Building on his exhibition “Double Life”, with works by Jérôme Bel, Wu Tsang, and Haegue Yang, currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Dean Daderko considers the agency of performers, and understands “movement” in both its physical and sociopolitical capacities.
Haegue Yang, Mountains of Encounter, 2008, Aluminum Venetian blinds, powder-coated aluminum hanging structure, steel wire, moving spotlights, floodlights, electrical cable, and hardware, Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Wien Lukatsch, Berlin; and Greene Naftali, New York.
Double Life, the exhibition I recently curated at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (December 13, 2014-March 15, 2015) blurred the boundaries between staged narratives and real-world encounters, and transformed quotidian materials and situations into memorable experiences. The featured works by Jérôme Bel, Wu Tsang, and Haegue Yang reference a range of temporalities and operate in spaces between the visual and performing arts, fiction and documentary, encounter and record, feeling and representation. Bodies in these works traverse boundaries that are political, social, and material, opening up a variety of capacities through which the term “movement” can be considered – socially, politically, materially, and physically. Visitors were invited along for a ride that was, to quote Gertrude Stein, “a spectacle and nothing strange.”
To set the scene: Within visual arts contexts “performance” has long been perceived as the time-based activity of a live body or bodies presented for an audience. This is a lineage understood primarily through the framework of theater. Other historians will trace performance’s history to dramatic developments in 1950s postwar painting practices such as Abstract Expressionism in the United States, and Gutai (variously translated as “embodiment” or “concreteness”) in Japan. But while Abstract Expressionism and the artworks created by Gutai artists embraced live action and offered vital formal innovations, practitioners in both movements continued to pursue object-based practices: their works didn’t pose the kind of rupture from painting or sculpture that rejected previous forms. Instead, these artists’ works continued art’s linear narrative trajectory, even if they posed radical revisions to its formal language.
In the mid-1950s the field of anthropology experienced an important change of its own. Anthropologists came to understand culture not as stable and static, but as an active and constantly evolving process of negotiation and adaption. Within this context, anthropologists began to address “performance.” Previously understood as a metaphor for theatricality, for these practitioners, performance came to be employed as a heuristic principle that aided the understanding of social behavior. Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), for instance, used theatrical metaphors to describe social relationships. Much like Shakespeare’s dictum, “All the world’s a stage/and all the men and women merely players,” Goffman conceded that we all play a part in how we present ourselves in public; we act the part of the proud parent, the rejected lover, the angry customer. Victor Turner’s contribution to the field is the notion of “social drama,” which is less reliant on theatrical metaphors and more focused on the experiential dimension of symbolic actions (1). Turner’s formulation is, for me, the most compelling. Dependence on theatrical metaphor may come at the expense of the ability to recognize theater for, in, and as its own reality.
Therefore, in what is known within anthropology as “the performative turn,” the notion of society-as-theater evolved into a broader category that considers all culture as performance. Performance here serves the dual function of acting as metaphor and analytical tool; it is the frame through which cultural and social phenomena are viewed, and the means by which they are interpreted.
Understanding performance as a site of action in which the ritual, symbolic, and actual function simultaneously strikes me as extremely productive; it is the ideological basis from which Double Life grew.
Wu Tsang, For how we perceived a life (Take 3), 2012, 16mm film: color, sound 9:34 minutes (loop).Courtesy the artist; Clifton Benevento, New York; Michael Benevento, Los Angeles; and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.
The form known as performance art is rife with embodied provocation. As early as the 1960s, artists including Allan Kaprow, Lee Lozano, Yoko Ono, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, and Jack Smith in the United States, and further afield Joseph Beuys, Gunther Brus, Lygia Clark, David Medalla, Hélio Oiticia, Gina Pane, and Franz Erhard Walther began—as many other artists did—to create ephemeral, temporal events in which and through which they posed and explored questions of personal and political import. While the staging of these events may have included spoken and written word, music, sound, costumes, and props, none of these items were requisite. Performance’s only real requirement is presence—a presence that desires a response.
Performance is not dependent on objects, nor does it necessarily produce them. As an ephemeral and temporally finite activity, performance can be difficult to situate within a formal spectrum. The ephemeral, temporal act is performance’s final product. As such, the messages artists share in performances are often as ephemeral as the sources that inspire them; feeling is embodied, and the invisible is rendered visible for a time.
According to the well-known theorist and historian Peggy Phelan, performance art draws from three distinctly different narrative traditions: the history of theater, in which performance is a counterpoint to realism; the history of painting, where it gains force and focus after Pollock and Action Painting; and the history of anthropology, where performance represents a return to investigations of the body (as evidenced in shamanic and healing practices) (2). No matter its derivation, performance relies on this animating presence.
Phelan’s last historical attribution is, for me, particularly compelling: the nomination of anthropological concerns as a precedent for performance implies a genealogy that isn’t predicated on the linear narrative of modern artistic practice. This isn’t to say that performativity rejects an art historical lineage. Rather, I am interested by the fact that it expressly accommodates—that it turns toward—other sources of reference and inspiration, wherever these might exist in the world. Performance adeptly explores sociality and lived experience, producing relations to “the real” just as convincingly as it establishes connections to the poetic, the metaphoric, the mythic, and the fictional. It allows distinctly different idioms—politics and poetry, for instance—to exist simultaneously. And it can draw these discourses together without establishing a sense of hierarchy between them. In a pluralistic sense—as with Turner’s notion of “social drama”—performance simultaneously represents the real, and is real.
Wu Tsang with Fred Moten, Miss Communication and Mr:Re, 2014, Two-channel HD video: color, stereo sound, 15:00 minutes. Courtesy the artist; Clifton Benevento, New York; Michael Benevento, Los Angeles; and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.
The speech act is the focus of a new work commissioned for this exhibition—Miss Communication and Mr:Re (2014)—that Tsang created in collaboration with the poet and cultural theoretician Fred Moten, which draws on the ubiquitous experience of listening to voicemail messages. At regularly scheduled daily times over the course of a two-week period, Moten and Tsang (who were then based in time zones nine hours apart) left each other voicemail messages. Each recorded message provided the subject matter that subsequent messages developed: a conversation separated by space and time. Moten and Tsang performed their missed connection for one another. The messages became the artist’s raw material; each participant chose 15 minutes of the others dialogues and silences, and the two independently edited tracks were woven back together and mastered in stereo as a multi-layered and evocative audio track heard on wireless headphones. Tsang’s voice enters one ear, while Moten’s enters the other.
As its title suggests, Miss Communication and Mr:Re explores the lacunae of language, invoking viewers to use imagination and intuition to reach a sense of completion and closure. As it was presented in Double Life, video images of each artist’s head are projected onto opposing walls: they look, but do not speak. As viewers, positioned between the characters in this unfolding drama, we occupy a space that is at once physical and conceptual, actual and imaginary; we hear their thoughts, hear them reaching for one another. We find ourselves positioned between two subjects, two stories, two projections. The valence of “projection” here encompasses both the physicality of the videos and the act of emotional calculus in them. Called upon to make sense of this record, we discover the ambiguities and possibilities of both language and agency.
In 2003 Jérôme Bel began a series of interviews with dancer Veronique Doisneau, who was a member of the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera. As Corps de ballet members do not present solos, they are often seen as “backup dancers,” and Bel’s questions and Doisneau’s responses expose the sense of alienation created by such an organizational hierarchy. After transcribing the interviews, Bel excerpted them to press these points, and returned to Doisneau as a script, who took to the stage and presented the stories in sequences of spoken word and dance. As she shares this narrative, our perception of “what it takes” to be a dancer grows in tandem, and we realize how unaccustomed we are to hearing dancers speak.
Their performance does not contrive any sense of fantasy: brightly lit and void of props, the stage feels barren. Bel challenges us to focus on Doisneau’s words and actions. Doisneau appears incredibly vulnerable.
Veronique Doisneau offers a revelatory perspective on the emotional complexities, tolls, labor, and achievements attendant to a life in dance. Bel’s productive agitation directly challenges normative conceptions of dance as a movement-based practice by bringing a range of conceptual approaches to bear on it. Because dance presentations are temporal events, Bel understands language as one of the primary methods through which narratives of dance are shared. This language-based approach, coupled with Bel’s embrace of non-movement-based choreography, demonstrates how he has politicized his own dance practice in order to risk a form of meta-commentary that expands the field of dance conceptually and practically.
Jérôme Bel, Veronique Doisneau, 2004, Video: color, sound, 31 minutes. Commissioned by the Opéra National de Paris. Filmed at the Palais Garnier, Paris. Courtesy the artist and Telemondis, France.
Mountains of Encounter (2008) by Haegue Yang is a labyrinthine sculptural environment of custom-made Venetian blinds animated by four constantly roving spotlights and two dimming and brightening floodlights. At 16 feet wide, 34 feet long, and 17 feet high, its sheer volume is impressive. But an assessment of Mountains of Encounter constructed solely on the basis of its material characteristics would deny the work a layer of narrative richness that is impossible to perceive solely in the act of looking. Yang’s inspiration for this work can be traced to a series of clandestine meetings that took place in the 1930s in a mountainous region in northern China known as Yan’an, when the American journalist Helen Foster Snow began these encounters with Korean national Jang Jirak, who was receiving military training in China in an effort to help Korea resist Japanese imperialism on the peninsula. Her interviews were gathered in the book Song of Ariran (1941), which gave Jirak the psuedonym Kim San. Foster Snow eventually lost touch with Jirak, who was actively evading military forces and was assassinated in 1937.
Because the halfway-opened blinds act simultaneously as walls and as windows, “inside” and “outside” become porous and contingent terms, mirroring Jirak and Foster Snow’s status as so-called foreigners. The spotlights gliding over the surface of the blinds reminds us of Jirak’s fugitivity; red refers to the Chinese flag and communism; and the blinds suggest surveillance—yet these references remain fluid.
This material construction conveys the numerous possibilities available in the abstract sensibility that Yang has developed. Mountains of Encounter alludes to this historical and political narrative through an affective theatricality that pulls viewers into an experiential realm. We might even say the blinds and spotlights are performing, expressing what the theorist Jane Bennett would call their “vibrant materiality.” (3)
The word “movement” can connote both motion, and a group of individuals who share a common ideology. This duality—a commitment to the simultaneous activation of space and sociopolitical ideology—is present in each of the works by Jérôme Bel, Wu Tsang, and Haegue Yang on view in Double Life, and in their practices in a broader sense. Through various forms of re-enactment, they offer us opportunities to arrive at new subjective positions. Performativity is delegated to materials and performance is staged by actors and presented in a recorded form. As these artists’ works unfold through our investigation and exploration as viewers, ideas take on material form. Through this process, and in our own interaction with these works, we can come to understand the indivisibility and simultaneity with which aesthetics and politics operate.
(1) Social drama, according to Victor Turner, is comprised of four steps: the first is the non-normative action or “Breach” of social relations in which an individual or social subgroup breaks a rule, either intentionally or by “inward compulsion,” in a public setting. This is followed by a “Crisis” during which the breach intensifies and presents itself as a challenge to normative social conventions. A crisis reveals hidden clashes of character, interest, and ambition. The third stage, “Redress,” is when actions seeking resolution are explored. The range of redressive actions can be broad—one might receive personal advice or seek legal arbitration, for instance. Importantly though, redress unfolds in the public realm. Social drama’s final phase is “Reintegration,” during which the issues that created the conflict are resolved; alternately, if these issues are found to be irreparable, it is understood that a “Schism” has taken place. An accurate and concise discussion of social drama can be found in:
Victor Turner, “Are there universals of performance in myth, ritual, and drama?”
(2) Peggy Phelan, “Welcome and Introduction. Peggy Phelan,” video, 1:27:05, from Live Culture: Performance and The Contemporary—Part 1 symposium at Tate Modern, March 29, 2003.
(3) For an in-depth discussion of vibrant materiality, see Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010). In her preface (p. xvi), she states: For some time political theory has acknowledged that materiality matters. But this materiality most often refers to human social structures or to the human meanings “embodied” in them and other objects. Because politics is itself often construed as an exclusively human domain, what registers on it is a set of material constraints on or a common context for human action. Dogged resistance to anthropocentrism is perhaps the main difference between the vital materialism I pursue and this kind of historical materialism. I will emphasize, even overemphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operating in human nature, the human body, and in human artifacts) in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought. We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism—the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature—to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world.