Friday, September 18, 2009

Per Form

by Drew Martin

An email came in at 2 a.m. this morning from an acquaintance, which promised "an alternative theater experiment...a night of storytelling, a way of remembering into emergence..." in a basement in New Jersey tonight. The email had four images of which has been posted here. The acquaintance, Magda, is a young lady, originally from Gdansk, Poland. During the winter, I went to a similar storytelling event in her suburban basement. It was mesmerizing: the young lady transformed herself into an ancient woman and the corner of her basement, where she performed, looked like a mountain campsite. Her audience were friends, friends of friends and kids of friends.

The email (and remembrance of that night) made me think a bit more about performance art. The first performance art piece I vaguely recall had something to do with a ranting fellow art student, a bathroom stall and a plastic fork. That was the late 1980's, when American performance art was waking up to Karen Finley after a night out with Chris Burden and tossing and turning with nightmares of Joseph Beuys.* The performance art I was most familiar with was in Ann Hamilton's installations of the early 1990's and on the streets of Prague by DEREVO in that same period.

If performance art still seems marginal it is most likely because the message is lost to the delivery. Perhaps what is missing is the relationship of the timeless story teller to the audience, which Magda naturally mastered; commanding time and space, casting spells over the listeners. In the name of art, this art has now been lost to a cool distancing of the analytic viewer or worse, those who perceive performance as entertainment.


Finley had a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant withdrawn, in 1990, when her chocolate-dipped body was described as obscene by the ultra right-wing U.S. Senator Jesse Helms.

Burden is best known for his 1971 performance piece, Shoot, in which he was shot in his left arm by an assistant from a distance of about five meters. Burden was taken to a psychiatrist after this piece.

Beuys, a former rear gunner for the Luftwaffe, most famous for his pivotal 1974 performance, "I Like America and America Likes Me" for which he flew to New York, was taken by a veiled ambulance to a room in the René Block Gallery on East Broadway. He shared this room with a wild coyote, for eight hours over three days. At the end of the three days, Beuys hugged the coyote and was taken to the airport. Again, he rode in the ambulance, leaving America without having set foot on its ground.