During a talk on the last day of last year’s Performance Studies International conference a participant from well outside the field– loosely defined as it is– leaned towards me and asked whether we had already heard this particular paper… about Marina Ambramovic? Or Carolee Schneeman? Point duly taken– a certain strain of performance art from the seventies seems to exert a force that exceeds the dimensions of its historical significance. In fact, one might speculate that that as image, this genre’s appeal has grown stronger in hindsight, and that its urgency has been consolidated through progressive historical efforts at its preservation. But is body art not an exhausted avenue of inquiry? One of my current academic advisers once said something similar in seminar while discussing Stelarc and Orlan, and he could be understood as either bemoaning the resurgent interest in body art as a lamentable phenomenon, or ambivalently turning over its legacy to a new generation. Why this resurgence in a such a particular, momentary sub-genre of art? If I were to speculate, I might suggest that such particularity itself, if perceived in opposition to the the generalizing regime of images deployed by spectacle culture, might reveal a threshold of experience foreclosed by spectacle– the Real.
As a recent exhibition of feminist performance art at Berlin’s Academy of the Arts indicated, this interest appears not to be limited to members of a younger generation who had not yet tested these boundaries. Re.act Feminism was noteworthy for the clarity, conviction, and thoroughness of its scholarship, which resulted in a precise, accessibly designed combination of photographs, video, installations, and accompanying descriptions of both well-known (Valie Export, Suzanne Lacey, Colette, Yoko Ono, Orlan, Martha Wilson) and lesser-known– at least to my sadly jaundiced perspective– Eastern European artists. Although this engaging clarity of presentation was its strongest point, it may have also been a certain weakness, insomuch as the exhibition seemed to present its diverse range of artists as engaged in the same monolithic, presumably “feminist” project across decades and cultures, emphasizing the abject experience of the female body subjected to the repressive order of patriarchy.
There were at least two pieces by Export, one the biggest names in the European history of performance art:
“Asemie: die Unfähigkeit sich durch Meinenspiel ausdrücken zu können” (1973),and a work using electrical wires, perhaps “Hyperbulie” (1973). I am going to rely on Roswitha Müller’s “Valie Export: Fragments of the Imagination,” (U. of Indiana Press, 1994) for descriptions, first of “Hyperbulie”:
“Once again, limitations and enforced social determinations are illustrated through electrical wires. This time the naked woman performer must pass through a narrow corridor of electrical wires. The frequent contact with the loaded wire decreases strength, so that she finally sinks to the ground. She is only able to leave the enclosure thanks to a near pathological act of will (hyperbulia, the meaning of the title)… the price paid for breaking out of conventional expectations placed on women. ‘Asemia’ describes what happens when this step is not taken. The subtitle reads, ‘The inability to express oneself through mimicry.’…
In [“Asemia”], a bird is tied down on a platform with thin strings (the bird is already dead before the performance). The performer kneels in front of the bird and, using her mouth, pours hot liquid wax over the animal as well as over her own feet and hands: ‘the person and the bird as partners/parts in an anthropomorphic sculpture… demonstrate in the tension between the materials: bird (symbol of fantasy), wax (symbol of lifelessness) and human being, and in the tension between the forms (movement and rigidity) the tragedy of human self-representation.’ With a knife in her mouth, the performer finally cuts through the wax and frees her hands. It is interesting in this connection that Export considered the knife to be a symbol of language, which by naming, separates the subject from the object” (40 and 45).
As in any description, interpretation and reportage are closely intertwined in this text, and I must confess that I feel uncertain assessing its accuracy, especially since I have never deeply engaged in Export’s voluminous oeuvre. Nevertheless, in “Re.act Feminism,” Export’s presence felt as if it provided a model of practice and historical legitimacy for artists more perilously perched further East. Despite my hesitations, Müller’s analysis of “the price paid for breaking out of conventional expectations placed on women” echoes with the simplistically specious rhetoric that too often clings to female performance artists, re-inscribing them into clumsily generalized symbolic oppositions, not to mention an entirely outdated concept concerning the function of disciplinary or repressive force. Would the 33 year old Export of “Asemie” have agreed with Müller’s language? It seems unlikely that the present Export would have been satisfied with this one-sided explanation, especially given the sophistication of quotations with which her website immediately greets its visitor: “I am, where I stage ‘disappearance.’ Existence preserves itself in the suture, in the tear.” But what about the works themselves? If stripped of their symbolic overtones and considered foremost as physical events, could they be understood in a more provocatively productive way? Given Export’s propensity for concrete manifestations of pain and death, I am not sure I care to pursue such questions, especially as framed in the context of the exhibition, which emphasized her affinity for describing the “tear” in terms of physical pain by juxtaposing her work to that of another artist– whose name I have unfortunately forgotten– sowing her vagina shut.
Fortunately, the featured contemporary artist, Kate Gilmore– who happens to be American– and whose “Star Bright, Star Might” (2007) served as the image of the exhibition distributed throughout Berlin, is evidently more interested in awkward futility than tearing through the consciousness of her spectator. As the above image of a tear would suggest, her work had appropriates the pathos of her artistic predecessors and transforms it into a clownish expression of artistic impotence. This impotence evidently characterized her video work “Cake Walk” (2005), her principal contribution to the exhibition, a single video loop which depicted the tribulations of a woman on roller skates attempting to scale a shoddily constructed incline. Although one might cite a number of potential venerable male influences– such as Beckett, Nauman, or Paul McCarthy– I found “Cake Walk” to be unsatisfying simple, a work that created unnecessary obstacles in order to impart the semblance of an aesthetic result. Moreover, Gilmore’s use of digital video seems more reminiscent to the sterile studio-based practices of certain contemporary visual artists than the low-budget, strongly site-specific tendencies that motivated performance art. Even “Hyperbulie” and “Asemie,” which both appear to take place in a studio setting, emphasize the rough-hewn, physically provisional and exhausted nature of the space it inhabits, which is emphasized by the stains on the wall, the grains of the uneven wood floorboards, and Export’s chalk writing. By contrast, “Cake Walk” seems trapped in its own unremarkable room, which has neither borders nor defining physical features outside of its cinematic set piece. Like a rubber room, one never overcome the boundaries set by its baggage of inherited spatial concepts and its repertoire of exhausted artistic techniques, which superficially emulate the art of the seventies while omitting to the underlying conditions that catalyzed body art– an omission that may be in everyone’s best interest, be it “feminist” or not.
In general, the exhibition failed to convince me that performance art had survived its moment outside of the historical preservation of its striking, evidently mortally afflicted images. Likewise, if the underlying question concerns the present valance of the female body in performance, and the legacy of its radical material practice in the seventies, Re.act feminism seemed to imply that this is not a problem at all– that the liberatory struggle still continues.
Nevertheless, beyond all criticism, Re.act Feminism did feature one invaluable resource– an archive of around seventy rare videos works or documentation from diverse artists, whose scope exceeded the apparent thematic focus of the exhibited works. I inevitably gravitated towards favorites (Adrian Piper, Ana Mendieta, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha) or artists whose work I would like to know better, (such as Joan Jonas). There were a few disappointments among these– the documentation of Piper’s “Mythic Being” project turned out to be ten blurry minutes from a low-budget 1973 Australian documentary titled “Other Than Art’s Sake” by Peter Kennedy, or lousy footage of Carolee Schneeman’s “Meat Joy”– but Mendieta or Jonas’ work was as vibrant and varied as one might hope the period to be.
For contrast to Mendieta’s strangely haunting works, watch the video clip below of Joan Jonas’ imposing “Vertical Roll”: