Battista, Kathy, Art Monthly
various venues New York 1 to 21 November
In its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, performance art was an alternative to the institutionalised, commercial art world; today, it plays an important role in both these realms. Major museums have hosted exhibitions of performance art and the correlative artists are fixtures in the art market. 'Performa', the first biennial devoted entirely to 'new visual art performance', created in 2005 by Roselee Goldberg, has helped to secure this new-found position for performance art. 'Performa' illustrates how live art has expanded to run the full spectrum of the medium - from pop-up, ephemeral happenings to full-scale productions staged in theatres.
'Performa 11' began with a highly anticipated work by Elmgreen & Dragset. Happy Days in the Artworld riffs on two apparently disparate literary sources: Beckett's 1962 play Happy Days and Sarah Thornton's 2008 book Seven Days in the Art World. The Scandinavian artists took the existential angst of Beckett and conflated it with Thornton's journalistic 'tell all' style. In this production two artists - stand-ins for the artists themselves - wake up in IKEA bunk beds wondering where they are and how they got there. Seasoned actors Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards play the roles of ID (Ingar Dragset) and ME (Micheal Elmgreen) with razor-sharp timing, waxing both philosophically and humorously about life in the international art world. A steady stream of insider jokes, references to 'Marina's workshops' and talk of 'curators breeding and inbreeding, even graduating!' kept the tone from becoming too cynical. A deusex machina was deployed in the form of a FedEx delivery-woman who arrived on stage from above with a message of an impending studio visit from Nancy Spector - in true Godot style this never came to fruition. Happy Days made the audience realise that the elision of Beckett and Thornton is not so far-fetched.
Shirin Neshat directed OverRuled, another of the 'Performa 11' commissions. This was an interpretation of the story of a 10th-century mystic who was dismembered for heresy. A faux courtroom, ruled by a despotic judge and a militaristic jury, was the setting for a trial where the defendant was played simultaneously by four people: two men and two women. The production, which involved over 40 actors and musicians, tended towards the spectacular. The music - always a central force in Neshat's work - was the most potent aspect of OverRuled. The controversial Iranian singer Mohsen Namjoo, who composed the score and played his signature mixture of traditional Iranian music inflected with rock influence, was so impressive that the acting paled in comparison.
Echo Button, a collaborative production by Ed Atkins, Haroon Mirza and James Richards, was a more experimental piece that took the form of a digital projection as well as sculptural and video installations located in the Times Square headquarters of the Zabludowicz collection. The indoor installations - one made from old speakers and the same LEDs used to create the New Year's Eve ball - harkened to Mirza's signature works that combine sound, light and found electronic goods. A live performance of antique radios playing from the frequency of a dangling light bulb also felt like the hand of Mirza, while the videos shown on the gargantuan Toshiba Vision screen and reflected in the glass architecture of surrounding skyscrapers spoke more of Atkins and Richards. …