The full title of Jay Sanders’s first show since his appointment as the Whitney’s first-ever curator of performing arts – ‘Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama – Manhattan, 1970–1980’ – could easily pass for an academic thesis. This tightly focused exhibition looked back to the golden days, if not quite the dawn, of ‘performance art’, a term which had superseded all other tentative labels by the mid-1970s, as Sanders points out in one of the well-researched catalogue essays. This was a time when lofts in lower Manhattan were cheap and in abundant supply, when artists had the place pretty much to themselves – or so it would seem when looking at a period map in the show, densely colonized with alternative art spaces in and around what came to be known as SoHo.
One such space was the Plaster Foundation of Atlantis, christened by filmmaker Jack Smith, who occupied this Greene Street loft from 1969 until he was evicted in 1971. Not nearly so well-known as the films he had made in the previous decade, the handful of Smith’s performance works included here – from the 1968 Travelogue of Lobsterland! (formerly known as Clamercials of Capitalism) to the Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (1977) by way of The Secret of Rented Island (1976–77), an unconventional adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play Ghosts – playfully inveighed against the joint evils of capitalism and private property.
Richly and imaginatively documented, this exhibition was anything but fusty in the way shows built around archival materials can be. The formal variety of the displays, for each of the 20 artists (many of them women) and collectives included, ensured that its interest rarely flagged as the visitor moved from one exhibition area to the next in a meandering rather than linear parcours. Each new body of work called for its own distinct mode of presentation, ranging from a modest slideshow of photographs documenting Laurie Anderson’s Duets on Ice (1974–75) performances to a spectacular installation made up of images and ephemera from three wacky-sounding plays staged by the Hungarian group Squat Theatre.
At odds with the intrinsic qualities of performance art – if we’re to believe Marilyn Arsem’s pithy 2011 manifesto ‘THIS Is Performance Art’ – ‘the staged, the theatrical, the spectacle’ is something ‘Rituals of Rented Island’ flirted with while outwardly distancing itself from. As the exhibition’s full title made clear, theatre (albeit of the hermetic kind) was among its dominant modes. Besides early ritualistic works by Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, performed in lofts for a select audience, the show featured a presentation of composerJohn Zorn’s equally esoteric Theatre of Musical Optics, in which minute illuminated objects were staged in sequences of growing complexity.
The exhibition’s theatrical nature was bolstered by a plethora of more-or-less outlandish objects, props, costumes and entire stage sets in the case of the Kipper Kids’s littered boxing ring from their notor-ious 1979 music hall act at The Kitchen. Elsewhere, Jared Bark’s unassuming lamp and table were propped against a wall painted with phosphorescent paint, retai-ning the lamp’s shadow from The Cold Light House (1977), and nearby was the multi-functional wall display for Theodora Skipitares’s Skysaver (1980). Stuart Sherman’s suitcases packed full of props the artist would deploy to conjure up a given city in his Tenth Spectacle (Portraits of Places) (1978) smacked of street theatre and magic tricks. In contrast, Jill Kroesen’s trademark white pyramids that accompany her ‘system portraits’, the term she used to describe her allegorical theatre pieces, fulfilled no very obvious function other than, perhaps, to signal their underlying symbolic structure.
Dotted around the gallery, these moveable props were among the many objects that made for a playground atmosphere of a piece with the personal narratives exploring childhood memories and traumas. Baby Blood (1967) saw Robert Wilson symbolically reenact his own birth; in Shake Daddy Shake, performed at the Judson Memorial Church in 1976, Julia Heyward related her father’s charismatic preaching to the palsy which later paralyzed his arm; Ericka Beckman’s beguiling works made for camera, such as We Imitate; We Break Up (1978), in which a giant pair of puppet legs shows the performer how to play football and other games, were underpinned by the theories of child psychologist Jean Piaget. My favourite ‘Rituals of Rented Island’ moment came in the shape of an unexpected comic interaction with Michael Smith in full ‘Baby Ikki’ gear, casting about for a playmate in one of the few (perhaps too few) live performances planned alongside the exhibition. Within minutes of appearing on the scene, Smith had impressed upon his audience what no amount of performance paraphernalia, no matter how alluring, can adequately convey: the sheer power of live presence.