New York in the 1970s was a dismal place with high crime and abandoned real estate. Yet it was there that performance art was born with artists claiming space, mostly in lofts and outside major institutions. Artists played with objects, defied conventional stories, created dances from arbitrary movements and ignored the need to entertain. They performed in front of small audiences, often just their friends and other artists, unnoticed for the most part by popular culture.
In this fascinating exhibition, the Whitney Museum tries to recapture that period, relying on photographs, scripts, props and fantastic videotapes of live performances. Like a time capsule, the show takes you back to the recent past in New York art history. But with enough patience, it becomes clear that work is as relevant today as it was then, defiantly edgy and challenging.
The title of the exhibition, “Rituals of Rented Island,” comes from performance artist Jack Smith's nickname for Manhattan, which he used in his play, The Secret of Rented Island, created in 1976. Based on Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece, Ghosts, Smith used children's toys as actors with the dialogue prerecorded and piped in on loudspeakers. Even in the safety of the museum, the action is unbearably slow to watch. Yet, there is something magical in seeing someone take such risks and Smith’s props are always charming.
Jack Smith is mostly known as a cult figure today, as is Stuart Sherman whose “spectacles” involved his almost slapstick use of ordinary objects, obsessively touched and handled, at a frenetic pace. Richard Foreman, whose Ontological-Hysteric Theater still exists, would set off clanging alarms to mark scenes and create sets as significant as any of his performers. John Zorn, who emerged as a important experimental music composer, was known for his Theater of Musical Optics, tiny objects like matches or doll house props, that he set up in grids and videotaped. These vastly different artists shared an absurdist sensibility, using the most modest of means to awaken audiences to new possibilities.
Unlike the Happenings of the 1960s, these works did not involve audience participation, nor did they evince the kind of hippie optimism which imagined that art could change the world. Instead, there is a strong streak of paranoia or cynicism running much of the work, such as Vito Acconci's stalking of random pedestrians, and Mike Kelley’s routine of absurd tasks. Humor is also a key element, as in Mike Smith's Baby Ikki encountering a police officer on a city street, or the Kipper Kids messily fighting in a boxing ring.
Yvonne Rainer is the star of the show with a vivid presentation of her most famous work, this is the story of a woman who..., performed for the first time in 1973. Using autobiographical material, Rainer told the story of Yvonne Rainer, using voice-over, live action, and projected slides and text. It blurred the distinction between art and life.
Interestingly, Robert Wilson—who became world famous for his magnificent production of Einstein on the Beach in 1976—hardly registers an impact with a small monitor playing a videos of oddball parlor play from 1972, titled KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace: a story about a family and some people changing.
These artists laid the groundwork for the East Village of the 1980s, with venues such as 8BC and the Pyramid Club featuring acts with lots of transgression. No longer stumbling into unrenovated lofts, the audience learned that performance art was hip, outrageous and entertaining in its own idiosyncratic way.
Nowadays, with so much money invested in performance art, artists no longer stick to basic needs, but often blow up their acts into full-scale theater. Something however has been lost in this transformation. While performance art is now highly popular and featured in every museum's schedule of events, little of this official approval can capture the atmosphere of those early days when finding the theater was half the adventure.—Barbara Pollack