Los Angeles

“Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979”

Without the body there is no act, no motion, no shiver, no urge; without the body there is no performance, no object on which the body leaves its traces, its funky residues. “Out of Actions” was a show about the body, what artists have done with the body from 1949 to 1979 seen through the ephemera that remain, an exhibition that in many ways was daunting and instructive as only dealings with the body can be. The show was also problematic because the actual body was nowhere to be found, so long gone in fact that Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy (whose early actions helped place a tradition of performance at the heart of things LA) made a point of curating a series of live performances. This sideshow focused a bright light on the big tent’s troubling center: if you were present to see, say, Mike Smith and Douglas Skinner’s rambunctious, randy puppet show, you got the antics, the rush; if you were not, you saw an empty little stage and dolls as lifeless as the other objects displayed throughout the museum—who knows what you would or could make of that? “Out of Actions” oscillated between the immediacy of being there and the droopy sense of belatedness that comes with the recognition that something went merrily along without you. If the video clips and forlorn objects that made up the show proper frequently frustrated, perhaps it was due to the sheer wealth of that which was documented, to the copious research, and to the many questions such documentation raised. In this respect the archive was both the show’s great strength and inevitable weakness (and consequently made the accompanying catalogue the exhibition’s most successful element).

While certain artists or groups were singled out, what became apparent was the way in which artists everywhere and around the same time started to mess things up. Despite my newfound affection for the Viennese Actionists, particularly the domestic settings for many of their most salubrious acts, perhaps the wild inventiveness of various Japanese artists and art collectives most astounded. The majority of the radical Japanese actions grew out of (or flowed into) the Gutai Art Association. Formed around 1954, the association resulted first in the publication of a journal, Gutai (fourteen issues appeared from 1955 through 1965), and then in exhibitions and actions. Whatever else art may be, the interventions of the various Japanese movements—the Gutai, Group Zero, Hi Red Center, and those crucial, eccentric loners, Yayoi Kusama and Tatsumi Hijikata—situate art as a temporal intervention within a particular spatial environment. Many of the works retain, even presented as artifactual residue, an explosive, kinetic energy: Saburo Murakami’s Work Painted by Throwing a Ball, 1954; Atsuko Tanaka’s Electric Dress of colored lightbulbs, swarming around her like fantastic insects; her vibrant schematics for the costume, accretions of spots mapped in wandering, sectional grids (both 1956). In their work, these artists shatter and recombine categories of social, political, aesthetic, and environmental experience. Complicating such categories most rivetingly may be the Hi Red Center, whose actions ranged from hosting dinner parties to dropping bedsheets and baggage from the tops of buildings (The Ochanomizu Drop, 1964) and mopping city streets (Movement to Promote the Cleanup of the Metropolitan Area [Be Clean!], 1964). “Out of Actions” provided an outstanding range of these heretofore elusive activities and, given the rich archive of Japanese work on display, it was strange that more was not shown of Hijikata and his attenuated movement, Butoh, created partly in response to Kazuo Shiraga’s Challenging Mud, 1955, in which the artist crawled through a field, leaving marks as if Jackson Pollock’s painting implements had become human.

For better or worse, Pollock, or rather the photographs and film of him painting by Hans Namuth, was seen here as the stone dropped in the lake of art; the ripples arced out all over. His paintings do pulse energetically, and their influence circulated with an almost viral—like thoroughness due in part to Allan Kaprow’s brilliant contextualization of Pollock’s practice in his 1958 Art News essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”: the painter left artists “at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty—Second Street.” By placing Pollock as an innovator, even impetus, curator Paul Schimmel structures all the works on display as (safely) art and brackets performance as the legacy of AbEx painting—the museum in this sense inoculating art from what in the end might bring it down (which is the point, after all). But what is thrilling about this show is that it documents works by artists who at root tried to push art-making to a point beyond which there may be no return. Many of the works destroyed themselves in the process of realization; that the artists are remembered—or what remains is considered art—depends on the fact that they survived whatever daredeviling they put themselves through. Chris Burden retains the name “artist” because having someone shoot him did not kill him; the monk who sets himself aflame, the suicide, does not acquire the designation. Art historian Kristen Stiles, in the catalogue’s final essay, concludes: “How much reality can we bear? Whatever one’s response, the artists who have made action art received, transmitted, and made visual more reality than we knew before their actions, creating new worlds, new cosmologies of human experience.” But this begs the question as to what relation any premeditated act—staged in a performance space or on the street—has to reality. To have yourself shot as some sort of aesthetic act has a sweeter relation to “reality” than being shot and dying; those who mourn would probably deny that Burden’s piece has any relation to reality—which is not to say that it does not remain a breathtaking aesthetic performance.

Reality does not have to be dire to be real. With few exceptions (the wonderfully loopy and yet elegant Singing Sculpture, 1969, by Gilbert & George; Tom Marioni’s beer-drinking piece; Lynda Benglis’ notorious November 1974 Artforum ad; Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista, 1961; early performances by Bruce Nauman; Kelley’s and McCarthy’s scatalogical antics and punk seizures, which mark a point-blank return of what Disney repressed) was any giggle, any madcap frivolity, any ribald vulgarity, any hyperbolic swooning registered—especially by the catalogue’s commentators—on what must have been incredibly exuberant and funny events. Even the abject evokes laughter, which is part of what makes it abject. As if in a putsch invalidating too many of life’s less strident emotions, agon dictated.

In his introduction, Schimmel issues an explication and proviso: “This exhibition brings together a very specific group of works to represent that crucial period in which performance both informed and altered the nature of artists’ practice. ‘Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979’—the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue—make no attempt to survey performance, per se. In that respect, extraordinary work made by dancers, musicians, playwrights, authors,architects, and social scientists (all of whom had a profound effect on and an interaction with the visual arts and performance) arc not explored.” In other words, as long as those involved were known as “artists,” their performative work was viewed and/or discussed, even when it was secondary to what made them famous—or even more oddly, secondary to the medium of which it partook. What is the investment in the term “art,” especially when at the moment of instigation much of the work included was removed from the givens, the parameters, the limits, of art? Of all the contributors to the catalogue, only Guy Brett ponied up on what was at stake in this show via his discussion of the “ceremoniously burned” paintings contained in glass grenade flasks of Susan Hiller’s “Hand Grenades,” 1969–72: “Who can say we are not looking at paintings here? We may also, inadvertently, be looking at a cunning allegory for the dilemmas of the MoCA exhibition itself. Can the ashes of live art explode, by some process of poetic re-presentation, into new life?” The answer “no” is as possible as the answer “yes”—which keeps the show vital and the stakes of the questions it raises high.

What “Out of Actions” paradoxically displayed was the move away from objects toward concept or idea—a precursor of Conceptualism in which objects that trigger thinking arc to be understood as “complete” in spite of the fact that what brought the thing into being (and especially why it’s being displayed), i.e., the body, is no longer physically present. Seeing a photograph of Lygia Clark’s Ar e pedra, 1966/1998, a stone nestled in a small plastic bag of air; or Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1961/1998; or Alison Knowles’ Gentle Surprises for the Ear, 1975/1997, found detritus with written instructions for making the trash musical, left me wondering why Schimmel resisted allowing the audience to interact with these pieces, which would have allowed the viewer to re-perform them, breaking down the barrier that this work implicitly and explicitly, as originally conceived, wished to break down. Why not a stack of plastic bags and stones? Why not a canvas that could still be nailed? Why not let people pick up a shard or bit of something and follow the instructions for activating the music of the discarded?

A similar resistance to what is not serious, stable, fetishizable as art, caused some weird omissions. Through his work in movies, with the Velvet Underground, and in socializing, Andy Warhol’s entire career is something made out of action; the work of Paul Thek, who opened the object’s innards and installed his hippie body among the free fall of his endless accumulations, is apposite to everything going on; in terms of the dizzying breaking down of generic categories of “performance” and the “object” the radical interventions of, say, Jack Smith should have proved inescapable.

Bypassing quandaries of art or antiart, not caring, embarrassing all hackneyed ideas of what art might be—such concentrated, intellectually rigorous fucking-up calls things (art) into being. And it might have been hoped that there would have been some gesture to expanding the limits of the show even more. For example, is Renaud Camus’ novel Tricks (1981), in which he matter-of-factly details his sexual encounters with forty-five different mostly anonymous men in the late ’70s, not as much a document of a performance as any other work presented? Meaning, what is art/performance and where does it exist? What is the document of performance? The photographs, the videos, the written descriptions of these various ephemeral goings-on that constituted “Out of Actions”: Without the body—fleshy, time-bound—what are they?

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.