PRINT March 2002


“A Little Bit of History Repeated”

THE IDEA SOUNDED PROMISING, if a bit quixotic: Ask an international group of artists from a younger generation to reexamine key performance-art pieces from the golden age of the movement. Curator Jens Hoffmann proposed “A Little Bit of History Repeated” at Kunst-Werke Berlin as part of the center’s ongoing consideration of recent art history, and for two consecutive nights in November, eleven artists revived the past by creating interpretations of classics, lesser-known pieces, and works outside the canon.

So why the emphasis on performance art? Hasn’t the performance artist, with a few notable exceptions, gone the way of the Porta-Pak? Hoffmann, a freelance curator based in Berlin, thinks otherwise. “There’s a greater diversity of work related to performance today,“ he explains. “It’s not just body art. The body as a medium, the immediate presence of the artist, is no longer a concern—performance goes in a more subtle direction.” Hoffmann gives the example of Andreas Slominski, whose seemingly banal objects—a bucket, a bicycle pump, a spoonful of cough syrup—gain meaning when one learns the complicated story of how they actually arrived in the museum; a performance, albeit expired, is at the heart of Slominski’s work. “Our idea of performance is too restrictive because of the ’60s and ’70s,” Hoffmann continues. ”The older generation's intentions for using performance—to dematerialize the art object, to resist commodification, to expand traditional praxis with an immanent medium—are not as crucial.”

Hoffmann’s emphasis was on the relation between the past and the present. “I didn’t ask the artists to reenact works from the ’60s and ’70s—I could have used actors—but to work with original pieces in a creative manner.” So Tracey Rose, reworking Vito Acconci’s Trademarks, 1970, gave herself soft hickeys instead of Acconci’s virile bites, and in Instead of Seedbed, 2001, Karl Holmqvist offered a timely reading of Laurie Anderson’s charged text Oh Superman, 1981, to displace Acconci’s autoerotic classic Seedbed. Tino Sehgal, a Berlin-based artist and trained dancer, took John Baldessari’s laconic video I Am Making Art, 1971, as a point of departure for a radically different work; instead of moving slightly and declaring “I am making art” à la Baldessari, Sehgal presented a concise history of twentieth-century dance in the flesh. “I wanted to become a museum myself,” he stated after the event. “To materialize the history of dance in one body.”

Other participants turned Hoffmann’s invitation into a conceit to investigate a new set of relations that confound the traditional division between active performer and passive spectator. With a nod to Terry Fox’s six-hour performance Levitation, 1970, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset had the entrance of the Kunst-Werke locked for twenty minutes, precisely when the event was to begin. “Without regarding myself as a disillusioned artist,” explained Elmgreen, “I find it quite amusing that we as more or less ‘incognito’ artists stood among the audience outside Kunst-Werke waiting for something as trivial as a locksmith to perform a total noneventful act.” Laura Lima’s source material was Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, 1964, but the São Paulo–based artist borrowed a trained goat named Heidi from the Babelsberg film studios to take the place of the performer. (The animal completely ignored spectators brandishing scissors and cutting off her dress but made a beeline for a TV camera crew on hand to film the event. These days, even a goat knows when her close-up is coming.) And John Bock didn’t perform live but offered a remarkable video of himself in his kitchen in homage to Kurt Kren’s films of Otto Muhl’s performances, such as Mama und Papa, 1964. Filmed by Knut Klaßen and expertly cut by Mark Aschenbrenner, Bock’s rapid “schizo” kitchen sequences put another dent in domestic bliss by making home cooking look like a scene from The Birds.

Besides providing a few novel ways of making toast, what lessons did the evening offer? As Bock’s work testifies, contemporary performances are increasingly made to be reproduced and seen as film, video, and photography, which were once considered inimical to the medium. Having lost its purity, performance has become more heterogeneous and fluid than it may have been to its earlier adherents. While “relational aesthetics,” the movement that privileges the production of dynamic relations over the finality of the artwork, certainly has a strong bearing on the renewal of interest in performance, it doesn’t explain or exhaust the possibilities for performance that exist today—especially with figures like Martin Creed, Georgina Starr, Bob and Roberta Smith, and Annika Ström, who have openly embraced the society of the spectacle by becoming amateur rock stars.

Whether taking center stage or hiding in the audience, the contemporary performance artist must do battle with the ubiquity of the spectacle, which has not only eroded the body's presence but also limited its ability as a bearer of meaning. Performance blossomed at a time when one could make a social statement by growing one's hair, when there were but a handful of television channels, when Guy Debord diagnosed a profound alienation from experience that seems to have surpassed even his dire predictions. The performances of the ’60s and ’70s appear as a rare, fleeting moment in the history of the collective body, somewhere between Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic athletes and the glistening muscle boys in Calvin Klein underwear ads, between social realism and reality TV, Les maîtres fous and The Mask. If one hoped to get a glimpse into the past with “A Little Bit of History,” the search was in vain. The evening seemed to confirm that the work of the period can be captured only with methods that betray the medium: grainy black-and-white photographs and poorly lit films.

Jennifer Allen is a critic based in Berlin.