“A Short History of Performance Part One”

Tradition decrees that Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, 1964, be “remembered” the wrong way up. The work’s best-known documentary photo shows Schneemann and a co-performer zooming, as if airborne, toward the viewer, their befeathered bosoms defying gravity—a dynamic effect achieved by displaying the photo true to the camera’s view: upside-down. Variously cropped or stretched, this image dominated the press’s representations of the Whitechapel’s “A Short History of Performance: Part One.” Viewed the “right” way up the image is less exuberant.

Likewise, as restaged by the artist and a group of evidently sincere but mostly shy and physically unconfident volunteers, the work itself proved altogether less “energetic, evanescent, [and] physicalized” (in Schneemann’s words) than many viewers were anticipating; the performance’s soporific mood belied its Motown sound track. Helpings of raw meat and mackerel eventually energized the proceedings, but not as planned: The event climaxed with a display of aggressive and defensive gestures rather than the “tender exchanges” of the artist’s conception.

Over six days, “A Short History” represented live works by Schneemann, Stuart Brisley, Bernsteins, the Kipper Kids, Hermann Nitsch, Bruce McLean, and Jannis Kounellis and staged post performance interviews with many of the artists. In fact, most of the pieces in “A Short History” have been enacted more than once. Meat Joy was staged in Paris, London, and New York, under very different conditions in each location. Kounellis’s Senza Titolo, 1969—twelve live horses stabled in a gallery—was re-created at the 1976 Venice Biennale. Even in the ’80s, the Kipper Kids’ work was being discussed in terms of revival (in 1988, Artforum reviewer John Howell considered its relocation from a context of mid-’70s “transgression” to the “freewheeling” ’80s). And in the Joan Crawford manner (“Joan’s made her film again”) Hermann Nitsch has staged variations on his “Orgies Mysteries Theater” many times and seems set to continue—good news, at least for factory farmers of eggs and tripe. Nevertheless, the project drew criticism for betraying the performances’ “liveness” and their “original” character for nostalgic, commercial, and promotional ends. But if, as Peggy Phelan wrote in 1993, “Performance’s being . . . becomes itself through disappearance,” then to valorize a “first” or “sole” performance as a reified entity—the “real thing”—would be to miss the radical point of its resistance to reproduction. Performance’s afterlife, too, must be produced performatively, via sharing and contesting memory, testimony, and material artifacts—and by scrutinizing the conflicting interests that inform the work of recollection. “A Short History” may have “repackaged” some key performances, but in doing so it mapped the crucial interplay between performance and memory, an undeniably fascinating process.

Performance is partly defined by its ability to articulate and manipulate the triangular relationship between performer, viewer, and audience, and the series’s most memorable works explored this dimension with great purpose and sophistication. Schneemann’s tableau, despite the attendant hoopla, was not one of these. Brisley’s Beneath Dignity, 1977, organized its audience into two facing rows. Between them, prostrate, the artist struggled through a taxing sequence of maneuvers (originally based on coal mining). His self-abasement became a gesture of running the gauntlet, implicating spectators collectively in a complex moral scenario. Death to Grumpy Granddads, 1973, by the London-based group known as Bernsteins, went still further in eroding the distinction between the subject and object of the work; at the end of Bernsteins’ hour-long laughing marathon, many viewers’ jaws were aching—a refreshing change from the conventional durational formula based on watching someone else have a really bad time.

Rachel Withers