BY Catherine Wood in Features | 30 SEP 12
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Issue 1

Re-make, Re-model

More and more artists are re-enacting iconic performances. What does this mean for ‘art of the present tense’ and its relationship to the past?

BY Catherine Wood in Features | 30 SEP 12

In 1992, the as-yet unknown artist Takashi Murakami, dressed in white clothes and black glasses, ran at a sequence of large wooden frames supporting identical sheets of paper, noisily and dramatically ripping through them one by one. Titled Breaking Through Paper Screens, Murakami’s action was a bold remake of a famous performance from 1956, Tsuka (Passage), by the artist’s namesake, Saburo Murakami, co-founder of the Japanese avant-garde movement Gutai. In the same year, Takashi Murakami also re-enacted a street happening from 1964 by the Japanese performance group Hi Red Center. Titled Movement to Promote the Clean-Up of the Metropolitan Area (Be Clean!), the original performance involved the members of the group — Genpei Akasegawa, Natsuyuki Nakanishi and Jiro Takamatsu — wearing face masks and lab coats, and, as art historian Mika Yoshitake described it, ‘sanitizing’ the streets of Tokyo with brooms, rags, toothbrushes and magnifying glasses: a satirical gesture related to the city’s beautification project for the Tokyo Summer Olympics.1

These re-makes were, in one sense, a young artist’s parody of the historical avant-garde’s imperative to ‘make it new’. But they were also a rite of passage for Murakami and his own sense of cultural identity. Within an emergent global context, the specificity of one’s origins could serve as one’s currency. Identifying in this pop manner with the ‘greatest hits’ of Japanese art to date — as seen by the Western canon, at least — Murakami established an energetically performative attitude that took permission to re-play historical fact as his own reality. This attitude is typical of many young artists working today.

American theorist Peggy Phelan has described performance as ‘the art of the present tense’. This might hold true within the moment of a work’s initial presentation, but it gets more complicated when one begins to look at the acceleration of attempts by artists in the past decade, especially, to perform history live. One could say that these works are still being acted out ‘in the present’ but many artists, like Murakami, have exhibited a desire to challenge that distinction between the past and present entirely, by collapsing them.

Instead of subtly referencing their predecessors, many contemporary artists are — increasingly — replacing a knowing nod to past work with ways of fully inhabiting it. Perhaps it is a method of both understanding and surpassing an earlier generation of artists, but it is also about dragging an otherwise invisible context — the passed life of performance, its language and its gestures — into the arena. It’s an approach that helps to make sense of what they themselves are making if it’s seen within an edifice of ghostly forebears.

The past decade has seen interest not only in remaking individual works, as Murakami did, but also a desire to create potted histories of performance and dance within single presentations. An important first work by British/German artist Tino Sehgal, (Untitled) (2000), involved him performing a sequence of movements drawn from the history of dance over the past 100 years; it ended with him pissing naked onto the stage in homage to Bruce Nauman’s Self Portrait as a Fountain from 1966. Marina Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005 included her interpretations of a number of iconic performance works including Valie Export’s 1968 Action Pants: Genital Panic and Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965, as well as one of Abramović’s own works. This spectral Marina-as-museum was certainly part of the artist’s ongoing claim as to her own centrality in both this strand of art history and its preservation for the future. Abramović was criticized by some for re-performing, in static poses, the now iconic documentary images of those works as opposed to the original actions as they unfolded through time, but she nevertheless brought those past works back to the centre of debate. Similarly, Rabih Mroué’s Who’s Afraid of Representation? (2004) combines a history of the Lebanese conflict, told in tandem with his own enactments of performance art history, each rife with elaborations and omissions. French choreographer Boris Charmatz’s Flip Book (2009) is a single piece of dance for a group of dancers whose choreography is drawn from flicking through a publication on the history of Merce Cunningham’s work titled Fifty Years (2005). There have also been notable curatorial attempts at such synthesis: in 2001 Jens Hoffmann curated ‘A Little Bit of History Repeated’ at KW, Berlin; he invited a number of artists, including Sehgal (presenting the aformentioned work), to re-make key performance works, and in 2005 Sven Lütticken organized ‘Life, Once More’ at Rotterdam’s Witte de With in an attempt to consider how such repetition might break open and activate the past.

Concurrent with these encyclopaedic approaches, individual remakes have been many and varied. Akin to the way in which the late American artist Mike Kelley — whose own practice emerged from performance in the late 1970s — used found high-school yearbook photographs as prompts from which to imaginatively grow theatrical vignettes with new music, new actions and new tableaux in his extraordinary 2005 project, Day is Done, so the current generation of artists find fragments of ‘dead’ history and reanimate them. In 2003, British artist Spartacus Chetwynd created a re-make of Yves Klein’s ‘Anthropométries’ — painting actions Klein staged in the late 1950s in which he notoriously used naked female models daubed in his signature ‘ikb’ blue paint as ‘living brushes’ — around the same time as she created lo-fi versions of the 1973 film The Wicker Man. In 2002, she also organized a performance of the sequence from John Landis’s video for Michael Jackson’s 1982 song ‘Thriller’ in the midst of a busy dance-floor of an artist-run club called Nerd in Shoreditch, London. In the mid-1990s, the Slovenian collective irwin brought back to light works by their predecessors oho, re-performing actions such as oho’s live rendition by the three artists dressed in black of the famous Slovenian landmark, Mount Trbovlje. In the early 2000s, Polish artist Paulina Olowska created a number of works borrowing from Karel Teige’s early 20th-century Bauhaus alphabet: accompanied by costumed dancers, Olowska performed the letters spelling out poetry by Josef Strau and Frances Stark. An early work by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera was a series of remakes of performances by the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, as well as a live retrospective of her own performances titled ‘translations’ (2002), which she taught to students herself.

In the 1960s in the USA, Allan Kaprow and Yvonne Rainer both made work based on scores that set out influential new building blocks for what performance might be. The young Nigerian-born artist Otobong Nkanga, currently working in Antwerp, has recently re-created one of Kaprow’s happenings from 1972 titled Baggage, transposing its original concern with the movement of material goods into a consideration of global migration and human displacement. In recent years, British choreographer Rosemary Butcher and others have similarly re-interpreted 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) from a combination of Kaprow’s scores and photographic documents. Ahead of the game, Rainer’s own work, Trio A, originally performed by the artist herself in 1966, and since re-performed a number of times by artists, including Ian White and Jimmy Robert — was designed from its inception to defeat its own death: as a repeatable ‘unit’ that could be learned by ‘anybody’ on a democratic basis.

Whilst performance remains vital — in fact, increasingly strong — as an area for experimentation and invention in visual art, it’s a little too old now to be considered a new art form. As us curator and art historian RoseLee Goldberg’s book and exhibition Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (1979) and ‘100 Years’, co-curated with Klaus Biesenbach at New York’s PS1 (2010), have done a good job of pointing out, it now has a century-long-plus history: from Dada poetry readings at Cabaret Voltaire in the 1910s, Luigi Russolo’s experimental ‘Art of Noises’ performances begun in 1913, or the ballet that Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Léonide Massine and Erik Satie created in 1917, Parade. Perhaps performance is ‘coming of age’ and demands its own venue. The museum as we know it is not suited to the ephemeral art form: its procedures and systems and stores are geared to object materials, crates and dimensions and its methods of conservation likewise. So whilst the museum or private collector makes attempts to grasp performance in various ways — whether through archival scores, scripts or documents — its history persists in parallel as an elusive ‘oral tradition’ passed from mind to mind and body to body, or — quite often — from the grainy, inadequate photographic document back to the artist’s live enactment.

This elaboration of a ‘living currency’ — as French writer, translator and artist Pierre Klossowski described the human perversion of the reproductive instinct into capitalism, via forms of prostitution, in his eponymous book of 1970 (a title which curator Pierre Bal-Blanc took for his exhibition of live art at cac Brétigny, 2007, and later Tate Modern, London, in 2008) — is an emergent form of trade that passes between artists and largely bypasses the institution and the market. It has more in common with the lineage of dance or ballet. But where that formal heritage is transmitted in ways that resemble an aristocratic bloodline, relying on the accuracy and proximity to the original source of the choreographer, performance and visual artists borrow and steal much more freely, even illicitly, worrying less about who invented it, gave permission, or for whether the remake’s authenticity has been sanctioned.

Re-enactment as a form of re-telling social relations and understanding ourselves collectively has a long tradition within British culture (and indeed elsewhere). This is evident in two relatively recent events: Jeremy Deller’s 2001 Battle of Orgreave project — his collaboration with historical re-enactment specialist Howard Giles and film director Mike Figgis to re-stage one of the key clashes between police and picketing miners of the 1980s — and firstsite’s display of ‘Colchester Pageant’ events earlier this year. The revisiting of live art history comes, perhaps, from a similar impulse: to find new ways to investigate how we, as a culture, arrived at our ways of making and understanding art now: whether they are objects or actions.

This is a mindset that is especially pertinent to the Facebook generation: the availability of anything and everything online, and the various mediated ways in which one can possess and inhabit it. There is no shortage of kids on YouTube re-performing classic ‘performance’ pieces: a quick search yields a teenage boy doing Abramović’s Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975); several re-performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) by men and women in different sets of clothes; a young girl solemnly applying red face-paint to her face, neck and arms in homage to Bruce Nauman’s film Art Make-Up (1967); kids all over the place in all genres of music re-making John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33’’. The art stuff is sandwiched between the inevitable lo-fi attempts at doing mainstream TV or music. What is curious is that all these things are available in the same way, and all equally usable or accessible.

Living history is a way of connecting with the past that does away with footnotes. Artists are not just pointing to past work, they are speaking from a subject position that first identifies with it by becoming it, and then analyses what is interesting about it. In this sense, Sturtevant was a pioneer: her re-makes of paintings by Frank Stella or Andy Warhol, and her performances as Joseph Beuys, were not attempts at ‘faking’ works by other artists but were enacted as complex forms of simulation, or over-identification with them, that simultaneously extended the life of the originals and emptied them of their auratic power by repetition. Re-making performance this way is not about narrative; it’s usually about a cross-chronological identification between two artists, two subjectivities: a sympathy of pure ideas. The Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, recently staged a project by Charmatz (and others) titled ‘Moments: A History of Performance in 10 Acts’ (2012), that ran with this collapse, taking the work of ten important historical female performance artists (from Abramović to Sanja Ivekovic and Lynn Hershman Leeson) as the basis from which to re-make, borrow and steal with a sense of flagrant permissiveness. The experiment prompted a radical, sometimes comic and occasionally erotic series of identifications between artist and originating source, thrillingly messing up any sense of ‘real’ history.

Charmatz’s collaborative project is characteristic of a new tradition, of sorts, that treats documents not as relics but as ‘scores’ to be used creatively. Inaccuracy is a hazard, for certain, but perhaps that is the choice the medium has to make: between an imperfect past that is ‘live’ and immediate, and a partial past as a document in a glass case. This is not a rock and a hard place, though: it’s an indication that there is a rich past life to performance that artists have noted and in all kinds of ways, they see it as being full of possibility, and up for grabs.

Catherine Wood is a curator, writer, and art historian specialising in performance and the cross-disciplinary within the field of modern and contemporary art.