New York

“Terra Bomba”

Exit Art

Half peep show, half arcade, “Terra Bomba: The Land That Explodes,” the first part of an installation-and-performance program, comprised twenty-two works by young artists who performed live (simultaneously) within their constructed sites for four hours every Saturday afternoon. The queezily voyeuristic mood of the show recalled the clashes of bodies and gadgetry that were a frequent feature on the performance scene two decades back (e.g., in 1973 London’s Gallery Haus was transformed into a house of horrors by artists, including Stuart Brisley, who lay in a bathtub submerged in black muck; in New York, Jean Dupuy’s Broadway loft was converted to a fair featuring artists like Julia Hayward or Pooh Kaye performing behind canvas stalls and grommets). “Terra Bomba” also referred to two earlier shows at the gallery: “Let the Artist Live,” 1994, in which artists lived and worked in the gallery for seven weeks, and “Endurance,” 1995, an exhibition of enlarged photographs documenting acts of extreme endurance by artists such as Gina Pane, Chris Burden, and Marina Abramovic. A common thread in all these shows was the youth of most of the artists involved and the organizers’ desire to bring together artists and viewers in a carnival-like and at times confrontational atmosphere.

So what made this late-’90s performance-exhibition different from its forebears? For one, many of the pieces shared a tabloid quality. In the performance Together, 1996–97, Sue de Beer’s small stage depicted a car crash in which a woman’s body, broken in two, litters a platform painted to resemble a highway; but then the legs move, and it is evident that there is a live component to this grizzly tableau (de Beer was hidden under the platform, with only her legs visible). Toe, 1996–97, designed by Adam Putnam to resemble the corner of a Victorian drawing room, complete with an armchair, lamp, and ornately framed photographs of earlier performances, also traded on surprise; a closer view revealed a headless male torso wedged into the seat of the chair. The body could be seen to be breathing rhythmically, and the odor of stale sweat made it clear that Putnam was indeed folded into the furniture, his head and legs hidden in its frame.

Only Patty Chang’s Alter Ergo, 1996-97, approached the level of angst usually associated with earlier endurance artists. With her body constricted by her prim gray suit, the sleeves of which were cross-stitched into the bodice of her jacket, her pale-stockinged calves stitched together as well, Chang stood for several hours staring into a bright light, her mouth held open by a dental contraption attached by string to an adjacent wall. The image of a silent scream was made even more bizarre by the glistening saliva that dribbled from her mouth onto her bodice and shoes. With its ambiguous, feminist message and B-movie irony, Chang’s studied vignette had all the elegance of an early Cindy Sherman film still.

RoseLee Goldberg