Birmingham

Hayley Newman

Ikon Gallery

Hayley Newman is a performance artist. Last year, for example, she spent a week in Matt’s Gallery in London attempting to assimilate and give order to the content of the previous six months’ newspapers. She did so through a succession of actions derived from everyday domestic and work activities. At least, I think that’s what she did. I only watched her for a little over an hour, so I can’t be absolutely sure.

This is a universal problem. By nature ephemeral and invisible to all but a handful of people fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, performance lives through its documentation. Asked what she does, the performance artist’s answer usually goes something like this: “Here’s a picture of one I did earlier. It doesn’t say much, so I’ll tell you what happened.” Newman’s “Connotations-Performance Images 1994-1998,” 1998, one of two groups of works in this exhibition, charts her career admirably. The images are crisp and the captions informative, giving precise dates and locations, names of collaborators. and accounts of the performances. For B(in), 1996, she sat in a trash bag until the garbagemen arrived, at which point she jumped up and ran home. In Meditation on Gender Difference, 1996, she lay in her garden all day with only her breasts and genitalia exposed, so that those areas became sunburned. And so on.

Except that she didn’t. None of these things happened. The documents in this series are all fakes. Even so, we can recognize echoes of the early European and American performance art with which Newman is trying to find connections. The instances mentioned above, for example, are dear references to Chris Burden’s Deadman, 1972, and Dennis Oppenheim’s Reading Position for Second Degree Burn, 1970. In adopting the unfussy style of Burden’s own descriptions,Newman implicitly rejects the self-conscious poetics or anguished theatricality of much recent performance art. Instead, Newman reappropriates the forthright engagement with objects, processes, and institutions evident in the work of Vito Acconci, Adrian Piper, Valie Export, Marina Abramović, Dan Graham. and others for her own explorations of the body in its relation to the world.

In the second group of works, “Connotations II,” 2002, which combines documented nonexistent performances, real events, and videos of actions, all loosely related to the geography and history of Birmingham, Newman pushes things further. Here there is a much greater structural necessity to the exchange between the staged and the real, the illusory and the genuine. Even the clothing Newman wears in the photographs counts, various items setting up little narrative eddies as they reappear from one photo to another. And there is a sharper edge to the implicit critique, as in the four images documenting the trailing of a ball of yellow wool out of a bus window, with its echoes of Export’s Body Configurations, 1972-82, Nam June Paik dragging his violin along the ground, and Bruce McLean’s Taking a Line for a Walk,1969. One also thinks of more recent projects, like Rivane Neuenschwander’s obsessive-compulsive number collecting and, in the implied journey, more than a little of the urban peregrinations of artists such as Gabriel Orozco or Francis Alÿs. Surely, Newman seems to be suggesting, you don’t actually have to have done all those things for real in order for them to be genuine.

Michael Archer