"Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979." (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA)

By Hainley, Bruce | Artforum International, September 1998 | Go to article overview

"Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979." (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA)


Hainley, Bruce, Artforum International


Without the body there is no act, no motion, no shiver, no urge; without the body there is no performance, no object on which the body leaves its traces, its funky residues. "Out of Actions" was a show about the body, what artists have done with the body from 1949 to 1979 seen through the ephemera that remain, an exhibition that in many ways was daunting and instructive as only dealings with the body can be. The show was also problematic because the actual body was nowhere to be found, so long gone in fact that Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy (whose early actions helped place a tradition of performance at the heart of things LA) made a point of curating a series of live performances. This sideshow focused a bright light on the big tent's troubling center: if you were present to see, say, Mike Smith and Douglas Skinner's rambunctious, randy puppet show, you got the antics, the rush; if you were not, you saw an empty little stage and dolls as lifeless as the other objects displayed throughout the museum - who knows what you would or could make of that? "Out of Actions" oscillated between the immediacy of being there and the droopy sense of belatedness that comes with the recognition that something went merrily along without you. If the video dips and forlorn objects that made up the show proper frequently frustrated, perhaps it was due to the sheer wealth of that which was documented, to the copious research, and to the many questions such documentation raised. In this respect the archive was both the show's great strength and inevitable weakness (and consequently made the accompanying catalogue the exhibition's most successful element).

While certain artists or groups were singled out, what became apparent was the way in which artists everywhere and around the same time started to mess things up. Despite my newfound affection for the Viennese Actionists, particularly the domestic settings for many of their most salubrious acts, perhaps the wild inventiveness of various Japanese artists and art collectives most astounded. The majority of the radical Japanese actions grew out of (or flowed into) the Gutai Art Association. Formed around 1954, the association resulted first in the publication of a journal, Gutai (fourteen issues appeared from 1955 through 1965), and then in exhibitions and actions. Whatever else art may be, the interventions of the various Japanese movements - the Gutai, Group Zero, Hi Red Center, and those crucial, eccentric loners, Yayoi Kusama and Tatsumi Hijikata - situate art as a temporal intervention within a particular spatial environment. Many of the works retain, even presented as artifactual residue, an explosive, kinetic energy: Saburo Murakami's Work Painted by Throwing a Ball, 1954; Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress of colored lightbulbs, swarming around her like fantastic insects; her vibrant schematics for the costume, accretions of spots mapped in wandering, sectional grids (both 1956). In their work, these artists shatter and recombine categories of social, political, aesthetic, and environmental experience. Complicating such categories most rivetingly may be the Hi Red Center, whose actions ranged from hosting dinner parties to dropping bedsheets and baggage from the tops of buildings (The Ochanomizu Drop, 1964) and mopping city streets (Movement to Promote the Cleanup of the Metropolitan Area [Be Clean!], 1964). "Out of Actions" provided an outstanding range of these heretofore elusive activities and, given the rich archive of Japanese work on display, it was strange that more was not shown of Hijikata and his attenuated movement, Butoh, created partly in response to Kazuo Shiraga's Challenging Mud, 1955, in which the artist crawled through a field, leaving marks as if Jackson Pollock's painting implements had become human.

For better or worse, Pollock, or rather the photographs and film of him painting by Hans Namuth, was seen here as the stone dropped in the lake of art; the ripples arced out all over. …

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