acconci literally fights in the absence of a real opponent, while evoking a psychological confrontation with himself as other. The video is projected onto a wall similar to the one that appears in the piece, creating a confusing tension between real and projected surfaces. One viewer playfully inserted himself into the frame as a third challenger, creating additional twins. Here, a connection between artist and performer is maintained through visceral responses of empathetic mirroring.
As a heightened interest in performance reprisals has raised questions about the boundaries of reinterpretation, it is useful to note how artists of the 1960s and 70s generation established constraints, but also left purposeful openings in the set-up for intervention and surprise. The possibilities for performance in future exhibitions is exciting territory; the medium is a living entity.
OFF THE WALL, PART 1, IS ON VIEW THROUGH SEPTEMBER 19. THE WHITNEY MUSEUM IS LOCATED AT 945 MADISON AVENUE, NEW YORK.