As the Great Recession comes to a close, dealers, curators, artists and audiences in contemporary art are quickly coming to the realization that Performance Art is indeed actually lame. “I was thinking these last years that what I was doing was kind of performance art,” said one recently interviewed sculptor, Johannes Kurzweil, 28, of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “But now that I’m making money again, I just don’t have time. I was attending a performance just last week, and thought to myself ‘Man, this is pretty lame.’”
After enjoying a heyday in the late 1960s and ‘70s, performance art after this peak became the quickest way to empty a room at an art function, engendering jokes such as “Q: How many performance artists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: I don’t know, I left after three hours.” Self-proclaimed performance artists disappeared into obscure Mid-Western art departments, and the practice was only kept alive by a small hardcore band of practitioners, still covering their naked bodies with honey and whipping themselves in small raw galleries in unfashionable parts of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
“I used to perform to audiences of three or four people, including my mother” said sadomasochist, gay rights activist, and artist Butchie Carruthers of Berlin-Mitte, practicing for the still-upcoming Performa, “and at first I thought maybe they were here for the beer, but it just exploded. Now that’s it over again, I’m just thankful to be tenured.”
Though economists have reassured the performance art community of a potential “double-dip,” it hasn’t stopped the wealthy from setting record prices on mediocre art from big names and heating up the soft-end of the market on mostly untested young artists, especially those who make things that are easy to store. “It was tough there for a while,” said Culver City dealer Claudia Kruger of Kruger Projects. “We were hosting performance, lots of group shows. I’m so relieved we can go back to actually selling things.”
Officials at successful international art fairs Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach are rumored to be debating an outright ban on performance art at the fairs. “We believe people were just attending performances at the fair so they didn’t have to buy anything like expensive dinners, more art, exclusive parties,” said an art fair insider speaking on condition of anonymity. “But money is back on tap. Performance art is fine for poor people or students, but we are committed to the history of art. And besides, it simply doesn’t sell.”
With the recent economic downturn, broke curators at once well-endowed institutions and artists (even those with representation in Chelsea) turned to performance art as a revived medium, arguing that it was an important and valid avenue for expression in visual art, and that it just happened to be cheaper. “We had to cancel the Koons retrospective 'cause we just didn’t have any money,” said Contemporary Art Museum, Chicago senior curator Mirjana Gonzalez-Fraser speaking via a curatorial intern. “So with all the money we had left after we paid our bar tab, we booked performance artists, had a couple of symposiums; it really seemed to be working, and cheaply. But the donors are starting to pony up again in a real way, some even dangling their blue-chip art in front of us as potential donations. We’re happy to report that Koons is back on the program.”
(Image at top: Marina Abramovic at MoMA, October 2010; Courtesy of witholeary)