March 23, 2010

Work or Recreation?

The discourse around “reperformance” is heating up again, partially because of the Museum of Modern Art’s current Marina Abramović show (The Artist Is Present) in which several of Marina’s seminal performance art pieces are recreated by other performers. Perhaps not coincidentally, MoMA has also been running a series of seminars and panels on performance art and how this once “uncategorizable” and often ephemeral art form can be ushered into the 21st Century. The most recent MoMA workshop drew a large crowd (including “old school” performance art luminaries Joan Jonas and Abramović, plus “youngsters” like Terence Koh, Tino Sehgal and Tehching Hsieh) and the sometimes heated interchange yielded some intriguing positions.

On the one hand, Abramovic, in partnership with curators Nancy Spector for 2005’s Seven Easy Pieces and currently working with MoMA’s Klaus Biesenbach, presents her case for the necessity of “reperformance” as a way of locking in its wavering and fragile position in art history. Given that most performances are governed by the twin components of time and space, their existence at best can be judged temporary. However, Abramović wants performance to be controlled by its practitioners and she feels that an artist’s performance can be sanctioned and “reperformed,” thereby attaining an archival relevance for institutional validation. This would be a way, as Marina put it, “to take charge of the history of performance” because if the original performance artists cannot control their work’s reception by the public other artists (presumably) may attempt unsanctioned performances. In any case, Abramović says we must do something because these (younger?) artists “will do it anyway when you’re dead behind your back.”(1)

My position on Abramović’s “reperformances” has been stated here before and I remain staunchly certain of the probability that we will soon be seeing numerous maligned “reperformances” as other artists muddle their way through sad, sloppy renditions of Chris Burden’s “Through the Night Softly” or poorly staged replications of Yves Klein’s anthropometries.”(2)

I tend to agree with Joan Jonas who was also vocal at MoMA’s workshop and said that “there’s never a way that you could repeat the original thing; it just can’t be done.” Her position gets to another heart of the performance art matter that performance is about the physical presence of a particular performer. As Chrissie Iles, curator at the Whitney Museum, said during the talk, “To my mind you can’t recreate performances that rely on the power of the presence of that artist.”

The difficult truth of this idea of “reperformance” begins to reveal itself as ultimately a debate over the commodity status of artwork. Performance has always been about a moment; an event that occurs within a specific space and time as presented by and through the physical body of the artist. Within the contemporary “tradition” of performance art (from the 1960’s to the present) there has been little to sell other than documentation (photographs, film or video) or residual artifacts (props, costuming or stages). The idea that younger artists like Sehgal could coax a museum into buying “editions” of their work is a relatively new tactic and one that bears watching.

In any case, the question about “reperformances” is whether they become “artworks” or mere recreations of the original and better versions. If performance art is codified around spatio-temporal concerns coupled with a particular artist’s presence then a later “recreation” in some other time and space, with all the political, social and philosophical permutations that other entails, is absolutely another “artwork,” entirely removed from the original sources, influences and putative meanings.

Thus, the only reason for a “reperformance” seems to be its possible marketability and this is troubling. To devalue the essence of this once uncategorizable, transgressive and empowering art form as more simulacra for the marketplace would be shameful. As true “recreation” it is easy to see that “reperformances” may seduce with the playful opportunity to revisit the past; a kind of intellectualized and self-regulated “slumming” in Bohemia. However, we should always remain aware that this “recreation” is not a “work” of art.


1. This and subsequent quotes from the MoMA performance workshop were taken from Carol Kino’s New York Times article, “A Rebel Form Gains Favor. Fights Ensue.”

2. Burden was one artist who refused to have his previous performance art “reperformed” by Abramović for her Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum. It is hoped that Burden’s stance will inspire other performance artists to similar critical positions.


Ryan Hill said...

Wouldn't this be like one band covering another's song or a theater group doing Shakespeare, etc? The intensity of the performance is still under the power of the performer. I think the real question here is about authorship - is the author of performance no longer dead?

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Who wouldn't rather hear the Rolling Stones original version of "Honky Tonk Women" than this?

But equating performance art with music is deceptive - music can be scored & pertains to an accepted scale. Artists have tried to do this (with instructions, schematics) but it really comes back to those essences: time, space & presenec.

Ryan Hill said...

Perhaps performance does die with the performer. I've heard that Marina's presence is the most engaging one in her exhibition -this must have something to do with her role as the originator of the work as well as years of developing her instrument as her own performer.

tim said...

I agree, Mark. It seems likely that the buzz around 'reperformance' has something to do with answering the question: how do we institutionalize or standardize a creative form that initially sought to defy systems of codification?
Or, alternatively, how can a museum respond to production mode that is increasingly non-physical, dematerialized, and info- (as opposed to object-) based?
It's a bit of a strange question to me, though, considering the century (and counting) of history that we have for 'avant-garde' art movements.
But everybody knows that produce gets moldy. Nothing stays fresh- my guess is the performers who were interested in an ephemeral medium will move forward. If museums want to codify, let 'em do it.
Even a movement as vitriolic as Zurich or Berlin Dada had a relatively short life span.