Magazine article American Theatre

Meet Me at the Museum: 2 West Coast Bastions of Visual Art Put Live Performance High on Their Curatorial Agendas

Magazine article American Theatre

Meet Me at the Museum: 2 West Coast Bastions of Visual Art Put Live Performance High on Their Curatorial Agendas

Article excerpt

A GAUNT FIGURE FRAMED IN A HALO OF TULLE and sparkles steps onto the temporary stage in the expansive atrium of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He begins to strum a ukulele. Against the imposing architecture that surrounds him, this odd musician seems particularly fragile and otherworldly: half zombie, half pixie. So it is a bit of a shock when the performer's voice drills forth ream after ream of blistering wordplay, detailing his "contingency plan" should the world lose its precarious balance on the edge of apocalyptic catastrophe. In the adjoining galleries, one could imagine the canvases of the German Expressionists Grosz and Dix, with their scathing caricatures of the political powers of the Weimar Republic, joining in the performance's playful grotesquerie.

It is February 2008, in the darker days of the last Bush administration, and Taylor Mac is preparing for the worst.

Weimar New York, featuring noted actor/playwright/ drag queen Mac and based on the downtown New York revue of the same name, revisited the infamous cabarets of the Weimar Republic, inviting comparisons between the instability of 1920s Germany and the U.S. at the turn of the millennium. For two nights, East Coast performers joined local notables from the San Francisco drag and cabaret scene in this evening-length variety show celebrating what seemed to be the end of the world. But Weimar New York also marked a beginning for SFMOMA: The event inaugurated the museum's Live Art program.

Now entering its third year, Live Art at SFMOMA has commissioned new projects and staged previously produced work that ranges far and wide across the landscape of contemporary performance. Alongside a 2009 retrospective of South African artist William Kentridge's haunting animations and drawings, for example, the museum sponsored the artist's version of Monteverdi's 1640 opera The Return of Ulysses at the nearby Project Artaud theatre, with singers performing alongside wooden bunraku-style puppets. A touring show originally produced by Seattle's Pacific Operaworks, The Return of Ulysses delivered the museum into terrain it had traditionally shied away from. Adding to the mix, Kentridge himself delivered a performance-lecture, I am not me, the horse is not mine, standing in front of projections that filled the shallow stage of the museum's Wattis Theater. While ruminating on the nature of his work, the artist interacted with filmed images of himself and the stop-motion figures that are a signature of his work.


SFMOMA's recent embrace of performance is not an isolated case. Over the past decade the West Coast has seen a number of prominent and on-the-rise visual arts institutions turning their attention to the production and development of live artwork.

What exactly to call this field remains a matter of some debate. "Performance art" feels too limited a moniker to encompass protean programming developed out of dance, theatre and music traditions as well as more museum-friendly media like video and sculpture. SFMOMA's phrase of choice, "live art," has stronger resonance in the United Kingdom--where it has been taken up to describe work concerned with questions of presence and the present moment, posed through live exchange with an audience--than in the United States.

At Oregon's Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, a smaller and newer organization that was established in 1995, curators Kristan Kennedy and Erin Boberg Doughton prefer the phrase "time-based art," which they describe as "an open invitation to artists across forms and media, rather than a bounded concept." Every September since 2003, PICA's annual Time-Based Art Festival (TBA) has gathered an impressive array of artists and companies for several days of performance. The Oregon and California institutions offer not only different terminologies, but also exemplify diverging ways to program for work that explores how to be "live" in a world increasingly mediated by screen, speaker or spectacle. …

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