Los Angeles

“Action/Performance And The Photograph”

Jan Turner and Turner

From the late ’50s to the present, performance-oriented body art has radically displayed and enacted the artist in/as the work itself. This excellent exhibition, organized by Craig Krull, explored the photographic documents that memorialize these performative acts. The hundred or so images ranged from the modest (Vito Acconci’s tiny vintage prints of himself rubbing his body against a sooty wall), to the pretentious (Hermann Nitsch’s gory color photographs of naked men covered with animal blood and hoisted up on crucifixes), to the understated sublime (Carolee Schneemann’s elegant grid of uncanny, erotic photographs of bodily orifices and protrusions).

The wide range of photographic images of body and performance art raised central questions. Who authors these images? Are the images spontaneous or staged? Are they “art objects” or “documents” or both? What is the role of photography in art projects that are quintessentially narrative and diachronic in nature? What, finally, does it mean that the performance movement, which presumably aimed at least in part to subvert the commodification of the art object, is now itself in the process of being commodified and historicized—its documentary objects hung in a gallery and sold for substantial prices?

Ranging from casual snapshots (Acconci), to conceptual documents (John Baldessari, Dan Graham), to life-sized photographic tableaux (Paul McCarthy), the images presented here projected varying degrees of esthetic pretensions. Some were identified primarily through the name of the artist responsible for staging the action. Other images were labeled as authored by a separate photographer, who thus competes as artistic subject. Most of the images included the artist her- or himself in action; some, such as Mike Kelley’s deliberately sordid and juvenile pictures of a man jamming a stuffed animal up his feces-smeared butt, pictured others doing the dirty work.

In juxtaposing images of performances by so many different artists, the show delineated interesting generational, national, and gender differences in visual representations of the performative artistic self. Striking in this regard was the contrast between the work of feminist body artists such as Eleanor Antin, whose brilliant Carving, 1972, presented a series of photographs (taken like body mug shots) “scientifically” documenting her weight loss over a period of several months; or Lynda Benglis, who was represented here by her outrageous and hilarious 1974 advertisement in Artforum; as well as the histrionic ritual images of Viennese Actionists Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, both of whom have fixated on and obsessively deified the male body and the penis with little discernible irony. Hannah Wilke’s vulnerable poses—shrinking from the camera holding a gun, isolated at the end of a white hallway—came across as vastly more self-interrogative than the in-your-face algolagnia of Chris Burden’s self-presentations of his body after scarring or mutilating it during one of his masochistic performances. The exuberant circuslike atmosphere of the early Happenings—those of Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and Alan Kaprow were represented here—contrasted refreshingly with the smug bad-boy attitude of Kelley’s and McCarthy’s scatological theater pieces.

Although this show, staged as it was in a commercial setting, made the paradoxes of the historical positioning and marketing of performance and body art embarrassingly clear, one was finally simply grateful for the opportunity to view such a wealth of images. The role of photography in performance art and the issues of authorial subjectivity it raises were suggestively highlighted, opening the door for more ambitious scholarship.

Amelia Jones