New York

Eleanor Antin, “'El Desdichado' (The Unlucky One)”

For this performance Eleanor Antin installed elaborate sets, fit for a theatrical production, and, with the help of hooded “puppeteers” moving two-dimensional cut-out cardboard figures, played a role she has been presenting since 1972—a dispossessed medieval king wandering more like Don Quixote than like Gérard de Nerval’s Desdichado of the title. Various picaresque adventures unfolded, including the witnessing of hangings, stories of rape, seduction by a princess, and finally the Quest (as de rigueur in medieval allegories as the chase in action films). Only Antin spoke, though for many characters.

The event aroused mixed feelings. Yes, it’s delightful to see performance making a comeback this season, and yes, it’s courageous to bring it into a Soho gallery at Christmastime, when most galleries go gift-shop. And yes, again, Antin has become a semilegendary figure whom one is curious to see. But this performance was juvenile hour, a high school assembly show, a skit for a civics class or a Renaissance fair. Someone called this type of so-called performance art bad theater, and the genre seems accurate enough. The piece could have played in an Off Broadway venue as a one-woman show—and might have looked even worse in that less-forgiving environment. None of the work’s theatricalism could make up for the fact that the long text was written by Antin herself. Few performance artists seem equipped to produce long texts, and Antin is not one of them. Social issues were not focused clearly but thrown in as pious tokens. Identity shifts were not real questioning devices but opportunities to show off different voices. The narrative was a relentless string of clichés—The Seventh Seal warmed over and censored for morning TV.

What intrigued me was the number of important critics who attended—and not necessarily critics who have written about performance. I counted five or six, and I don’t recognize many. In recent months I have seen performance art ten—a hundred—times better in dark grungy places where one never sees such people.

Thomas McEvilley