BY Isobel Harbison in Opinion | 19 NOV 18

Two Books Survey and Situate the Last Decade of Performance Art

Major new volumes by curators RoseLee Goldberg and Catherine Wood document contemporary art’s most rambunctious medium

BY Isobel Harbison in Opinion | 19 NOV 18

Every body is working in performance. And there’s a lot of it around. Two major new volumes situate the last decade of contemporary art’s most rambunctious medium: RoseLee Goldberg’s Performance Now (Thames and Hudson, 2018) and Catherine Wood’s Performance in Contemporary Art (Tate Publishing, 2018). These are texts that expand from the authors’ respective archives at Performa, New York, and Tate Modern, London, where the performance programmes they have shepherded have become institutions unto themselves.

Both accounts challenge any (Peggy Phelan’s) claim for unfettered, body-centric ‘liveness’ as commensurate with authenticity and quality. Both authors acknowledge that their writing shares the task of conveying the medium with photography and whatever scattered documentation remains after the event. Both allude to the increasing importance of moving image, often from a work’s inception, with Goldberg naming ‘performance-film’ as part of its ontology and Wood noting that, from the late 1970s, ‘a more media-literate form of self-representation was made possible by innovations in video technology’. While Goldberg is alone in her exploration of how museum infrastructures and collecting policies have been updated to accommodate performance, so too is Wood when she acknowledges her professional role, registering both its privileges and perspectival limitations when researching works across generations, continents, cultures and communities.

Pina Bausch, Vollmond, 2006, performance documentation, Schauspielhaus Wuppertal. Courtesy: © Laurent Philippe

Goldberg’s book is set exclusively post-2000 and maintains the large-scale format of her previous volumes: Performance: Live Art, 1909 to the Present (1979) and Performance: Live Art Since the 60s (1998), both published by Thames and Hudson. Six thematic essays are followed by constellations of examples, constituted through performance stills and single paragraph descriptions. These arrangements interrupt sequential reading but free her examples between chapters. In the second, ‘World Citizenship’, Goldberg introduces a global field of performance, marking the rise of art capitals in India, the inherent dangers of live performance in communist China and the ‘agit-prop stunts’ of artist performers who have congregated in step with the formation of the 15 post-Soviet states. A subsequent chapter charts political reckonings and activist tendencies, both domestic and international – productions that are anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic.

Such breadth of individuated activities covered within relatively short essays could, in less capable hands, seem ill-advised, but Goldberg’s specificity of language means that transitions between crisp descriptions and concise analyses of contexts are consistently thought-provoking. Three latter chapters note developments in dance, theatre and architecture in this first phase of the new millennium, focusing on these disciplines’ avant-gardes and creative fringes rather than art’s appropriation of their vocabularies, gestures and logics. What Goldberg plants with these essays, which will prove instructive to emerging artists with cross-disciplinary ambitions while also providing a way into art discourse for non-specialised readers, will no doubt continue to bear fruit across both the medium and its corresponding scholarly and curatorial fields.

Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #5, performance documentation, Tate Modern, London, 2008. Courtesy: Tate

Wood adopts a different approach. Her book claims to be neither a history of performance as a genre nor a survey, but rather a study that ‘works backward from the present, trying to understand how we got here by looking at a necessarily limited selection of artists who are representative of historical imperatives in this area.’ Distancing herself from Goldberg’s lifelong project of establishing performance’s contiguity with other mediums, Wood proposes performance’s value to be in its ability to act within these media – as within institutions, as within various social or political formations. Performance and ‘the performative’ are nouns used interchangeably by Goldberg, as has become the norm, but Wood plumbs the latter’s etymology in linguistic and critical theory in order to address its capacity to instigate or rehearse temporary change upon, within or against whichever normative circumstances it chooses.

‘Performance in contemporary art’, Wood claims, ‘might essentially be said to connote a space not just for performed action, but a space of active relations: a space in which things happen.’ To accommodate this mobility, and create transversal connections between waves of simultaneous, autonomous, globally distributed artworks, Wood arranges her analysis through three sections: ‘I’, ‘We’ and ‘It’. Within these is an exploration of how, from the 1960s to present, performance has challenged or reconstructed notion of ‘I’ (as a proxy for the artist, the self, self-imagination and self-perception), ‘We’ (the group, collective, community, society and state) and ‘It’ (the contingent object, artwork, institution or social infrastructure).

Pussy Riot, Punk Prayer, 2012, performance documentation, Red Square, Moscow. Courtesy: Debus Sinyakov

Wood makes no claims about performance as a uniform mode of political, social or institutional critique, but instead suggests its facility for a critical contamination of any given environment through a number of her descriptions, as like a vapour, virus or mist. Thus, Fujiko Nakaya’s ‘fog objects’ reveal the vectors and currents in each space with ‘continuing, shifting unpredictability’; Mette Ingvartsen’s dancers move beneath silver confetti, summoning ‘a landscape in constant transformation’; and Paul Maheke dances between scrims, screens and projections, ‘to assert his own presence, all the while creating layers of erasure, and flows between surfaces that point to the permeable boundaries of the subject’. Laboratoire Agit’Art’s multi-part performances privilege ‘shared experience’ over ‘material fixity’, while Isabel Lewis’s ‘ambient atmospheres’ disperse discourse’s heavy object by her voicing of it within stimulating, multi-sensory installations. With such suggestive writing moving through her innovate three-part structural framework, Wood's Performance in Contemporary Art presents a substantial intellectual proposition. Framing performance’s complex ecology through its relationality and its proclivity for interdisciplinarity, she encourages readers, writers, scholars and artists to consider how any institution or social structure might be continuously reshaped by art, reconfigured from the inside out. 

Otobong Nkanga, DIAOPTASIA, 2015, performance documentation, Tate Modern, London. Courtesy: Tate

One thought lingered throughout: both authors, time allowing, ought to step away from the institutions they have built and the publishers that have long since supported those activities and reflect, with the depth of which they are both wholly and perhaps uniquely capable, about their own substantial and pivotal roles in bringing performance to what is arguably a central focus of contemporary art discourse and practice. That is, that they might write between the works, in order to detail what inevitably gets lost in ambitious programmes and medium-wide accounts such as these, tracing the intricacies, complexities and inevitable challenges of their own performances along the way.

RoseLee Goldberg’s Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century (2018) is published by Thames & Hudson; Catherine Wood’s Performance in Contemporary Art (2018) is published by Tate Publishing. 

Main image: Didier Faustino, Hand Architecture, 2009, performance documentation, LAXArt, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist  

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London. Her book, Performing Image, will be published by the MIT Press later this year.