Performance art confronts the present.

The fourth floor of the Whitney Museum will be devoted to performance works for the 2012 Biennial.

Does the current state of performance warrant that nearly an entire floor of the Whitney Biennial be devoted to the art form? This is “is the first Whitney Biennial in which nearly a full floor of the Museum has been given over to a changing season of performances, events, and residencies," according to the museum. Relative to the recent past, is there more performance being created now? Are the 100 Years exhibitions and Performa biennials raising awareness for the genre/method/medium/etc.?

(Get your tickets now if you want to see the performance works included in the 2012 Biennial.)

Hennessy Youngman, who in many ways epitomizes contemporary performance artistry, last week posted a new video (Watch it if you haven’t already!) for his Art Thoughtz web series about the contemporary state of “the field art production known as performance art,” as he calls it. It’s a reprise of his Nov. 20, 2011 lecture/performance from Performa, but YouTube seems like the only way to see the work in its truest form. The lecture-cum-rant is both critique and mockery of performance art, but also an epistemological analysis of society and identity in the age of YouTube – in “the present” it seems that we don’t even exist unless we’re performing.

In the performance edition of Art Thoughtz, Youngman calls “Performance Art” “a pre-internet method of annoying groups of people using your body and voice working in conjunction in order to create a compelling spectacle that heightens said annoyance.” There are still artists who create performance using the methods Youngman initially describes, but his sense that the performative aspects of interaction are forever changed in the internet age is indeed spot on. Yet “in order to battle this technological sahara of experience” he says, “and jumpstart human interaction once again,” performances artists are now “calling attention to the basic structures that compose life.” He points to Marina Abromović’s “The Artist Is Present” (2010), in which she sat and stared, one-on-one, at MoMA visitors hours, and Marni Kotak’s “The Birth of Baby X” (2011), which is self-explanatory, among other artists whose media seem to be basic concepts of humanity.

Maybe we should be paying close attention to new performance, if not just to the way our perception of human interaction has changed in the last 10 to 15 years. The Whitney’s performance artists include Charles Atlas, Dawn Kasper, who sometimes plays dead, and Sarah Michelson, who creates work that “at its deepest structural core, denies safety in favor of trying to understand through action.” They seem to fall into the category of contemporary performance defined by Youngman.

The 100 Years exhibition is an “introduction to the history of performance art,” which “has been entirely missing from the history of art so far,” according to Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, who co-curated the show with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. Goldberg calls is a “draft,” a “’living exhibition,’” that grows and expands with each new iteration,” and her curatorial approach fits the historization, or canonization, of works that have resisted the canon. Works have been added and subtracted from each one of the exhibition’s four renditions, including pieces from active local artists, which creates a living archive. 100 Years (version #4 Boston, 2012) is installed and takes place at the Boston University Art Gallery, and BUAG director and chief curator Kate McNamara, who assisted Goldberg and Biesenbach on 100 Years, worked with Cambridge-based performance collective Mobius and artist and RISD professor Kurt Ralske, among others, to build a program around the exhibition.

The BUAG and BUAG Annex programming for 100 Years includes:
February 7 – 18: Performances and actions organized by The Present Tense, including: Archiving the Ephemeral: The Present Tense 2005-Now*
February 21 – March 4: Trading Post with John Gonzalez
March 6 – 9: Artist Dirk Adams, organized by Mobius
March 13 – 30: Wastepaper Theatre Archive Resources with Randi Hopkins
*(One of the reasons why the art world establishment has resisted performance art is its ephemeral nature. It is, at times, impossible to recreate and almost always difficult to document. The 100 Years curators became archivists as they traced backwards through the Bauhaus, Dada, and Futurist movements.) 

Boston-based performance duo The Present Tense, which is comprised of artists Sandrine Schaefer and Philip Freyer, has already begun carrying out their site-specific “False Summit" work, which continues through Feb. 18. Documentation of the work is available on Vimeo.

I had the opportunity to write about 100 Years (version #4 Boston, 2012) in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Art New England, but would like call your attention to a few pieces that I didn’t get to adequately address in review due to lack of space:

The title of the exhibition stems from the 100-year anniversary of the Italian poet and Futurist movement founder Filippo Marinetti publishing his “Futurist Manifesto” (1909) in French and Italian newspapers. While calling for the glorification of war, contempt for women, and the burning of libraries, he also challenged artists to dedicate their bodies to acts of artistic creation. A facsimile of his work as originally published is available for your inspection along with an English translation.

The female Futurist Valentine de Saint-Pont wrote a response (“Manifesto of Futurist Women” (1912)) to Marinetti’s text that beseeches women to “go back to your sublime instinct, to violence, to cruelty” and urges them to procreate “while men are in charge of wars and battles.” The polemic is a welcome inclusion to the show not only because of women’s unpopular standing with Futurists, but also their absence from art history. It’s also interesting to consider the work’s place in the history of feminism’s development.

Also worth some contemplation is one of the most pertinent inclusions in 100 Years: Abbie Hoffman’s 1967 New York Stock Exchange “intervention,” as the BU gallery describes it. The work was a protest in which Hoffman and several of his comrades threw fistfuls of both real and fake dollar bills from the viewing gallery above the exchange’s floor as the traders below scrambled for the cash.

100 Years is on view until March 25 at the Boston University Art Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215.


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