“A Short History of Performance—Part II”

Whitechapel Gallery

The story so far: The first (2002) chapter of this series plunged elbow-deep into the ’60s and ’70s canon with revivals of works by Carolee Schneemann, Hermann Nitsch, Stuart Brisley, and others, exploring notions of the expressive, excessive, or abject body as privileged site of avant-garde resistance. The 2003 installment, with contributions from the Atlas Group (Walid Ra’ad), Mark Dion, Andrea Fraser, Inventory, Robert Morris, and Carey Young, tipped the balance toward recent and new work, organized around the theme of the performance lecture. Thus, it usefully identified a much-used but critically underexamined performance strategy and refocused the series on performance in its postmodern, postdisciplinary condition, informed—indeed transformed—by the dissemination of theories of performativity in the ’90s.

Most of the artists didn’t so much stage border raids into other disciplines as probe the consequences of the dissolution of such disciplinary borders and reflect the generally sharpening awareness of the performative dimension of self-presentation. CEOs, academics, and even art-world professionals themselves more than ever understand the need to act the part. Testing parody’s capacity to reveal official history’s omissions, Powerpoint virtuoso Walid Ra’ad presents the Atlas Group’s often preposterous archive with digital panache, but heuristic red herrings aren’t the sole preserve of performance art: Ra’ad’s work overlaps with the academic establishment’s own pursuit of tricky textual strategies and its excavation of fallacies, fictions, and symptomatic utterances. The publication of Morris’s lecture “From a Chomskian Couch: The Imperialistic Unconscious” (2003) in the academic journal Critical Inquiry, where it looked not at all out of place, rather proves the point. In this script of an imaginary analytic session with “Dr. Chomsky,” analysand Morris interprets US art history in terms of a fixation on gigantism and the “MEGIG” (mega-image) that reveals the “IMPUNC” (see title). Huge generalizations combine with statements of the obvious (in various works Morris cites, the imp imagery seems anything but UNC), but the text’s disguise as analytical confession cheats these criticisms and raises various questions. (Not least: If the IMPUNC is conscious, what’s US culture really repressing?)

Both Fraser’s and Young’s presentations marked the particular terms and conditions of the present-day art-life merger as a cause for anxiety rather than celebration. In Official Welcome, 2001, Fraser expertly ventriloquizes quotes from art publications and transcripts. Overblown accolades, cringingly humble acceptance speeches, and art-yob mouthings-off catalogue the art establishment’s investments in the artist as mythic being. One suspects that Official Welcome’s London audience (the Whitechapel rank and file, a callused lot from the art-world shop floor) saw its hyperboles and clichés coming from a lot farther off than some of the more patrician crowds to whom it’s been delivered. Nevertheless, the moment when a tearful Fraser, performing herself though quoting from Yvonne Rainer’s film Journeys from Berlin (1971), lamented art’s present condition as a “perpetually receding promise” proved acutely uncomfortable. The near collapse of the performer’s faith in art into the morass of bad faith surrounding it was hard to laugh at. In Young’s Optimum Performance, 2003, an actor delivered a script by the artist: a vilely “motivational,” casually insulting pep talk eliding corporate and art-world uses of terms such as “performance” and “creativity.” Among its recommendations: regular thirty-day performance reviews.

Rachel Withers