BY James Trainor in Reviews | 17 MAR 06
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Issue 97


BY James Trainor in Reviews | 17 MAR 06

For 17 days in November PERFORMA- 05, billed by its organizer RoseLee Goldberg as New York’s first performance art biennial, was a flash flood of 60 events spread out over dozens of venues with little institutional backing and a tiny budget. Like New York’s Bang on a Can festival of alternative music or the downtown Fringe theatre festival it was a marathon grab-bag of events held in venues that included galleries, bars, nightclubs, cinemas, museums and Central Park. Some events were specially commissioned or facilitated by PERFORMA05 while others were simply given a boost by its cross-marketing umbrella.

One evening’s fare provided a representative core-sample: at the non-profit Artists Space, the Berlin-based performance art ‘hardcore karaoke’ duo Discoteca Flaming Star (Cristina Gómez Barrio and Wolfgang Mayer) floated an arrangement of ‘Lili Marlene’ as a three-chord Kinks tune performed in Arabic. Later, dressed in Jack Smith/Ottoman pasha/Donna Summer drag, Mayer sang a slowly peeled-away, nerve-jangling deconstructed version of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. ‘That’s love’ Mayer remarked in conclusion to a stunned audience.

A quick cab ride over to Leo Koenig found the Austrian collective Gelatin ceremoniously boarding their plywood Tantamounter 24/7, a giant wooden ‘U-boat’ where they were sealed off from the outside world for a week, supplied with heaps of arts and crafts junk. Operating their contraption like a rattletrap copying machine, the group invited visitors to trust them enough to insert personal objects into a slot. After a short wait, the object reappeared accompanied by a hastily assembled, woebegone replica (in one case an Ipod popped back out with its quizzical doppelganger – a plushy toy made of foam, masking tape, and an old Super 8 film reel). Speeding down to the filled-to-the-rafters Slipper Club on the Lower East Side one could take in Francis Alys’ high concept burlesque show, Rehearsal II, which paired a soprano running through a difficult passage of Franz Schubert lieder with a local stripper artist, whose hour-long stop-and-start, on-and-off dance of dishabille was synchronized with that of the singer and her pianist in a teasingly repetitive study of practicing one’s chosen craft.

Through it all, Marina Abramovic’s week-long occupation of the Guggenheim Museum rotunda for her series ‘7 Easy Pieces’ could be counted on as the day’s corrective and saving grace. Reprising performance art’s ‘greatest hits’ from Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure (1974) to Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), Abramovic’s daily seven-hour long recreations, beginning at sundown and ending at midnight, were the centre of gravity for many people that week who would come and watch and leave and sometimes come back hours later. In many ways, Abramovic’s gruelling experiment – testing whether ephemeral works of landmark performance art are lost to us, locked into their original contexts and accessible only via documentation and description as historical events, or, like dance or music, are open to continual reinterpretation – was an anchoring touchstone for Performa’s own concerns.

PERFORMA05 indicated that performance art is not only alive and kicking and that there is an audience hungry for it, but that it need not be relegated to after-the-fact documentation appreciated second-hand in gallery settings. Nor need it be a rare or rarefied experience. Uneven and polyglot as it was, PERFORMA05 gave a genuine sense that sometimes you just have to show up in person. Or as Abramovic implored during her version of Vito Acconci’s onanistic Seedbed (1972), her disembodied voice emanating from the floorboards beneath rapt visitors’ feet, ‘I’m here for you … don’t go’

By James Trainor

Programme notes for You Were Born Poor and Poor You Will Die promised a conjured ‘Ancient world religion of human sacrifice that mirrors the societal blood-letting of late-Capitalism’. The Los Angeles-based ensemble My Barbarian delivered. Riffing on class warfare and ‘end time’ hedonism with live instrumentation, they ran the gamut from show-stopping Broadway tunes to Heavy Metal, compacting the Rock Opera genre into something they dubbed ‘showcore’.

Group members Malik Gaines, Alexandro Segade, Andy Ouchi, Jade Gordon and Scott Martin wore primitive glam Op art outfits, with stylized masks and giant phalluses made of papier mâché and dollar bills crafted by artist Jeff Ono. Props included gourd-like instruments that, after an introductory chant, circulated around the audience like donation baskets at a church service – except that the coins became percussion for a homage to a beast called the ‘Microwave Minotaur’. Singing about vanished cities such as Babylon and Gomorrah, lead vocalist Gordon, the ‘High Priestess of Gomorrah’, hilariously caressed her multi-teated breastplate while channeling a Minoan snake goddess and waving rubber reptiles. By evening’s end a priest and worshipper had been ‘sacrificed’, their penises severed, and the priestess had mutilated herself to death.

The next night found the legendary Vaginal Davis parodying Vanessa Beecroft’s eminently spoofable performances, this time in VD as VB Black and White Women and Men Together Again Forever. After her scantily clad models (NYU students of varying sizes and races) arrayed themselves before the audience, the two metre tall VD stepped forward in figure-hugging gown and opera gloves. ‘You must forgive that my English, because I am Italian … for if to you it is not right that I say it you will understand anyway.’ She applauded herself, squelched rumours of an affair with Matthew Barney and warned that the work was ‘trademarked and copyrighted’.

‘Swallow them in’, she exhorted, waving toward the models. ‘Look, look and look some more! Photograph and document …!’ She ordered her models to repeat after her: ‘I am be-au-ti-ful’, ‘Rep-e-ti-tion for em-pha-sis’, ‘My lit-tle tit-ty cav-i-ty is cov-et-ed’, ‘I have per-fect gen-i-ta-li-a’. They echoed her faux Italian accent.

While ‘the media’ were busy documenting, inspecting and (with permission) touching the living sculptures, the substantial and very un-Beecroft-like VD was overheard saying, ‘It’s so hot in here, I’m dying!’ and shrieking, ‘Well, touch me too, then – I love to be touched!’ Video was shot and cellphone cameras wielded until the crowd filtered out, perspiring but as relaxed and unembarrassed as the artist and sculptures.

James Trainor was US editor of frieze between 2004–07