“Für die Ewigkeit”


Performance art used to be resistant to history. A reaction to commodification, performances could not be sold; nor could they be stored in a museum archive for future study. Surveys of the medium had to rely on scarce remains, whether salvaged props or blurry photographs. But recent years have seen livelier attempts to capture this ephemeral history. In 2001, Kunst-Werke’s “A Little Bit of History Repeated” invited younger artists to restage the classics, like actors in a repertory theater; and Whitechapel Art Gallery’s series “A Short History of Performance,” initiated in 2002, invited the pioneers to reenact their original works.

Now, such projects having become commonplace, reenactments are serving the commodification once reviled by performance artists. The Wrong Gallery brought Gino de Dominicis’s Second Solution of Immortality: The Universe is Immobile, 1972, back to life at the Frieze Art Fair, while Art Cologne revived Jannis Kounellis’s untitled installation of twelve horses from 1969. Perhaps as a reaction to this market trend, “Für die Ewigkeit” (For Eternity) takes another approach. Part of the exhibition series “Was wäre wenn?” (What If?), the show asks: What if the original never really took place?

The first response comes from artists who eliminated a once crucial element: the audience. This collective living witness is replaced by other spectators and testimonial traces. For Yorgos Sapountzis, it’s a webcam, which watches him unfolding several black banners one snowy night outside Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum in Yeti-Lines, 2006. Danh Vo’s audience in trug ky-danh vo rosasco rasmussen, 2002–, is the state, producing a string of bureaucratic portraits for him, from a shoplifting charge to two marriage certificates (and two divorce certificates). These “unmanned” performances suggest that spectacles no longer need a public to thrive. Actual viewers and their concerns—entertainment or ethics—have become superfluous.

As a second response, other artists staged contemporary performances to look like historical ones. The resulting documents are about as old as a fresh pair of stonewashed jeans. To get that ’70s feel, Hayley Newman’s “Connotations—Performance Images (1994–1998),” 1998, are photo sessions masquerading as public performances. For his Performance, 2006, Simon Dybbroe Møller opted to use a slide projector, repeatedly showing the same image but with different cracks for a touch of aged authenticity. Pernille Kaper Williams showed After Christine Kozlov, 2006, an antiquated tape reel; even if one could hear—and understand—the Danish-German recordings, what difference would it make? David Lamelas’s 1974 portrait of himself as a rock star demonstrated that even the performance of a performance, however inauthentic, has value and history.

“For Eternity” accentuates a growing generational gap in the treatment of the past, like last year’s “Mercury in Retrograde” at De Appel in Amsterdam and “Again for Tomorrow” at the Royal College of Art Galleries, London. If artists used to rescue historical documents from oblivion, their successors are happy to make them up, alter them, or add a futuristic twist. Compare Christian Boltanski’s archive to that of Walid Raad, or Andreas Slominski’s belated artifacts with David Maljkovic ́’s space-age heritage. Far from willfully misrepresenting the past, today’s artists (and curators) accept that mediation eliminates distinctions between real and fake. Moreover, instead of facing the losses caused by totalitarianism, this generation enjoys a previously unimagined surplus of memories, along with endless means to store, manipulate, and distribute them. We know something about how gender and identity are performed from, say, Judith Butler’s theory and Madonna’s practice; now it is clear that history itself can be performed with just as much complexity.

Jennifer Allen