Performa Through the Senses

A review of Performa13:

It’s not every day you get to see a saxophone being deep-fried on the High Line. The deed was done when I got there, but the smell of it lingered in the air. (A deep-fried saxophone smells much like anything deep-fried, only more so.) A friend gave me a blow-by-blow account of Jamal Cyrus’s Texas Fried Tenor, borne out by photographic evidence showing the crowd’s reaction to this jaw-dropping event brought to us by Performa, jointly with NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and The Studio Museum in Harlem (as part of the controversial Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art exhibition).

After this, Patterson’s simple interactive piece felt a tad underwhelming. With a playful literal-mindedness typical of Fluxus, the movement he was associated with from its inception until the mid-1960s, the artist offered to buy old thoughts written out on a piece of paper – a penny a throw – and trade these for ‘new’ ones, in the shape of a crown fashioned out of shredded newspapers. More engaging, though making greater demands on the participants, was the revival of Patterson’s Pond, a Fluxus-style game that called on volunteers from the audience to set off wound-up mechanical frogs on a grid drawn on the floor of the Grey Art Gallery. Depending on where their frogs alighted, the participants had to carry on repeating short statements of their own choosing – such as ‘Will we kiss?’, ‘Indeed’, or ‘I can’t’ – in the questioning, affirmative or exclamatory mode, until the game reached an end point. The resulting ‘chorus’ sounded remarkably like croaking frogs.

Voice being one of the research themes privileged in this edition of Performa, choruses featured prominently in the work of several biennial artists, Alexandre Singh’s The Humans and Rosa Barba’s Subconscious Society – Live among them. One straightforwardly a play, modelled on Aristophanes and Greek theatre (with some Shakespeare, Molière and Milton thrown in), the other a piece of ‘performed cinema’ attempting to do something new within the confines of a traditional movie theatre, these works shared some thematic overlaps, warranting the presence of the chorus.  

The chorus in Singh’s alternative creation myth consisted in the eponymous ‘humans’ fashioned by an all-mighty and humourless demiurge, named Charles Ray after the Los Angeles-based sculptor, whose lifelike human effigies recall Greek and Roman statuary. The pallid human beings move and sound like automata to begin with, mindlessly uttering statements whose rhythm and intonation, if not the actual wording, conjure up the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass. Then comes the fall, prompted by Pantalingua, the daughter of a Dionysian, rabbit-resembling creature, who embodies unbridled sensuality (and spends her time purposefully defecating in an outhouse), and her helpmate Tophole, Charles Ray’s son, cajoled into thwarting his Apollonian father’s designs.

The original sin according to Singh involved defecating. One by one, the chorus members emerged from the outhouse, the rabbit-creature’s domain, donning grotesque commedia masks specially-designed by Singh – who simultaneously wrote, directed and conceived the sculptural sets for the play – to convey their corrupted and fallible nature. We got to see one of the humans shit on stage, though it came out as a piece of cloth, unlike in Romeo Castellucci’s more realistic scatological tale On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God (2008), which mounted an assault on the audience’s sense of smell.

Whereas The Humans took us back to the dawn of time, Subconscious Society – Live spanned the last moments of the industrial age. The 2013 film, commissioned by Cornerhouse in Manchester and Turner Contemporary in Margate, had been shown earlier this year at both institutions, as had some of the sculptures displayed at the Anthology Film Archives alongside multiple screens and projectors. But this was the first time that Subconscious Society was performed ‘live’, that’s to say to a live score by Jan St. Werner (one half of the German electronic music duo Mouse on Mars), based on field recordings by Barba, and accompanied by voiceover actors forming a chorus of sorts. Its members would stand up in turn to read out their texts amid the seated audience in the movie theatre.

Considerably less polished than Singh’s theatrical production, in a good way, Barba’s at times confusing multimedia display, which placed sounds and images into dialogue, had obvious affinities with Joan Jonas’s Reanimation. The latter started life as a 20-minute visual representation of a text – the 1968 novel Under the Glacier by the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness – presented as a performance at MIT in 2010, and then as an installation comprising video elements, sundry objects and props at dOCUMENTA (13). For Performa, Jonas wove performance and installation together into a complex, layered whole. Not unlike Barba’s piece, Jonas’s work in its Performa incarnation was a conversation with jazz musician Jason Moran: Jonas would herself respond to the improvised music and sounds that Moran created on the synthesizer in response to the piece. The two have worked collaboratively for 8 years, since The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2005-2006) performed at Dia: Beacon.

Recorded during a stay in Norway’s Lofoten Islands that lie within the Arctic Circle, images of snowy landscapes and drifting ice projected onto a large screen (flanked by an easel and a workbench fitted with a camera that fed additional, live images onto the main screen) had an otherworldly quality akin to Barba’s colour-steeped bird’s-eye views of Kent estuaries filmed during a residency in Margate. Sporting an elfish white outfit, Jonas moved back and forth between the easel, the main screen and the workbench, shaking bells and maracas, drawing animal effigies on sheets of paper held up against her body, pushing marbles around a black-board in a sequence of simple actions and mysterious rituals that conferred a tactile dimension on the performance.           

Jonas has likened combining the different elements that make up her performances to cooking a meal. Food preparation/consumption as a species of performance art has some important precedents in, say, Linda Montano’s Identical Lunch (1969-1973), Gordon Matta-Clark’s restaurant Food (1971), or Rikrit Tiravanija’s ubiquitous Thai curry, a staple of relational aesthetics. Ben Kinmont’s An Exhibition in Your Mouth, presented at Performa11, took the form of an exquisite six-course dinner based on artist-signed recipes by, among other, Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, Matta-Clark and Dali. Sampling the different dishes on the menu, which came with a detailed mode d’emploi, turned out to be a multi-sensory aesthetic experience.

Commissioned for this edition of Performa, Subodh Gupta’s Celebration, a series of six-course communal meals inspired by Indian feasts, was nothing like as (conceptually) elaborate but it had simplicity going for it. Upon arrival, the dinner guests had their wrists sprinkled with rose water and rubbed with sandalwood paste, before being ushered into the dining area bedecked for the occasion with one of Gupta’s sculptural installations made up of steel tiffin boxes, thali pans, milk pails, and a string of light-bulbs, cascading down from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The meal consisted of simple Indian fare, from lentil soup to prawn curry and banana yogurt with saffron, served on wooden tables strewn with rose petals. Prepared by the artist himself with the help of some volunteers, at the Old Bowery Station (currently home to a Lebanese restaurant), catering for up to 70 people on eight consecutive evenings, it certainly was a cooking marathon, or a ‘durational performance’, as RoseLee Goldberg put it (but wouldn’t that make performance artists of all chefs?).

Perhaps the most sensual and testing of all the Performa offerings that I got to see – or experience through the senses rather – this time, came in the shape of Rashid Johnson’s restaging of the 1964 play Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)at the Russian and Turkish baths in the East Village. An allegory of American race relations from the author of the Black Dada manifesto, the play about a white woman (Lula) who sets out to seduce a black man (Clay) on a subway train was first performed at the height of the civil rights unrests and recently revived at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, where Johnson saw it in 2007.

For their collaborative work Seven,made in the context of the last Performa biennial, Mika Rottenberg and Jon Kessler had transformed Nicole Klagsburn Project Space into a chakra sauna, where the audience would sit and watch the seven performers as they took turns sweating it out in a glass cubicle. In Johnson’s Dutchman, they got to do some of the sweating and experience a degree of physical discomfort themselves. Wearing revealing black robes and sandals, the spectators followed the two actors from a hot, steamy room to a cooler passageway to the sultry, oppressively hot ‘Russian room’ fit to be the scene of a crime. The palpable variations in temperature between the three acts conveyed the rising sexual tension and violence of the play more keenly than the acting. On its merits alone, without the trappings of the baths, Johnson’s Dutchman may have been just an average theatrical production, an orthodox one at that, illustrating the surprising drift towards mainstream theatre in what is, after all, a performance-art biennial.



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