MBG Issue #149: élan vital and its afterglow

Issue # 149

élan vital and its afterglow

June 4, 2010

share with a friend:

The Yes Men, Detail of A Guide to the Basic Functions and Properties of the Halliburton Model X7 SurvivaBall via http://www.survivaball.com/.

from the editor

When I was invited to guest edit this issue of …might be good, I was planning a trip to New York. There, the art-world vogue for performance (and vogueing) continues to gain momentum… and hype. From the spectacularized Performa biennial to the creation of curatorial departments devoted to the medium in major museums, live performance has become, if not mainstream, certainly institution-friendly. The performative turn has equally informed a recent spate of exhibitions in Texas exploring notions such as identity construction, the alter ego, the performative qualities of process and participatory practice.

This issue doesn’t attempt to synthesize different strands of artistic practice into one statement, but rather offers a variety of positions on what I’d like to dub the élan vital and its afterglow. Henri Bergson first theorized the élan vital, or vital force, as the current of life. At the time, some believed that this ephemeral organic substance could be harvested and re-animated with electricity. Though this Frankensteinian notion may seem relegated to a distant era from a scientific standpoint, we still ask it from art. We believe in art’s power — especially live art — to activate our humanistic impulses and reanimate the character of artists, alive or dead, fictional or not. As viewers, we reap the benefit from this encounter: the frisson of enlightenment, embarrassment or transcendence that comes with art viewing.

Yet while the renewed interest in “the live” has importantly validated the performing artist, it raises new questions about the fetishization of the artist’s presence and the degree to which all artists must perform authenticity. My review on Marina Abramovic’s exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art asks what MoMA’s stakes are in preserving “presentness” in performance. In the artist project space, Nancy Douthey presents her recent performance work, accompanied by an essay by Surpik Angelini on Douthey’s feminist use of appropriation and trespassing. In other reviews, Michael Bise considers Cruz Ortiz’s work at CAMH featuring the alter ego Spaztek, while Erin Kimmel parses the élan vital animating the corporeal work of Marianne Vitale and Nathaniel Donnett’s work exploring race and identity at Colton & Farb Gallery.

Finally, in the interview space, I invite artists working in performance to become both authors and respondents in a game of Interview Telephone. Their answers about their practices reveal skepticism with the market, an embrace of chance, and a penchant toward personal reinvention and audience transformation. In short, their dynamic words provide a certain élan vital. We invite you to bask in the afterglow.

Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.


Interview Telephone

By Wendy Vogel

Lady Gaga, Still from the music video Telephone, 2010.

For this issue’s interview section, I decided to riff on the childhood game of Telephone. My goal was to create a collective and performative interview format that implicates participants on both sides of the Q&A. The rules of the game were simple: I emailed an artist three questions about his work and asked him to continue the chain by sending three new questions to a performance artist of his choosing, and so on. The results, often funny, sharp and poignant, are below.


WV: Part of the inspiration for this interview format came from your use of the telephone game in your video work. Can you describe how you have used Telephone, and its conceptual promises and pitfalls?

JS: Sure thing. Telephone, as most people will remember, is the children’s game where a message is secretly passed from one person to the next. When the message has finally made its way around the circle, the evidence of miscommunication is revealed. I always enjoyed this game as a child (and as an adult, as well, although I’ve not admitted to growing up yet.) There’s this moment during Telephone when you’ve got to make a decision whether to be on the side of fact or fiction. Someone passes you a message, and because the format of the game is structured for mistranslation, everybody presumes collective failure. At this point, you can either:

A) put your best foot forward expecting that everybody else will do the same,
B) put your best foot forward expecting the system to produce the failure, or
C) anticipate failure and turn the act of translation into an act of fiction.

My feeling is that A is boring, B is inevitable and C is indulgent. If everybody chooses C, there’s nothing but noise; each message bears no necessary causal relation to the next. If everybody chooses B, the game becomes predictable. If everybody chooses A, we wouldn’t call it a game. This is precisely what I love about this structure—it requires heterogeneity to function as a game.

WV: A lot of your work focuses on the idea of cultural assimilation and degradation of information. Is there such a thing as cultural authenticity today? If so, how does it get communicated? If not, what replaces it?

JS: It is really difficult to say whether there is such a thing as cultural authenticity. My first reaction is to say no, there isn’t; there’s simply a word or placeholder in our minds labeled “cultural authenticity” against which we view ourselves. But if I were to actually draw or write or express what it looks like in my mind when I use this concept, I would be honestly embarrassed by the simplicity of even my own image. I don’t see how it’s possible to appeal to cultural authenticity without also appealing to some prototypical stand-in for a history, people, etc.

That said, I think that my view is largely influenced by the North American perspective that the group can always be reduced to the set of individuals in it. I can imagine several situations (e.g. post-war rebuilding efforts, situations of survival, natural disaster relief and even revolution) where it may be much more functional and organizational to have a notion of cultural authenticity. While these situations may be functional or necessary, the question you pose still seems to be how I think authenticity operates in reality. I think it’s as authentic as the neurons producing the notions of self-perception and identity in our brains. These notions may or may not correlate to someone else’s reality, but it’s all we got. At the end of the day, performing “cultural authenticity” is best done by a method actor.

WV: How do you respond to the labeling of your work as performative or identity-based?

JS: I respond with massive hives, my tongue gets swollen and I can’t breathe. There’s some nausea and lightheadedness, but it usually doesn’t get out of control because I carry an EpiPen at all times, just in case.


JS: First of all, why do you operate under a pseudonym and what superpowers do you gain when you become “Emcee C.M., Master of None”? What can he do that Colin McMullan can’t?

CM: I use the name Emcee C.M., Master of None because I am uncomfortable in my relation to the market economy and to the complicated identities that artists construct in order to show their work, sell their work and/or build their resumes. My intention was to create an alternate entity that could be my public face, so that I could retain at least an illusion of having a pure and separate personal life. It's complicated.

To me, Emcee C.M. is powerless, has no authority, tells no one what to do, stakes no claim to real estate or intellectual property, has no possessions, spends and earns no money, and essentially is blameless and free in every way. He can do no wrong to another soul on Earth. I, on the other hand, am flawed in so many ways; I am proud, egotistical, stubborn, controlling, career-driven, narrow-minded, etc. So maybe Emcee C.M. is my ideal self, and the reality is what Colin McMullan has to go through in order for Emcee C.M. to even have an imagined/contrived existence in this wicked world.

I have come to understand how the pseudonym functions like a brand. That was not my original intention, but it has benefited my artistic career in some ways. It's easier to remember than just another person's name, simply because it's something different and maybe clever-sounding. So ironically, the pseudonym serves to give me more of what it would seem to suggest I don't want and don't think the world needs (fame, fortune, prestige, competition, etc.) I don't know what to do next about that. I’m stumped, honestly. No exit. I haven't made anything I really feel good about in a long time, and I think this conundrum has something to do with it. Any ideas?

JS: In Haiku format, can you explain the underlying ethic of your work?

CM: No. I tried. Sorry.
I wish I could. But I can't.
I can't do it short.

JS: In your work, you often create very romantic images and moments via social interaction. You seem to be doing a service for the public most of the time in a very sincere manner. What do you get out of it and how are you served? Are you ever afraid of being cheesy?

CM: It's a kind of narcissistic altruism, I suppose. That sounds bad. Maybe I practice just plain old altruism. All the same, when I do a service act for which there is no immediately discernible exchange or benefit, I do often get something concrete from it later. For example, I might document the action and use that documentation to apply for a grant or a residency, which either gives me income, serves to advance my career, or both. There's nothing mysterious in that. But I wouldn't say those are my reasons for doing the action; they are more byproducts of it.

The imaginative, engaged moment when I decide to do a certain service act has some connection to desiring a sense of well being for the entire world. I mean, I want the world to feel a particular way, and when it doesn't I sometimes put my energy into making moments that will feel that way for me, and perhaps for others. Even if I'm not the random observer coming across this romantic, imaginative moment, I am still a definite part of the experience. It can still feel real to me, even though I was responsible for making it happen. I suppose it’s gratifying in that way: I can step outside of myself to view the situation from the outside. From there, it is possible to reflect on the way I navigate the surrounding situation and the effects I have upon it. It’s as if I can see it from the random observer’s point of view using empathy. So when a participant or observer seems engaged or excited by the action, I can take a share of the person's pleasure in that moment. Maybe that means I just like imagining the way others must see me, which sounds narcissistic. But of course plenty of people who see these actions don't give a shit about them or think they're stupid or ridiculous, so I have those negative reactions to balance out the equation. It seems to be working for the most part.

Cheesy? Yes, I am afraid of that. I know the work is cheesy and cute and everything. But I like bad jokes and silly people. I think of it like dad humor: cheesy but endearing. And it's so much better than taking things seriously; that could never hold my interest.


CM: How do you feel about pseudonyms and constructed/alternate identities? For example, what makes you happy about the fact that Diane the American Swimmer or Diane the Clown exist in the world? And Diane Dwyer?

DD: Asking me how I feel makes this question complicated for me.

When discussing my work, I foreground my interest in how technology has shaped our understandings of place and identity. I sometimes write about my interest in how we relate to the constructed identities we encounter in our mediated world. Of course, I am also curious about the histories connected to masking and revealing. Sometimes when you are masked you can reveal the most.

There may be other ways to address these issues that don’t involve creating personae. I just like to dress up. So whether or not it is obvious in the pieces I make, my process is about having fun. What makes me happy are the unexpected outcomes that may come from play.

CM: What is it all about in seven syllables or less?

DD: You have a brain in your gut.

CM: There is a dark humor, a pathos, in your world. Do you put all of that pathos in your work or do you keep some of it for yourself?

DD: That question implies a decisive command over my bleak pit of despair. I am not sure I have that kind of control.


JS: You recently surrogated a chicken by hatching an egg with your own body heat and raising the bird as your own. In domesticated life and industrial farming, the chicken tends to be treated as one of the most “disposable” animals that we eat. Why did you choose this particular chicken to mother, and where is that chicken now?

LM: You hit it right on the spot. Because we are so familiar with the chicken, I wanted to take it out of a disposable position and look at it like humans treat a pet. We certainly slowly developed some kind of family contact. He (it was a male) would listen to my voice as I called him, and I could understand his emotions through different sounds and behavior. To become a surrogate mother of an animal that hatches from an egg is also the most practical solution, as compared, for instance, with a rabbit. I remember once looking at a chicken and thinking, “You are an animal, and if I'm hungry you are food!” The chicken died of heart disease and is in the freezer. He is going to be stuffed. We both wear a golden ring.

JS: Many of the animals you work with in your performances are domesticated and are on the “tamer” side of the animal kingdom. Why is that? Do you see the human species as being on the tamer or wilder side of the food chain?

LM: In my art I like to keep it clear. Animals that we consider “tamer,” as you say, are closer to our personal memory, as we probably encountered them at some point in our lives. So they are closer to our direct understanding and inspire unconscious wonder, fear, closeness and surprise when we experience them. I don’t have much more to say about a cheetah than documentary television programs. Most of my performances are about animals we eat or keep because they are close with us, beside or inside us. I think that we as humans are untamed and aggressive by comparison. Taking personal care of and being confronted with animals we eat helps to rebuild our respect for food.

JS: Let’s talk about Spirit Animals. If you were a Zeedonk, which current world leader would keep you as a spiritual guide? Why? Who would it be if you were a Platypus?

LM: That's a hard bone to pick. The question is so strange that it makes my answers strange! I love to see how animals in certain situations (for instance, in a zoo) become close friends with different species even if they are not related at all in the animal kingdom. Like a cow and a bird, they can truly fall in love. The Platypus is a very interesting animal because he breaches the distinction between mammals and birds! He lays an egg and then breastfeeds the young. I think my spirit animal is a squirrel (the red one): always busy, nervous, has extra food, energetic, pretty tail, flexible, sweet, tough, has hiding places, small, smart and not afraid to fall from great heights.


LM: You are from Spain and live in Holland now. In your practice you work with the Dutch landscape. What was your reason to come to Holland? Does it bring you closer to the Dutch, or do you feel more Spanish being in this country?

MAM: I’m a romantic in the most basic sense. What first brought me here was the romantic idea I had about Holland as a cultural paradise. Who doesn’t want to live in paradise? I do. But in fact, the artistic path that I had been following previously went temporarily into stasis due to the challenges of living in a new place. I started to work as a cook in a Spanish restaurant making tapas. The dishes were far from resembling the things my mother used to cook in the village.

Beside those starting difficulties, I felt in love with this country bit by bit. For me, loving the places where I’ve lived is the only way to live. It makes me happier. 🙂

My boyfriend (a Dutch man) used to tell me I am more Dutch than he is. I think this is because it is easy to “connect” here. The water is a great energy conductor, and here there is a lot of water. We are living on the water. Even when you cannot see it, I like to be aware that just few centimeters below the surface you can find water. I didn’t know until the day I tried to make a hole in my garden. Around thirty centimetres below “dry” sand I reached water. It makes me dream of a floating country.

LM: Could you also look at your own country (or any other country) with a personal view and translation?

MAM: Spain is a dry country. But somehow, due the new condition of being a foreigner, a deeper sense of my Spanish identity grew inside me.

I was struck by the realization that as a Spanish person I was considered “exotic.” Lifestyle, social behavior, traditions and folklore, and gastronomy all form the exotic image of Spain and the Spanish for outsiders. The romantic images of my country make Spain exotic for the foreigner. Flamenco, bullfighters, gypsies, and mainly the Muslim culture form a remarkable Oriental romantic vision of Spain, reflecting an international picture of a country without middle ground.

There are so many things to discover. I really would like to be a tourist all my life. A tourist is a person that opens his eyes wide to grab as much information as possible and loves to be amazed by the simple everyday events around him. I need to fight to keep a tourist’s energy level. It’s not always an easy task.

The harder question becomes translating what we have seen. In contemporary art there are many strategies of creation, such as collecting, assembling or producing destructive events. But my predilection is the translation. It is when the magic happens.

LM: Is it the aestheticized beauty of a place that you are drawn to, or do you prefer to see it as it is? Could you create a work for a country that does not exist?

MAM: I think we are always trying to search for an imaginary place where things “work” as everything thing should work, an ideal place. This idealism is what moves me to continue being an artist, what moves me to fight for an idea. But I’m afraid that this ideal cannot be found in a particular location. I’m also afraid there won’t ever be a country of new, ideal dimensions. Maybe that is why we need to keep working here: to try to change, or perhaps to catalyze the ideal places we dream about.


MAM: When did start to fly?

MK: When I first took a plane.

MAM: If someone grabs one of your wings, will you bite his or her hands?

MK: More likely, I will bite my wing that is still free.

MAM: What could make you fold your wings and become a human again?

MK: Nothing.

Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.


Marianne Vitale and Nathaniel Donnett
Colton & Farb Gallery, Houston
Through June 26, 2010

By Erin Kimmel

Marianne Vitale, Presser, 2010, Plaster, gauze, wood, found material, and acrylic paint. Courtesy the artist and Colton & Farb Gallery.

It is easy, upon first glance, to attribute the synergy of the two mixed-media exhibitions on view at Colton & Farb Gallery to the recent critical and commercial success of Marianne Vitale and Nathaniel Donnett. Vitale, who is based in New York, was recently included in the Whitney Biennial, and Donnett, who is Houston-based, is a 2010 Artadia Award recipient. As disparate as they are in their style and subject matter, the wistful gravity engendered by the surrealist impulses at the heart of both artists’ practice unite Vitale’s Presser and Donnett’s Tha Paper Bag Kids in da Soulciestic Playground.

Presser is a modest collection of prints, paintings and sculptures produced by Vitale within the past year. The dynamic neon scrawls in her six intricate prints entitled Flushed Up mingle with the dense, saturated brushstrokes of large-scale, abstract canvases such as I Got Rid of the Horse and Now There is Only You. Two sinewy relief sculptures of a navel and an elbow from her Healthcare Series are painted a burnt pink that recalls the color of an old hospital waiting room. On the floor, a discarded mini-motorbike appropriated from the area surrounding the gallery is encased in a plaster rock painted the same burnt pink. Moving back and forth between the individual pieces in the amalgam illuminates the forceful élan vital that is the modus operandi of Vitale’s practice. Her sculptures swell out of her prints and drawings with an automatism that she has described as “letting the work define itself.” The result is something akin to series of stills depicting an entropic explosion, or implosion, depending on the viewer’s choice of perambulatory path.

Nathaniel DonnettRing Shout, Gamin' On Ya; S.P.C., 2010.

While Vitale’s raw material is the stuff of the unconscious, Nathaniel Donnett’s raw material is the stuff of childhood memory, specifically that of the African-American community. Last year Donnett mounted a show at the Lawndale Art Center entitled Paper or Plastic?, which explored the intersection of racial hierarchies and the education system. Here he moves his exploration of the construction of African-American identity beyond the classroom and into the playground. After all, it is at recess, between dodging bullies and negotiating cliques that children learn the social codes not discussed in the classroom. Donnett’s exploration of these social patterns eschews the black-white racial binary in favor of an investigation of colorism: a social phenomenon in which preferential treatment within an ethnic group is accorded to persons of lighter skin tone.

The installation seethes with racially loaded found materials, images and witticisms. Each of the twelve predominantly figurative collages is rendered on an assemblage of brown paper lunch bags. The canvases reference “the brown paper bag test,” a ritual that denied anyone whose skin tone was darker than the bag access to education. In one pithily titled collage, Luv Tha Way You Carry Your Self Love; A.J., a young girl whose head is rendered in black plastic bags kneels in the foreground hugging an iconic African statue. Suspended in the background of many of these collages are dreamlike playgrounds where, for example, swings and slides are replaced by living room furniture. A video of an empty playground and two sculptural installations round out the exhibition. In one room, Donnett constructs a basketball court out of a blackboard, a milk crate and a collection of black and white books. There is nothing akin to the multiple choice tests Donnett scattered on the desks and encouraged viewers to take in his Lawndale show, but the educational vernacular is the same. By materially and linguistically deconstructing early educational environments, shuffling their contents and deftly reconstructing them, Donnett creates a cerebral playground whose unpredictable twists and turns invite pause.

Both exhibitions speak to the dialectical tension between unconscious and consciousness, whether it’s Donnett’s unexpected placement of a couch where one would expect a simple swing or the vitalism inherent in Vitale’s drawings dictating the content of what is to come sculpturally. Of art writing Eileen Myles has said, “The rupture with reality one feels when writing about art is that there is a tendency to make manifestos out of someone else’s play.” There will be no manifesto here. Neither Vitale nor Donnett’s play is prescriptive; it is simply and refreshingly provoking.

Erin Kimmel is a freelance writer based in Marfa, Texas.

Cruz Ortiz
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Through July 11, 2010

By Michael Bise

Installation view of Perspectives 170: Cruz Ortiz (May 7-July 11, 2010). Courtesy Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. ©Rick Gardner Photography.

I happened to visit Perspectives 170, an exhibition of Cruz Ortiz’s work curated by Toby Kamps at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, on a Thursday, during a student tour. At first I was annoyed. Kids kind of drive me nuts. I considered leaving and coming back another day, but in the end I let myself be swept up in a crowd of elementary school children, all legs and arms and voices, as they poured out of a yellow bus and charged into the CAMH.

I followed the class, which was being led by the students’ teacher and a CAMH tour guide. They stopped in front of a series of Ortiz’s watercolor drawings of cartoon characters named Beto the Bear, Randy the Radio, Coyote Girl, and Devil Girl. The guide introduced them as friends of Spaztek.

“Who’s Spaztek?” a little girl asked.
“Spaztek is the artist’s alter ego. He’s the one who made all these things,” replied the guide. “Do you know what an alter ego is?” A boy raised his hand.
“Like Bruce Wayne and Batman?”
“Yes, like Bruce Wayne and Batman.”

Of course, for students of Batman, the great debate has always been over which identity is the alter ego, and as I looked around the exhibition I wondered similarly where Ortiz ended and Spaztek began.

The guide asked the kids what the drawings reminded them of. In a snide aside the teacher said, “Well, they look a lot like what I see in class everyday.”
The group then moved to a series of screenprinted words in Ortiz’s — or is it Spaztek’s? — trademark Spanglish. A few of the Hispanic kids translated some of the words for the rest of the class. But judging by their excitement and occasional laughter, they all seemed to understand, without translation, that the Haiku-like texts were a little sad but ultimately funny and uplifting.

Finally they came to a sculpture made from a green fifty-five gallon drum called Manny The Necio Knight, another of the Spaztek’s friends. Attached to either side of the drum were pieces of wood. The kids were told they could bang on Manny a little bit. Suddenly the gallery was filled with the loud reverberations of children banging on a metal drum, punctuated by nihilistic laughter at the sheer loudness of it all. The teacher and the guide soon became nervous, and as soon as each kid had an opportunity to give Manny a wallop they were quickly shuttled up the stairs. As they left I imagined that Ortiz, a high school teacher and father of three, would have been happy with the kids’ reception of his work.

Finally left alone in the exhibition, I began to think more about the notion of the alter ego in the context of the children’s reaction. Would it be possible for Ortiz, loaded up with the universal baggage of adulthood, to make this work without the character of Spaztek? Would it be possible to transform the devastating reality of an African tent city into the fantasy world of camping tents and flashing lights that he created on the gallery floor without filtering it through the eyes of a naïf creature like Spaztek? And who is Spaztek? Kamps writes in the exhibtition’s catalogue essay that Spaztek is “part Aztec warrior, part spazz, and part low-tech, motorcycle helmet-wearing spaceman…” More than that though, Spaztek seems to be the creation and reflection of a child.

Cruz Ortizbeto the bear (siege tower), 2010.

Ortiz’s work has often been written about in the context of multiculturalism and political action. While both of these notions have a strong presence in his work, on that Thursday, I saw Ortiz’s exhibition through the lens of the children’s stories I grew up with like Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and Charlotte’s Web. Without the presence of the kids on the day I visited the exhibition, I’m not sure what my reaction might have been. The cynical, critical 34-year-old might have carried the day. By contrast, through Spaztek, Ortiz seems to be able to speak to those eternally optimistic desires that most often find vibrant voice in children. The question, of course, is whether Ortiz, or any artist, can reawaken the idealism of the child in the mind of the adult. Watching the children interact with Ortiz’s work, I realized that I was an outsider looking in on their world. Perhaps, at least for me, that vibrant voice has been too long buried.

Michael Bise is an artist living and working in Houston.

Marina Abramović
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Closed May 31, 2010

By Wendy Vogel

Installation view of Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist Is Present at The Museum of Modern Art, 2010. Photo: Scott Rudd. © 2010 Marina Abramović. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

More ink has been spilled (and keys stroked) about the Marina Abramović survey, The Artist is Present, than most exhibitions in recent memory. Touted as MoMA’s first performance retrospective, this show covering the sixty-four-year old Serbian artist’s forty-year career sets an institutional precedent for organizing performance exhibitions of this magnitude. Featuring a variety of display techniques, including video, photography, sound installation and live performance, the exhibition leads me to ask: What does “presentness” do for the exhibition? How does MoMA construct it? And how does it matter for future performance exhibitions?

The Artist is Present takes its title from the eponymous new work showcased in the museum’s expansive atrium. In it, Abramović sits in a straight-backed wooden chair from open to close every day for the exhibition’s three-month run, a total of over seven hundred performing hours. Viewers are invited to sit in a chair silently facing her one at a time. They may stay as long as they like. For some visitors, this can mean an entire seven-hour day; for others, a few minutes suffice.

In contradiction to the work’s personal, internal and “transformative” intention, precise visual documentation is copious. Visitors to the atrium are confronted by three mounted video cameras and a still camera transmitting live feed and images of the piece to the museum’s website. Despite these mediatized intrusions that threaten the monastic quality of the experience, participants are moved (see Marina Abramović Made Me Cry.) If the artist is present, there is also the hope of being present with the artist: an experience distinct from the object contemplation typical of museum visits and the pace of everyday life.

The sticky notion of “presentness” invoked in The Artist is Present hearkens back to Michael Fried’s 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.” There, Fried argued for a difference between presentness and presence, the former being the condition of suspended time expressed in visual art such as painting and sculpture, and the latter being the condition of theatre. “Presentness is grace,” Fried asserted, as opposed to the so-called “literalist” specific objects of Minimalism that relied, like theatre, on specific time relations. Despite the fact that Abramović’s practice is structured around such bodily relations, this exhibition strives to link Abramovic’s performance with “presentness,” and thereby with the tenets of MoMA’s formalist past. By including the new work The Artist is Present, one the one hand, MoMA complies with the medium-specific definitions of performance that were generated from the 1970s onward: that of a medium that springs from sculpture and uses the body as material, is therefore free from relics and commodification, and one that puts intersubjective exchange as its focus. On the other hand, it constructs the artist’s presence itself as a sculptural monolith. So what does presentness mean here, as opposed to Fried’s definition? Is it an undocumentable, quasi-religious experience? The strategies utilized in the historical retrospective upstairs, premised on the use of documentation, suggest otherwise.

The retrospective’s first gallery is solely devoted to cacophonous photographic and video documentation of Abramović’s early solo actions, restless and masochistic, such as the Rhythm series of the 1970s. Collaborative, durational works made from 1975-88 with her then-partner Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) comprise the second section of the exhibition. Grand theatricality enters the work of her later performances, such as the Balkan Erotic Epic (2005), in which the artist and Serbian villagers reenact folkloric actions linking sexuality with agricultural fertility.

After blurring the line between fact and ethnographic fiction, Abramović problematizes the distinction between presentness and theatre. In her Seven Easy Pieces performances at the Guggenheim in 2005, in which she re-performed works by seven “seminal” artists (herself included), Abramović distinguished herself as one of the leading proponents of reenactment as an alternative documentation strategy. In this exhibition, re-performance is mobilized by a corps of trained protégés who re-enact selected earlier performances by Abramović. In some instances, the performances fall flat. Relation in Time (1977), a work conceived by Abramović and Ulay, becomes an airless tableau in which the performers are squeezed inside a curiously framed area (think puppet-theater) within the gallery. The original piece, in which the artists’ long hair was tied together for seventeen hours, relied on trust and intimacy for its success. This is shortened to comparatively brisk two-and-a-half hour shifts with a rotating “cast” at MoMA.

For other works, the re-performance can produce a fanciful reinterpretation. Imponderabilia, a hilarious work dating from 1977, featured Abramović and Ulay standing naked and immobile across from each other in a gallery doorway, thereby forcing visitors to squeeze between them to enter the white cube. While the couple’s intimate relation to each other could not be reproduced in the re-performance, which features pairs of virtual strangers, the rotation of performers of different genders provide a variety of potential visitor experiences and, in the artists’ words, “object choices.” On my way in, I squeezed between two men; by the time I left, the performers were replaced by a male and female duo. In a short span, I had two completely different gendered experiences in the same space.

Luminosity, a simple solo performance from 1997 involving the “transmission of pure energy between performer and audience,” was ripest for reinterpretation. A nude woman was mounted high on a wall under bright lights, semi-crucified on a bicycle seat, with her feet on small platforms and arms outstretched. Entering the room, the performer demonstrated the energy effect by looking directly at me until, after some minutes, seeing her arm twitch involuntarily and the hot lights become even more intense, tears began to stream down my cheeks. Seeing any woman crucified high on the walls of MoMA is no benign sight, and this woman and I empathized with each other: upon seeing my tears, her attention immediately snapped to the center of the room.

Oh, Marina Abramović, you made me cry! Or was it you? Who exactly made me cry?

My emotional outburst brings the question of presentness full-circle. Under what conditions does the idea of re-performance succeed, and when does it fail? For this exhibition, I believe it fails when durational works premised on the artist/author’s charisma, or interpersonal relationships, are restaged: when “Marina” and her “presentness” are performed as a character at the expense of the performer’s. In light of historical distance, it is still possible to preserve work via re-performance. Yet the question of preserving the artist’s aura makes the recreation of certain works next to impossible. Perhaps a better title for this exhibition would be The Artists Are Present, or The Artist and Presentness, or simply the imperative Be Present! As the words and enthusiasm devoted to this exhibition attest, people are prepared to engage.

Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

project space

Click here to watch an excerpt from Nine Swimming Pools and an Interruption.

To Nancy Douthey, performance is essentially a subversive act trespassing boundaries. Metaphorically, she sees it as a “jump into the Void,” a concept Yves Klein epitomized in 1960 in his photograph Leap into the Void where he literally hurled himself into the Void from a rooftop with arms spread like an eagle. In contrast to Klein’s highly symbolic acts, Douthey’s performances are simply subtle interruptions in the rhythm of ordinary life. Thus, conceptually, the artist grounds her creative process in the liminal, un-codified interval separating art and life. This interval, known as the “In-Between” is a spatial category that Elizabeth Grosz defines as a distinct notion in feminist philosophy. There, in the “In-Between” is where Douthey conceives her performances.

Douthey, as well as the two performance artists that have inspired her, Elia Arce and Adrian Piper, sees revealing deeper psychological and philosophical layers beneath the folds of the everyday as an essential part of her work. In fact, before Douthey engaged in performance art, she photographed a woman doing the wash and folding sheets for several months. Only later, she discovered that what fascinated her was not how beautiful the sheets looked when folded, but how her relationship with the woman evolved into something infinitely more meaningful than the images she produced. Thus, Douthey recognized that performance art was the perfect vehicle to capture the ephemeral magic of ordinary life.

Appropriating three pieces from Adrian Piper's 1970 Catalysis series, Douthey's replicated Piper's strange behavior in public places in Houston, eliciting spontaneous reactions. The main point in her re-enactments was to observe resulting contextual differences, while paradoxically gaining authority, affirmation and empowerment as a woman and performance artist. Douthey thus proved that repeating a common action, or “bracketing” the everyday, not only transforms a real experience into art, but on an abstract level, it spatializes time, rendering perceptible the unseen continuum: the vessel of the liminal unconscious, described so brilliantly by Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sense.

Exploring the visual qualities of photography and video as well as the socially and politically expanded field of performance art, Douthey's recent work included in her Master's thesis exhibition, Nine Swimming Pools and an Interruption, combines both expressions successfully. The artist filmed her "jumps in the void" between October 2009 and February 2010, in nine videos shown simultaneously on a gridded screen. The unedited three- to twenty-two-minute video segments document repeated actions: descending from her car, approaching the pool, jumping in and getting out in wet clothes. At first, the cacophony of local sounds and the handheld camera's jittery images seem to be part of the natural chaos of an ordinary scene. A closer look reveals nine staged events in separate sites: one at the artist’s home, seven in her neighborhood, and another in a university campus.

Trespassing properties in her neighborhood, the artist sneaks into seven unoccupied houses for sale with pools. Douthey gains access to the backyards of the unsurveilled houses in between showings to film her pool jumps. At the university campus, the pool was unattended for a shorter period, so Douthey was caught in the act and reprimanded by authorities who saw her project as an inappropriate and inconsiderate act in relationship to the country’s current state of red alert. "What if someone had tried to jump in and save you?” they asked. Next to this loaded social and political commentary, Douthey curiously points out that the most accessible pool — her own — was the one she resisted most. Subverting the male gestures objectifying the female subject, the artist's feminist immersion and embodiment are the roots of her own Becoming.

Linking her video performances entitled Nine Swimming Pools and an Interruption to Ed Ruscha's book of photographs titled Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, Douthey crops her pool images accentuating their perpectival depth and abstract lines in a similar manner to Ruscha's signature images. However, this is how far Ruscha's influence can be traced in her work. Douthey’s deconstruction of Ruscha’s Nine Pools… is far more illustrative of her critical feminist point of view. For one thing, Douthey does not treat the pool's image as a static mirror of a distant Void. Rather, declaring “the pool is my closest sky, my closest field of blue," she interrupts its perfect stillness by jumping into it, making waves, filling and feeling it. It is Douthey's way of challenging the undisturbed, suburban Hollywood icon painted by David Hockney and critiqued by Ruscha. Picking up on the tragic, suicidal overtones of Ruscha's final image of broken glass, Douthey defiantly jumps into her nine pools fully dressed.

Modest narratives, simple gestures and fine humor are the tools Douthey uses to voice social or cultural critique. In a recent series of photo-performances, Douthey and collaborator Jacinda Russell foiled the grandiloquence and ecological insensitivity of Heizer's and Turrell's famous Earthworks using the man-made landscapes as backdrops for their subtle, ironic actions. In contrast, Douthey honored the Navajo Indians' delicate glass skywalk at the Grand Canyon, joining the cleaning crew. Poetically reaching for the closest thing to flying like an eagle, she cleaned the skywalk wearing an eagle's image on her shirt.

Douthey's performances may seem like small acts but, once signified in her work, they are transformative, capable of unfolding the secrets of what is marvelously closest to us in the here and now. It takes a sensitive artist to reveal the unseen, because, after all, what is closest to us is what we resist the most.

Surpik Angelini is an artist, independent curator and director of the Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston, Texas.

Announcements: exhibitions

Austin Openings

Totally Wreck Production Institute: In Science, The Lion Sleeps with the Lamb
MASS @ Big Medium
Opening Reception June 5, 8-11pm

The Totally Wreck Production Institute presents the results of a series of experiments regarding "the qualities and curiosities of technological foreplay" conducted between 2009-2015. The lab sounds like part Kinsey Institute, part Apple Software Engineering Department. Perhaps they've developed a dildo app for your iPad? The press release is opaque, so you'll have to visit the show to see what Totally Wreck has wrought.

Ben Ruggiero
Opening Reception June 6, 3-5pm

Ben Ruggiero explores the romantic impulse in photography and painting through the figure of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.

Sonny Smith: 100 Records
Okay Mountain Gallery
Opening Reception June 5, 7-10pm

For this exhibition, Sonny Smith concocted the personas of all 100 fictitious bands, then wrote and recorded two hundred songs (the A side and B side) for each. On display at the gallery will be all the original album artwork as well as a jukebox that plays all two hundred songs recorded by Sonny Smith and other notable musicians. Artists include, William T. Wiley, Mingering Mike, Chris Johanson, Reed Anderson, Jo Jackson, Harrell Fletcher, Chris Duncan, Tucker Nichols, Paul Wackers among others.

Chad Hopper and Amanda Jones
Opening Reception: Saturday, June 12, 7-11PM

Demand + Supply begins with an Assignment (DEMAND) to create a list of Materials (SUPPLIES). Chad Hopper and Amanda Jones engage in a closed-economy art experiment, wherein the elements themselves are also used as tools without any additional means. Click here for the assignment.

Drea Mastromatteo and Jacob Green
Opening Reception: Saturday, June 19, 7-11PM

Sum of The Parts is an interactive performance/sound installation exploring the gaps between the consumer identity and the personal self via ritual. Sound will be mixed live from various microphone feeds around the space and performers. The concept should elicit contemplations about personhood and its attachment to the things we own and do, as well as how they own us. The performance itself is a personal endurance and question for all participants, active and passive, to work through the masking concepts of identity that take us away from our humanity and the visceral aspects of our personal being.

Austin on View

Leah DeVun
Women and Their Work
Through July 15

Leah DeVun's photographic series draws its title from Lesbian Land, a published collection of writings by lesbians who founded or lived in women's intentional communities, sometimes called "womyn's lands," in the 1970s-80s. With this show DeVun takes the history of Women & Their Work as a jumping off point to ask viewers to consider the nature of queer and feminist space in the past and present.

Francesca Gabbiani
Lora Reynolds Gallery
Through July 10

Viewed from a distance Francesca Gabbiani’s intricate assemblages are easily mistaken for paintings. Their flattened realism is upon closer inspection composed of thousands of densely layered abstract shapes of cut paper. The often decadent imagery present in Gabbiani’s work complements and echoes her craft. Influenced by cinema, the interior space - both physical and metaphysical - as well as melancholia, Francesca Gabbiani illustrates surreal fleeting moments.

In Science, The Lion Sleeps with the Lamb
Big Medium
Through June 26

In the years 2009-2015, the Totally Wreck Production Institute conducted a series of experiments investigating the qualities and curiosities of technological foreplay. Visions of progress and product were set aside, and instead, the identity of failure was sought out as a milestone containing shrouded and inherent success. Inconclusive dilemmas became holy events with hidden meaning and techno-spiritual meditations. The romance of technology within the members of the institution shed the layers of traditional clinical procedure, and instead, anarchic and unorthodox practices became felicitous excursions. Investors quickly ceased their funding of these experiments, based on an overwhelming fear that the institute's pursuit of scientific conquest appeared to be slipping deeply into the palms of the psychotic/avant-garde.

Dallas Openings

Luc Tuymans
The Dallas Museum of Art
Opening June 6

The first U.S. retrospective of the work of Belgian artist Luc Tuymans—and the most comprehensive presentation of his work to date—spans every phase of the artist's career and features approximately eighty key paintings from 1978 to the present.

Berliner Geschichten
Barry Whistler Gallery
Opening Reception June 5, 6-8pm

The show, featuring works by Terrell James, Bo Joseph and Adam Raymont, includes works inspired by and created during the time these three artists shared together in Berlin last fall.

Dallas on View

The Non-Profit Margin
Through July 24

In an effort to challenge the traditional avenues of the exhibition and consumption of art and the art experience, The Non-Profit Margin presents work that confronts the current global economic crisis. Drawing from current residents at CentralTrak and the local community of artists, The Non-Profit Margin includes Richie Budd, Shelby Cunningham, Gary Farrelly, give up, Professor Riccio and Doctor Dufour, Marjorie Schwarz, and Ludwig Schwarz.

Sam Reveles and Robyn O'Neil
Dunn and Brown Contemporary
Through June 19

New paintings by Sam Reveles and new drawings by Robyn O'Neil.

Houston Openings

The Space Between Sound
Opening Reception June 4, 6:30 - 10pm

Markus Cone and Ian Travis of the band Chin Xaou Ti Won have invited a group of local noise musicians to perform on opening night, while Adela Andea will collaborate with Chin Xaou Ti Won to create an installation in conjunction with the performance. In addition to Skydive’s normal hours 1-5 on Saturday, Chin Xaou Ti Won will be using the studio for recording music through out the show. To stop by or to participate in a recording email markuscone@hotmail.com.

Houston on View

Jay Lizo, Kimberly Aubuchon, and Mark Aguhar
Box 13
Through June 17

In the Downstairs BOX, Jay Lizo's insulation And the Choir Sung On… includes the artists “heroes” and “antiheroes” in portraits and video work. Kimberly Aubuchon's exhibition, The Gathering explores the artist's fascination with the grackle in the Window BOX. In the Upstairs BOX, Mark Aguhar's exhibition Boiz Club includes drawings and sculpture that come from the artist's experience of growing up queer. Also on view in the Installation BOX is the long term installation Boulder by member artist Kia Neill.

An Exhibition of Proposals for a Socialist Colony
Through June 19

An Exhibition of Proposals for a Socialist Colony has been built from proposals for systems, tools, communities, communications, resource use, historical research, democratic gestures, implementation, and a public relations campaign. To produce this project the artists and curators engaged in a collaborative practice, where artists could operate as organizers and decisions were subject to the group.

Maurizio Cattelan
The Menil Collection
Through August 15

Contemporary Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan is known for his witty embrace of semantic shifts that result from imaginative plays with materials, objects, and actions. In his work, contradictions in the space between what the artist describes as softness and perversity wage a sarcastic critique on political power structures, from notions of nationalism or the authorities of organized religion to the conceit of the museum and art history. (From the press release)

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Through July 25

Hand+Made explores the performative impulse in art and craft. There's so much great work in the show, it's hard to single out just a few highlights. Among them is Sheila Pepe's Common Sense II, the second iteration of a project the artist first conceived in Austin at testsite last summer.

Keep it Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men

Political, culture-jamming artists The Yes Men create spoof websites and newspapers, stage productive interventions and appear in conferences and TV shows to highlight how corporations and government organizations often act in dehumanizing ways toward the public. Keep it Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men exhibits The Yes Men's practice through five fantastical scenes of elaborate costumes fabricated for their bold interventions, slapstick videos and PowerPoint presentations at business conferences, outrageous posters and props, scripts, sketches, research materials and selected ephemera from their personal collections.

Emilie Halpern & Eric Zimmerman
Art Palace
Through June 19

See Wendy Vogel's review in Issue #148.

San Antonio on View

On the Road
Through September 5

On the Road, curated by Jens Hoffmann, takes its title from the legendary book by American poet and novelist Jack Kerouac, who recounts his eventful road trips across the United States in the late 1940s. The exhibition investigates the mythology of the American motoring adventure, particularly in the West of the country. Featuring two interrelated components, the first part of the exhibition presents the practices of artists whose images and works have long been associated with the exploration of the West by way of the automobile. The second part is the result of a recent two-week excursion through Texas by the curator, during which a number of artifacts and documents were collected for display. Beyond looking at the road trip from a nostalgic point of view, On the Road explores the idea of such a drive as a rite of passage, a journey toward emancipation on the way to a destination that may be largely unknown but which holds the promise of liberating self-discovery.

This is All Real
Unit B Gallery
Through July 2

Joey Fauerso, Leslee Fraser and Gyan Shrosbree, inspired by the subjectivities and proclivities of the others, bring together their work in a maximalist installation that obfuscates authorship, and decentralizes the art object. This construction is a collection of collections! Art objects are interspersed with other items that any of the artists may covet, collect, or consume. Art is artifice, but this is all real.

Robert Moskowitz
Lawrence Markey
Through July 2

Robert Moskowitz opens his fifth solo show at Lawrence Markey, presenting Works on Paper. Moskowitz’s work explores his signature reductive style; high contrast silhouettes, repeated in differently scaled versions, linking the past and present. Moskowitz maintains his position at the juncture of representation and abstraction, infusing his chosenimagery with perhaps ambiguous, but decidedly emotive content.

Announcements: opportunities

Call for Entries

Frieze Writer's Prize 2010
Frieze Magazine
Deadline: June 25, 2010

Frieze Writer's Prize was established in 2006 by frieze magazine to promote and encourage new critics from across the world. This year, the prize will be judged by philosopher and critic Boris Groys; writer and novelist A.M. Homes and co-editor of frieze magazine Jörg Heiser.
• Entrants must submit one previously unpublished review of a recent contemporary art exhibition, approximately 700 words in length.
• Entries must be submitted in English, but may be a translation (this must be acknowledged).
• Entrants must be over 18 years old.
• To qualify, entrants may only previously have had a maximum of three pieces of writing on art published in any national or regional newspaper or magazine. Previous online publication is permitted.
• The winning entrant will be commissioned to write a review for the October issue of frieze and be awarded 2,000 GBP.
• Closing date is 25 June 2010.
• Entries should be emailed as a word attachment to writersprize@frieze.com. Please do not send images. For more info click here.

New Art in Austin
Austin Museum of Art
Deadline: July 29, 2010

The Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) is accepting artists’ submissions for the exhibition "New Art in Austin," which will be on view at AMOA-Downtown from February 26 -May 22, 2011. The fourth in a triennial showcase, "New Art in Austin" introduces emerging and lesser-known artists from Central Texas whose work stretches the boundaries of contemporary art. A statewide curatorial review team will evaluate the work of local artists made over the past three years. Through this exhibition of cutting-edge work in a variety of media, and its accompanying catalogue, the museum seeks to create a dialogue about contemporary art in Austin and attract attention to artists within our community. Click here for Call Details and Application.

2011 Texas Biennial
Texas Biennial
Deadline: July 21, 2010

Big Medium is happy to announce the 2011 Texas Biennial open Call for Art. As an independent survey of contemporary art in Texas, the 2011 Biennial is an opportunity to investigate current art-making in Texas and promote the incredible innovation happening within our great state. We are also please to announce New York based art historian Virginia Rutledge as this year's curator. In the same independent spirit as years past, the 2011 Biennial will encourage a dialogue amongst artists, curators, writers and art lovers alike that will echo throughout the run of the 4th Biennial exhibition and beyond. Starting May 21, 2010 and running until July 21, 2010, the Texas Biennial will be accepting submissions from artists living and working in Texas via www.texasbiennial.com. All entries will be digitally submitted online and artists of all medias are encouraged to apply. (From the press release)

Call for Exhibition Proposals

2011-2012 Open Call for Exhibition Proposals
Art League Houston
Deadline: June 26, 2010

Local, national, and international curators and professional artists are encouraged to submit proposals for exhibitions consistent with Art League Houston's mission and vision. From these submissions, Art League Houston annually selects four to six major exhibitions for the main gallery, adjacent project space, and outdoor spaces. Exhibits selected for Art League Houston's main gallery will receive an unrestricted honorarium in the amount of $1,500. For more info contact Sarah Schellenberg, 713.523.9530 or sarah@artleaguehouston.org.

Grant Opportunities

The Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program
The Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program
Deadline: Monday, June 7, 2010

The Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program supports individual writers whose work addresses contemporary visual art through grants ranging from 3,000 to 50,000 USD. Writers who meet the program’s eligibility requirements are invited to apply in the following categories:
* Articles
* Blogs
* Books
* New and Alternative Media
* Short-Form Writing
For guidelines and additional eligibility requirements, please visit artswriters.org.


Curatorial Assistant
Deadline: June 14

Arthouse at the Jones Center seeks a Curatorial Assistant/Exhibitions Coordinator to provide programmatic and administrative support to the Associate Director/Curator on assigned exhibitions and other tasks relating to the curatorial department. Additionally, the successful candidate coordinates in-house and borrowed traveling exhibitions and works with guest curators on exhibitions and programs organized by Arthouse. For the complete description, visit the listing on Arthouse's website.

Curatorial Assistant, Contemporary Art and Special Projects
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Deadline: June 25, 2010

The MFAH seeks a curatorial assistant to assist Curator of Contemporary Art and Special Projects and acts as the department´s chief liaison across the museum campus. The scope of the position reflects all departmental activities, including collections, exhibitions, and long-range planning for a new building dedicated to Modern & Contemporary Art. For more info, visit the listing on the museum's website.

More from the Archive