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Performa: the Brand or the Biennial?

My personal relationship to performance art is tumultuous at best, because much like video art and other newly hyper-trendy mediums, there is a lot of potential for poorly conceptualized and sloppily realized work to shroud itself under the all-encompassing umbrella of “performance art,” and create an artificial patina of “provocative, intriguing, and new.”  With this in mind, I approached Performa with a great deal of anxiety regarding what I would see, being that Performa ’11 was my first experience with the Biennial.

The organizers behind Performa are undeniably expert branders, creating a great deal of aesthetic and art-media-based buzz around the Biennial months before it even started. They were especially successful at energizing excitement in a young audience, even in the face of expensive performance tickets, which is often challenging for large arts institutions.

Yet I was skeptical if all of the branding would actually equate to challenging or imaginative work, and was sadly largely disappointed by the events I attended. I am not looking to confuse disappointment with dislike or disgust; that would be inaccurate since nothing I saw was necessarily “bad,” but I almost universally left my performances bored, or feeling like I had been cheated from seeing performance art, instead watching what basically amounted to short, perhaps “avant-garde,” plays or ego-centric musings.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Happy Days in the Art World, 2011, Featuring Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards; Photo: Paula Court / Courtesy of Performa

First on my docket of performances was the piece commissioned from Elmgreen & Dragset titled Happy Days in the Art World, which was what I was most excited to see, since in the past I have very much enjoyed their collaborative projects. The “performance piece” was undistinguishable from a hip off-Broadway play, with a graphic and minimalist set, actors roughly playing Elmgreen & Dragset, and a third actor playing a deranged and computer-like interjecting delivery-woman. The play was a funny, loosely autobiographical journey through the trials and tribulations of the collaborative process, while continually poking fun at the many problematic power structures of the art world, and the people at its helm.  While hilarious at points, the jokes seemed sloppy and superficial, after all, there is only so much room for the Larry Gagosian or Glenn Lowry joke before you get bored, especially when the people being made fun of are the kind of people who make Performa and other behemoth art organizations tick. It seemed like the commission from Performa was supposed to act as some kind of humble self-deprecation, but would probably be more at home in a theatre festival rather than a performance Biennial that touts its commitment to finding and fostering new and exciting performance art.

Simon Fujiwara, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, 2011, A Performa Commission; Photo: Paula Court / Courtesy of Performa

Simon Fujiwara’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf, was another performance that I had expected to be amazing, and again left feeling duped, a feeling that seemed to resonate with many other audience members as well. Again, the “performance” functioned in a highly narrative, “new-play” type way, and relied heavily on Fujiwara’s cuteness factor as he reflected on his life, family, school, his own homosexuality, and other personal musings. Again, like Elmgreen & Dragset’s piece, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, was not bad, it just was not anything to write home about or to see again. The performance also relied heavily on a narrative of being hastily thrown together, which whether true or not, did not resonate well with the artists I was attending with, who greatly resented the fact that he received a large amount of funding to realize a project backed by vast resources, and instead of exploiting that to do something amazing, he squandered it on something tired and lackluster.

The last performance of note that I attended, and the one I dreaded most for its over-hype and celebrity factor, was Laurel Nakadate and James Franco’s Three Performances in Search of Tennessee, which surprisingly was one of the best things I attended during Performa. Regardless of Franco’s undeniably pompous stage presence, his and Nakadate’s energy fed off of each other well, and produced a collaboration that was superficially simple, yet in the end, had a lot of substantial subtext to wade through. I do not want to reveal too much about the performance, due to another interesting feature of their collaboration, that the new website recorded and broadcast the entirety of the performance on their website. The construction was basic though, with the first act consisting of a meditative group séance to get in touch with the spirit of Tennessee Williams, a second act in which unknowing actors had to do a cold reading of a Williams play onstage with a digital Franco in front of the audience, followed by a third act in which different actors performed the same short segment from a Williams. The performance as a whole towed the line between serious and playful in a way that created a dialogical experience with the audience but with little highbrow pretense.

My overall disappointment with Performa ’11 must also be tempered by the fact that it was entirely impossible to see all of the performances going on, therefore any kind of universalizing statement can easily be refuted with a counter example. I did however, attend almost all of the “big-name” staples of the Biennial, which arguably function as a way to feel a pulse for the entirety of Performa, and those were largely underwhelming save for the surprise from James Franco and Laurel Nakadate.

In the world of art fairs and biennials, Performa is still in its infant stages, and its team should be celebrated for producing such a massive and diverse experience with a medium that is so elusively ephemeral and clearly difficult to commission and produce. If even a couple gems came from Performa ’11 then I would argue it was worth it. I just hope that the Biennial continues to challenge itself and grow, and does not remain static, and in many ways antiquated, like much of it did this year.

~Collin James Munn

(Image at top: Elmgreen & DragsetPaparazzi, 2010, Performance view, Performa 11 Opening Night, 2011;  Photo: Paula Court / Courtesy of Performa)

Posted by ArtSlant Team on 12/11/11 | tags: performance

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