Roving Ei: The Avant-Garde Crowd


My art week was minimal and partial. By the end it turned out grand. I had hundreds of errands to do and only one date circled on my calendar, or clicked, whatever, and it was to get to MPA’s performance at Leo Koenig. In September she did the first part of  “Directing Light on to Fist of Father” and the buzz is that it was amazing. To date I’d only seen her on film so there was no missing this. So why am I pedaling my damn bike across town about a half-hour later than I planned? The crowd outside of the gallery was dense. Is MPA famous? Yes, and it was Performa, which is like the New Year’s Eve of performance art in terms of the amateurs really coming out for it. Tourists, graduate students. Grrr. An amateur audience is good. Right? But in terms of viewing, it doesn’t feel good.

Performance view from MPA’s Revolution. Two Marks in Rotation., 2011 at Leo Koenig Inc. Photo: Martha Moszczynski

I pushed my way toward the front to be among the hungry ones jammed against the gallery’s glass door as she performed for the crowd within. I could see some but mostly I could see us. I thought of that famous shot from the World Trade Center, the montage of human faces pushed against a window of the upper floors looking out, waiting to be saved. They weren’t. We kind of were. What I saw was partial.

 MPA was hovering and lunging in dark tight clothes, holding a metal bar. She seemed to be pushing into the audience in a threatening manner, holding her bar horizontally, extending it toward the people on the floor and shoving. Then the audience would get up and move. I mean they were actually intimidated into moving. There was a second woman (Amapola Prada), smaller with short dark hair, who also held a pole. For a while she did some standing with the pole in a military fashion. According to the publicity materials, MPA was doing things intermittently in the gallery all month whenever the light was right, but in fact she had actually relocated to Zuccotti Park to be with that crowd. Crowd, audience, community. This was sort of a community performance I think. Afterwards I saw that the real friends knew how to get in. Looking in from the outside I was reminded of all the documentary photographs I’ve ever seen over the years of a handful of people sitting in the room, or standing or moving like this during various avant-garde performances.

This crowd was far from avant-garde small which always makes me (and I think everyone) a little sad. I wonder if all of us had learned to be an audience from those photographs or if this is what viewing looks like. Serious, but not bored. If it were a rock show there’d be plenty of assholes looking at their phones and screaming. If this work is for the people disinterested in mass culture we are living nonetheless in a time when there is a mass culture of people disinterested in mass culture.

Who am I, I thought, clinging in the crowd to Barbara Schroeder, who like me should also have been in. Why wasn’t she more pushy? Is she depressed? I was tired, over-worked, which is the lamest excuse on earth. Yet it is the space I’m living in. I brought it here.

MPA began whaling on the wall with her stick. You could see the wall shake and pucker. Maybe the gallery made it easy for her. Was it this easy for Gordon Matta-Clark? Did all those cut-outs of his come down so readily? Here I thought it was kind of human of the walls, to be wounded so easily. They had a human skin.

Then Dean Daderko opened the gallery door. I heard glass shatter. I walked in and began hugging and kissing people never knowing what the broken glass meant. Now I was absorbing the reactions of everyone who had seen the whole thing. It was very intense. I heard that a lot. Most everyone I spoke with mentioned having been to Times Square with OWS. MPA, it seems, was mirroring the herding gestures of cops. The bars she used resembled ones that construct temporary pens or restraining areas, or designate “government.” She was governing the room with her tools. A few people thought it was unduly threatening, though they understood why she would be that way. She had been arrested, traumatized by the cops and I know it’s okay for me to feel upset like I am now, the same friends said. I was having an anxiety attack meanwhile, absorbing all these feelings in the room and my own lurching sense of only having had a partial experience of MPA’s piece.

Historically my feelings about the collective experience are usually shaped by what I missed. That is my flickering position. I was thinking about “Megan” (MPA) and everyone else and I was feeling somewhat wounded by the accumulated experience of all that.

When I heard Alice Notley and Brenda Coultas would be reading at DIA last night I thought, “I’m going to get there early,” and I did. I sat front row in a hot room full of what at first what looked like a lot of old people. Shocked smiling faces talking about their gray hair as if it had happened last night. How do you like my new coat?

Before we went into DIA we stopped in the same building at Julie Saul to see Bill Jacobson’s show. Speaking of minimalism and I am only speaking of minimalism because of him or Julie Saul’s excellent impulses: his show is small, a 14-photo retrospective with the wonderful title “Into the Loving Nowhere.” Bill’s a master of defocus and the subject matter is mortality, dead, death. His still lifes parade as mortality, and the razor-sharp clarity with which he photographs a pale striped painting leaning against a wall or a young rectangle of wood seem to make a case for a world still cycling its gifts and the same world unwrapping itself, always brightly conscious of the ends of stuff. Since some of this work was produced at the worst pitch of the AIDS crisis I thought these were portraits engaged with a sense of losing, not loss. A face without boundaries is not vague but constrained and flattened tightly, as if in prison. The ocean that at first looked rippled like a Vija Celmins is rippled instead into one soft darkness the closer it gets to the foreground, producing an abstract ache.

Some Planes is the blackest snowscape I ever saw. We’re in some sci-fi French movie where the antagonist is pulled over, gets out of his car to pop a cigarette in his mouth and suddenly he turns to see this blackened edge at the end of the world. This is both a tight and a monumental show. It’s mourning and making and both crates are full.

On the poetry floor Brenda Coultas got up and read what felt like one long autumnal poem (what season are we in?) full of layers of things. A fertile regret zips through all she preserves and observes while she’s sifting through the language of stuff. Her delivery was calm, even. She wore a deep orange broach. Alice Notley wore a silver shirt and she read from two different books; the latter, a black one, was published recently and it’s entirely hallucinogenic. It was like she scraped up a single layer that she kept moving around, a sampled track of all the genocided peoples of the world. Her delivery was liquid and bright. Brenda’s was stoic and friendly-I mean philosophically so. If there was a unitary satisfaction to be derived it was the animal comfort of collecting, a not too cerebral account of being buried and enjoying the rhizomatic rot of old books, eggshells and discarded photos – finding it awkward jarring and sweet, Alice’s was an unyielding, varying, mesmerizing cry of pain. She goes opaque for long passages; then she nips the moth drilling inward with a joke. Vincent Katz curates his series and his taste is stellar. Once it began, the combo of them, you thought, oh yeah.

Bill Jacobsen, Thought Series #2580 (2011). Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery.