Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"Billy, it's performance art"

As the last installment of my shambling coverage of Performa05, the performance arts biennial, I now present an account of Marina Abramovic's performance at the Guggenheim. Sadly, Marina is no relation, though there was a strong Russian theme to the evening. You could barely miss it, what with the irritatingly-punctuated "Russia!" exhibition showing at the Guggenheim. For those of you who don't move in the right circles, Abramovic is a performance artiste who rose to prominence through nearly dying for her art. Twice.

On the first occassion, the artwork in question involved Marina lying down in the centre of a flaming crescent. As the rows of fire burned beside her, the oxygen supply dwindled so rapidly that an audience member had to plunge in and save her. Her most famous work, Rhythm 0, refined this idea further. Abramovic gathered together seventy-two objects of various destructiveness (knitting needles, razor blades, a loaded gun) and told the audience to manipulate them in any way they pleased. The crowd had already slashed away her clothes, and made cuts on her body, when one man commanded her to hold the gun to her head - which she did - and to fire. At this point, the audience once more intervened, turning against this man who would push the frontiers of art.

Over the last week, Abramovic has been performing "cover versions" of famous pieces of performance art (you know, the one where the artist is nailed to the Volskwagen, the one where she crushes the wine glass and, yes, yes.) So if any of you are feeling at all queasy, console yourself with the idea that what she's doing is really akin to that nice band UB40.

I went to see her second performance. It was my first time to the Guggenheim, which is a sleekly beautiful building. A large crowd had gathered outside. A printed legend on the curved white walls informed us that the patron for the "Russia!" exhibition was none other than Vladimir Putin. How things change, eh? But the most striking thing, was that as people wandered along the curved balustrades of this space-age structure, moving between the dulcitly-lit Orthodox iconography, and flattering portraiture of seventeenth century Russian noblemen, there on an elevated platform was a woman with tight leather trousers with the crotch missing, cradling an automatic rifle in her hands.

Was it to be expected, that the audience showed almost no sign of consternation at Marina Abramovic's crotch? At times, the lack of reverence bordered on the sloppy, as when punters accidentally wandered over the cordon, (very performance art) to be shouted back by the burly security guards, whose moral world must I presume have been slightly disturbed, though they showed no sign of it. Childred careered freely around the foot of Marina's platform without incurring similar censure. In the obliviousness of children, arms flailing, was either the final validation of performance art, and its conviction in participation, or else it's death knell - I couldn't be sure.

Some of the children looked up at their mother's with puzzlement, pointed at the lady's crotch and asked "Mother, what's that?" And the mother's every one of them, looked back sternly, and replied "Billy, it's performance art", or at least so I imagine.

On a note so entirely unrelated as to pose linking problems for even a children's television presenter, I am going away to Pennsylvania for an extended Thanksgiving weekend. While I am away, I ask you in true holiday style, to submit me the most vulgar and terrifying death threats you can produce. I have a friend, who when I moved to America promised to send me genuine death-threats, with the crazy lettering and all. They're yet to arrive, and she knows who she is. Though you don't get the benefit of crazy lettering, you can use the handy comments feature to behave like a psychopath, annonymously - and I, I receive the substantiation that only a victim can understand...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

A Guide to Kultur

You have to work for your culture in New York. The other day, my girlfriend somehow twisted my arm to go to a Japanese death-metal group in Brooklyn. When we arrived at the venue, a notice on the door read:


Repelled with such vagueness, I turned to the bouncer and asked what was the tragedy? It transpired that the Japenese death-metal group had been involved in a car-crash that day, were in intensive care, and that the drummer was dead. Of course, you cynics snigger, it had to be the drummer. Perhaps it was due to my infrequent patronage of death-metal clubs, that left me a lingering, foolish sense of culpability for the rest of the evening.

Nonetheless, I made another stab at being a cultured person, by visiting Chelsea the following day. Chelsea, for those undernourished souls not acquanited with either cutting-edge installations or champagne, is a place in West Side Manhattan, where the rich hang out and purchase art at exorbitent prices. Like all good aristocrats, they have the sense to let mortals lesser than themselves gather at a hygenic distance from them. To facilitate this, they have set up rows galleries lining 23rd Street, 24th Street, 25th Street, all free to the public; and impecunious shameless people like me are happy to turn up in droves, and give them the validation they need.

The whole area of Chelsea has a peculiar feel, because it is the most perfect coincidence of art and capitalism. I suffer terrific anxiety trying to distinguish the white-washed ultra-minimalist offices, from the white-washed ultra-minimimalist exhibition spaces. I am relieved when some giveaway sign appears: a video screen showing naked people swimming (that's Bill Viola!); an artist biog; a mature couple circulating, the kerchiefed male tush-tushing, "Nah! S'more like a Jacko-Metti!" One with the art punters thronging the pavements, my eyes gaze into rooms that are never paritioned with a wall, always by windows of pure crystal, as if to say, in an act of superior transparency, "Look at me. You can see everyhting there is to see. I am wealth." Sometimes my eyes meet a fresco, sometimes a receptionist. When in one of the buildings, I see a Japanese woman with an asymmetric fringe before a laptop, letting one finger slowly fall with a kind of suspended brutality upon the keypad, I do not know which category her action falls into.

You feel a modern voodoo reigns, when you are in Chelsea, and the trick is never to react to anything, however untoward. I strolled into one of the galleries, which was showing some new work by Tracy Emin, and there was the woman herself, dressed in cheap leopardprint, and with her letterbox mouth working.

"It's dead simple. I just - put myself into the work. It's just honesty. I put the honesty down", the mouth was saying.

I thought that perhaps Tracy was part of this exhibition, along with the three or four American men standing entraced beside her, and wondered briefly if I kissed her full passionately on the lips, would I be part of the exhibition too? But it turned out she was just Tracy Emin, as regular as she would be drunk on Newsnight Review; she was quickly ushered into the rear of the gallery, and I practiced my measured walk around the juvelinia she was exhibiting, as if nothing had happened at all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


I don’t know whether any of you have lingering idyllic fantasies about Broadway from any number of cheap musicals of Hollywood productions, but if so, allow me to rudely disabuse such notions. Broadway is a road that carves Manhattan in two like a festering scar. Wander along it on a Saturday, as I did last Saturday, and you will be assaulted, if you’re lucky enough only metaphorically, perhaps by the brightness of th shopfronts, the group clinch of the trudging crowd of shoppers, and the men trying to sell you apples at an inappropriate time.

But New York is a city where redemption, if redemption of the most sordid kind, is always just beyond the corner. So it was, that on Saturday you could slip into the inauspicious building before Canal Street, take the elevator to the third floor, and step out into a white-washed room that represented something like a sanctuary. I say something like, because somehat undercutting the tranquility of the scene was the distinct sound of wood being chopped, and numerous mingling voices. I am toying with you somewhat, by suggesting that I arbitrarily enter buildings; of course, I ascended to the third floor quite purposefully, because it contained a piece of performance art.

Beginning last week, the Performa 05 festival, the first biennial of performance art, aims to celebrate and revitalize a medium that is definitively New York. The scene that lay before me, which formed part of the festival, was appropriately chaotic. The exhibition, or installation, or action, or dissolution of cultural boundaries, or whatever else you chose to call it, took the form of ten simultaneous pieces of performance art, each of which was enacted over a continuous period of twenty-four hours.

In a white-walled corner, a black hammock was slung. Just visible through its meshing was the stublled face of an Italian performance artist, whose performance consisted of his sleeping throughout the 24hr duration, so that – and I quote the official handout – “he would register nothing of the proceedings.” By the foot of the wall is a plastic stool; standing upon it, your eyes are brought level with a small circle cut into the wall, through which, dimly perceptible, a Korean performance artist, so the handout charitasbly informs me, rummages around, attempting to construct something out of chicken-wire and lidless tin cans.

The sawing sounds, it transpires, are emanating from a couple of young workmen stationed towards the rear of the room, who diligently measure out and saw a series of wooden planks. The entirety of their labor is captured by a wide-lens camera mounted on a tripod in the center of the room. Over the next twelve hours, these workmen will assemble rows of wooden benches; in the twelve hours immediately following, these benches will provide seating for an audience to watch, yes, the construction of the benches. From the window overlooking Broadway, a small ray-gun-like device is visible on the roof of the facing block. This device, it turns out, is designed to capture Orgone, the grounds apparently of all energy upon Earth, and in so doing produce rainfall.

Elsewhere, there is a recreation of Yoko Ono’s famous “Yes” painting, which occasioned Jon Lennon’s love, and a “Pinochio Device”, used to simulate the sensation of one’s nose growing very rapidly. One piece of art was a specially-invited, unannounced guest, who had at some point traveled to the South Pole, and the crowd accordingly viewed one another with a greater suspicion than is usual even at performance art stagings, attempting to infer whether anyone had a distinctively Arctic look. The most daringly subliminal piece was to be created precisely by a member of the audience, who was to leave the exhibition without warning, to get a cup of tea or a cup of coffee, which was to be strictly undocumented.

This exhibition maked the commencement of Performa 05, the first biennial to celebrate performance art, an enterprise that strikes me as somewhat similar to trying to preserve hot lust in formaldehyde, but which nonetheless I shall shambolically cover over the next two weeks for your amusement. I couldn't stay as long as I wanted at the ongoing performance, which is a shame, because a Swiss friend tells me it got wild at around 3am. But in case you're wondering, there was no rainfall over New York City that night.