New York’s Performa: Performance art for the people

Once viewed as an excluded, transgressive medium, performance art has recently ballooned in popularity. How did it become so big? Jason Farago investigates.

The international collecting class descends on New York this month, as the two main auction houses get ready to flog hundreds of millions of dollars of contemporary art. But there’s a much better reason to come to town than that champagne-soaked carousel of commodity fetishism. November is also the month of Performa, a massive biennial of performance art that spreads across the city and turns New York into the worldwide hub of live art. At a moment when performance feels like the most dynamic sector of contemporary art, this already impressive biennial now qualifies as a major international event.

Performa, whose first edition took place in 2005, features both new commissions and historical investigations. The Polish provocateur Paweł Althamer, whose plastic humanoid sculptures were a highlight of this year’s Venice Biennale, is staging more than three weeks’ worth of events in a bar in Williamsburg, the hyper-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood that not long ago was populated by Polish immigrants. Rashid Johnson, whose photographs and videos interweave his own life with figures of African-American history, is mounting his very first performance in a fully functioning bathhouse in the East Village. Tori Wrånes, a fearless Norwegian artist who once played a piano suspended from the side of a mountain, is planning a surreal gig that will see her attempt to sing under nearly masochistic constraints.

The list goes on: Performa, in this fifth edition, has ballooned to 85 events over three weeks, with artists from Portugal to India to South Africa. But the most gratifying aspect of Performa is how thoroughly it’s made performance art accessible to a broader public. Not every punter might go to Johnson’s bathhouse performance, but what about Boris Charmatz, one of France’s best choreographers, who is staging dances right in the main atrium of the Museum of Modern Art? Or there’s threeASFOUR, a fashion collective whose clothes are as weird as their name, who’ll stage an event with “edible couture dresses” not in some abandoned outer-borough factory, but in the Fifth Avenue townhouse that houses the Jewish Museum. Other Performa events take place at the Guggenheim, the Institute of Fine Arts, and Columbia University – all of which testifies to the fact that performance, once the most transgressive and excluded genre of fine art, is now decidedly at the centre of things.

Modern movement

The stunning rise of performance has been one of the few truly gratifying trends in an art world that has ceded more and more territory to its most plutocratic participants. Last year’s Whitney Biennial, the best edition of the American art extravaganza in a decade or more, devoted an entire floor of the Whitney Museum to performance, giving art that takes place in time the same prominence as art that hangs on a wall or sits on a plinth. The Tanks, the vast new extension to Tate Modern in London, is devoted to performance, dance, and other ephemeral artworks. That followed on from the success of the Manchester International Festival, whose first edition in 2007 featured a 'group show' that took place in time rather than space, with artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Matthew Barney staging performances in the city’s opera house.

Hovering above all this is the grandmother of performance art: Marina Abramović, the Montenegrin iconoclast whose 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art – which bore the apt title The Artist Is Present – featured performers restaging her most famous works, while Abramović sat facing visitors for more than 700 hours. The show got poor reviews from art critics. I loathed it for making the history of performance into a funhouse, but it didn’t matter: visitors to MoMA waited in line for up to eight hours to stare into Abramović’s eyes. The show was so influential that Jay-Z took a cue from Abramović for Picasso Baby, an embarrassingly hagiographic video – or, as he calls it, his “performance art film” – that features Abramović and other art worlders covering him with glory. (RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of Performa, danced with Jay-Z in that video, and trust me, she’s got moves.)

Performance is now so central to the art world that even the market is on its way in. At this month’s Frieze Art Fair in London, the noncommercial Projects section included many performances, but so did the galleries – Michael Werner, for example, was selling a 1967 performance by James Lee Byars, in which four performers wear a single large black dress. Tino Sehgal’s performances, which often feature lugubrious hipsters discussing art and philosophy, have sold for as much as $150,000. In the past, institutions and collectors only acquired photo or video documentation of performance art. Increasingly, they are now treating performances more like musical scores, buying the rights to stage them – as well as the responsibility to perform the work correctly.

Market reaction

How can we make sense of the performance boom? One reason is that the discipline feels a little safer than it did before. In the post-war era performance art reveled in extremes: pioneers such as Gina Pane and Ron Athey mutilated their bodies as a means of expression and critique, while Abramović stabbed herself, set herself on fire, and allowed a gallery-goer to put a loaded gun to her head. Today performance artists, as well as the many artists who dabble in performance only occasionally, seem less concerned with endurance or danger; shock is no longer the goal. Performance art has also benefited from the slow disintegration of the boundaries that once divided media. For artists engaged with the history of theatre (like Johnson), music (like Wrånes) or fashion (like threeASFOUR), performance offers an ideal means of expression.

But the real explanation behind the rise of performance, I’d argue, lies outside the realm of art and in the domain of economics. The perpetual boom of the art market, in the face of rising inequality and a broader economic slowdown, has transformed nearly every sector of artistic creation, from museums and public installations to magazines to art schools. In this context, the rise of performance should be understood as a reaction to the giant growth of the market. It’s one of the only domains left whose terms have not been entirely dictated by the market, that isn’t entirely beholden to the whims of a small collector class. Which is why, for all my love of the medium, performances always leave me a little downhearted, even ones as vital as Performa has organised. For all its strength, performance is also an escape valve – a temporary relief for an art world that’s facing, and largely ignoring, very tough questions about its future.

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