THE WHIRLWIND began as soon as I arrived in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Off the train, down the stairs, I exited the station and entered “Le Mouvement,” the twelfth edition of the Swiss Sculpture Exhibition, curated this year by Gianni Jetzer and Chris Sharp. What had traditionally been a celebration of public sculpture was smartly reimagined this year by Jetzer and Sharp as a three-part, summerlong investigation of the human body in active relation to the concept and experience of public space. In short: Performance was the point on which all of the exhibition’s plots turned.
I’d come for part two of the series, “Performing the City,” a six-day festival featuring twenty-two artists, choreographers and their countless troops all installed around this small city (population 55,000). “She considers the body ‘intelligent material,’ ” Sharp told me as we stood in front of Alexandra Pirici’s unexpectedly moving Tilted Arc, a performance in which thirty people stood side by side every day for two hours in the city’s Zentralplatz to recreate the line of Serra’s iconic sculpture. I remembered his comment later as I watched Nina Beier’s The Complete Works (2009), for which the artist invited a retired dancer to perform every dance of her career from memory and in chronological order. As the dancer began, I thought I recognized her face, but soon lost myself in the odd antichoreography of the show: dance, pause, pace, repeat. At one point, she stood with her hand on her hip and mimed smoking a cigarette. She then turned her fingers into a peace sign, and then flipped them around into a hearty “fuck off”moves I suddenly recognized as Michael Clark’s club dance from Charles Atlas’s documentary Hail the New Puritan, and the dancer as Ellen van Schuylenburch.
“People think I’m dancing, but I’m not dancing,” she told me later about performing Beier’s piece. “I’m remembering.” (“Memory: a performance and its production,” I wrote in my notebook).
Memory is of course an inescapable subject when watching or thinking or writing about performance. Against visual art’s object economy and investment virtues such as posterity and permanence, a performance declares This Very Moment (fugitive, even when documented) as the only true work of art. On Thursday afternoon, Jetzer and Sharp took me and Louise O’Kelly on a tour of “The City Performed,” an exhibition of artists working across performance, politics, and public space that was to open Saturday at CentrePasquArt. Looking at artists both familiar (Valie Export, Anna Halprin, Vito Acconci) and new to me (Felipe Ehrenberg, Ocaña, and Ewa Partum), I came down with that embarrassing nostalgia for art I’ve never seen and never will. (Or maybe a case of memory envy?) The photographs, films, drawings, and other ephemera (of the older artists in particular) were possessed of such potent auras, perhaps because these performances were bolder, more defiant than much of what I’d seen all week, and I left the museum wondering why the reserve—the tidiness—that marks too much of contemporary performance?
That said, the festival’s offerings were each electric in their very own way (and too many will go sadly unmentioned here, for lack of column space and not of enthusiasm). Some highlights were Pablo Bronstein’s Girl on a Late-19th Century Swiss Balcony (2014), which featured dancer Rebecca Bruno overlooking the Zentralplatz, gesturing with near-liquid arms as if in silent address to her subjects below; another involved walking behind Chinese artist Lin Yilin for an hour as he rolled along the streets of Biel/Bienne from the Zentralplatz to the mayor’s office in a grueling performance titled The Departure from Her Feet (2014). There was also New York–based choreographer Maria Hassabi’s duet with Hristoula Harakas, Show (2011), in which they slowly struck elegant, almost feline poses in the middle of a street, as well as a sundown performance of the fantastically feverish SSSSSSSSSSSS (2014) by Lithuanian-born, New York–based Ieva Misevičiūtė.
At breakfast on Saturday morning, artist Liz Magic Laser asked Jiří Kovanda how his performance had gone the day before. For Kissing Through Glass, first performed in 2007, the Czech artist stood in an entryway of the Volkshaus, kissing visitors through a set of glass doors. The piece was at once awkward and mesmerizing, watching the near-intimacy of each encounter, and noting how a tender exchange can be so easily estranged. The artist himself wasn’t as impressed.
“It wasn’t the best,” he told Laser, shrugging.
“What makes the best performance?” I asked him, thinking that perhaps something had gone wrong.
“The first one,” he answered matter-of-factly. “That is always the best one.”
It made sense to me that for artists, a first performance can possess an energy or an interest that subsequent performances don’t, but for an audience, it’s the only cure for memory envy. One of the standouts of the festival was Trisha Brown’s masterpiece Drift (1974). Majestically restrained, deceptively simple, and often elusive with a running time of around five minutes, the piece began when the dancers quietly lined up at a spot on the Nidaugasse, a busy shopping street in the center of town, then began to walk together, lightly drifting to the right until they hit the sidewalk, stopped, and then dispersed.
On Saturday evening, I ducked out of the opening remarks for the museum exhibition at the CentrePasquArt to chase after Lithuanian artist Eglė Budvytytė’s funny yet searing Choreography for the Running Male. Down the hill and around the corner from the museum, a crowd gathered behind nine strapping men, all dressed in metrosexual best (an international visual language, as it turns out): summer-weight gray sweaters over white T-shirts, shorts, black ankle socks, and shoes. The men jogged across the city in three rows of three, periodically performing some kind of awkward gesture: crawling, popping their hips, holding hands. All was silent save the pounding of their footsteps, until they reached a narrow street, sat down, and a woman’s voice boomed over a speaker. “Michael, you have to keep running,” she said, addressing his (and our) options for survival in this world. Eventually “Michael” did keep running, all the way to the Palais des Congrés, where the “troops” finally dispersed, running their separate ways down the quiet streets and disappearing into the twilight.
When I got back to the museum, the opening night reception was in full swing. Artists Valie Export and Beat Streuli circulated among the partygoers, as Shirana Shabazi and curator Giovanni Carmine chatted together. As the night wore on, trays of vodka shots began to appear on pedestals in the museum’s reception area. The lights went down and the music picked up. Artist Alexandra Bachzetsis and her assistants began handing the drinks out to people, and soon enough people began to help themselves. A group of cute young things standing nearby began to strip off their shirts and pants and swap clothes with one another. So began Bachzetsis’s Undressed (2005), the final performance of the day, a one-night-only engagement at Le Mouvement, wisely curated to get the party started.
Under sparkling disco balls, the crowd untethered and the room heated up as people in various states of dress and undress transformed the lobby into a temporary club. Jetzer and Bachzetsis hit the dance floor together, beaming and seeming to enjoy the scene as much if not more than everyone around them. A raging party is surely an art form all its own, for its dopey pleasures as well as for the vital reminder of the joys of getting down in one’s own skin. Here at CentrePasquArt was a room filled with bodies, ecstatic, moving to the beat, sweating, swaying, taking it all in and letting it all go, looking—all of them in this very moment—fiercely, beautifully alive.