Power Play

New York

Elmgreen & Dragset, Happy Days in the Art World, November 1, 2011. Charles Edwards and Joseph Fiennes. (Photo: Paula Court)

TUESDAY NIGHT, Performa 11 launched with the world premiere of Happy Days in the Art World, a play by Nordic performance artistes Elmgreen & Dragset, followed by a gala “live retrospective” (performance installations by the duo) plus cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at Skylight Soho.

There was a buzz in the air as the stylish-looking crowd of culture vultures settled into their seats at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts to await the evening’s first act. Curators, editors, artists, art accumulators, and yentas like moi had ample time to kibitz and gawk at one another. I thought of Impressionist paintings where the audience was the subject of the piece.

She’s someone,” a pal scanned the crowd for notables. “He’s an important Chicago collector. What’s his name?”

The woman behind us listed every single Prada outfit she could see and said, “It makes me want to throw up. No one in the art world should ever wear Prada again!”

The Prada plethora was either an homage to Prada MarfaElmgreen & Dragset’s 2005 roadside attraction in Texas—or at least confirmation of that piece’s continued relevance to an art world where references to art-buying Ukrainian oligarchs still titillate amid the broader cultural backdrop of OWS and impending global economic collapse. “Happy Days in the Art World” indeed.

The play is a riff on Beckett (Sartre’s No Exit came to mind as well). On a minimalist set, two forty-something collaborators wake up on a bunk bed to an existential art-world situation: the midcareer crisis. Stuck in this metaphoric or literal prison, they helpfully spell out how “meta” it all is: “It seems we’ve ended up in one of our own installations . . . We’re like some Scandinavian Laurel & Hardy, or Starsky & Hutch or Siegfried & Roy or—oh, no, Gilbert & George. It’s terrifying.”

Left: Artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Right: Artist Terence Koh, Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, and artist Marina Abramović. (Photo: Alexander Porter/BFAnyc.com)

The best laughs derived from the indignities of the midcareer artist in a “whole city full of artists . . . and all of them young artists, no matter what their actual age,” dependent on the whims of curators and a fickle market primed to pounce on the latest “bright young things.” With one pair of shoes and socks between them, the two philosophize, bicker, and ponder their past and their present impasse.

The conceit of the play was clever, even if the execution became a bit durational. (“They said everything twice,” one person said later, nailing it.) The audience seemed gratified by any insider art-world reference, enjoying rare validation from the stage. As this fiesta of self-referentiality started to feel as long as a Marina piece, I recognized that distinctive performance-art effect where one appreciates the comic “concept” of the thing rather than experiencing the abandon of comedy itself.

A dramaturge could have tightened it up, but it was very well performed by real actors Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards as the artists’ alter egos. A highlight was the “post-postmodern” art-gibberish rant delivered with gusto by Kim Criswell that was like Hans Ulrich Obrist on acid. She played the demented SpedEx employee who descends from up above—like a deus ex machina—with the longed-for message from “Achilles Anastasius Stefanolopolus chief curator Nancy Spector.” Like any echt-existential text, the piece is open-ended as the partners settle in to wait indefinitely—not for Godot, but for the well-connected curator to pay them a studio visit.

“I like how they showed their relationship. It was sweet and absurd,” my companion said as we walked out. We skipped the buses lined up to take the fancy crowd a few blocks away to Skylight Soho. (“It would be humiliating to ride the bus,” shuddered a colleague.)

Left and right: Views from Elmgreen & Dragset's live retrospective at Skylight Soho. (Photos: Alexander Porter/BFAnyc.com)

At the “gala,” the door area flashed with what looked like a manic red-carpet situation. A scruffy band of “paparazzi” hooted and snapped away at everyone who walked through the door. As I scurried by with my head down like the fat Kirstie Alley or a criminal, I soon realized it was the first “performance installation” of the miniretrospective: Paparazzi, 2010–11.

The former Ace Gallery was packed with people schmoozing and sipping drinks around the live installations. Two male models (surrogates for the artists in a different piece) reclined on a low square platform, languorously unraveling each other’s white knitted tube skirts, worn with suspenders over nothing but underpants. In another piece, six performers stood around a minimalist-looking round white kitchen counter rhythmically washing dishes, then passing around the sudsy plates. Marina Abramović watched them, entranced: “Terrific!” she beamed. “Sisyphean,” commented someone else. “Very Scandinavian,” said another.

Around the corner from the bar, I noticed people kept a respectful distance from the naked guy relaxing on a black Wegner Ox chair atop a fluffy shag rug. He was listening to an iPod, engrossed in a book. Writer Leslie Camhi peered tentatively to see what he was reading: “An anthology,” she shrugged and then backed away from the installation as if repelled by a naked-guy force field. In contrast, across the huge crowded space, people hovered brazenly close to the couple of naked fellows who were spooning on a cot, like a live reenactment of a Lucian Freud painting.

Viewers were scrutinizing the pair like objects: “It’s shiny,” someone pointed to a bit of scrotum peeking out from behind. Ryan McNamara was fascinated by a tattoo on the guy’s shoulder blade: the tragedy face and the comedy face, linked by a rainbow.

The party was filled with performance art “moments,” commented a veteran observer, who peered at the group of collector types who’d purchased “tables” squished into the conspicuous “VIP” area: “I loved how they cordoned off the ‘1 percent’ on the north side of the room so they could mingle, boringly, alone; do you think it was part of the concept that all the ‘real’ performances took place amid the ‘99 percent’?” Happy Days in the Art World, ladies and gentlemen.

Rhonda Lieberman

Left and right: Views from Elmgreen & Dragset's live retrospective at Skylight Soho. (Photos: Alexander Porter/BFAnyc.com)