In late March of this year, Georgia Sagri performed Moved by Surprise, Speak by Surprise at the Emily Harvey Foundation in New York. Ten guests were invited to a dinner that Sagri had prepared, with the audience arriving an hour after the dinner had begun, taking seats around the perimeter of the room. Moved by Surprise, Speak by Surprise takes an event—a 1998 performance by artist Ben Patterson that Sagri, then eighteen years old, had been selected to appear in—and reenacts the catastrophe that occurred when she discovered that her role in the piece was to lie naked on a table surrounded by dinner guests. Patterson, one of the founders of the Fluxus movement, staged the performance at the Athens School of Fine Arts where Sagri was a student in her first year of college. The piece was itself a reenactment, taking Patterson’s earlier Fluxus performance Lick Piece, first performed in 1964, and restaging it as Ophelia. In Lick Piece, the score dictates that a ‘shapely female’ be covered with whipped cream (chopped nuts and cherries optional) and licked. In Ophelia, a woman lying on a dinner table and covered with rice and cream functioned as a variation on Lick Piece, which was also later restaged as Tristan and Isolde. Sagri’s refusal to participate marked the beginning of her career as an artist.
Documentation of the 1998 performance is scant, and there has been no material found evidencing the incident between Sagri and Patterson at the Athens School of Fine Arts. When curator Alice Centamore approached her to stage a piece at the Emily Harvey Foundation, where the Fluxus archives are held, Sagri conceived of a performance that would allow her body to be that missing archive.
In this singular and surprising performance, viewers watched from the perimeter of the room as Sagri alternately sat down at and stood up from the dinner table, moving around the room repeating phrases such as “I’m so sorry. I’m so so so so sorry I wasn’t able to come to dinner” and “I’m so worried about the future.” Beginning with expressions of apology and anxiety about the uncertain life that a young person has ahead of her, Sagri traced her trajectory as an artist through twenty years of development. Finding a place for herself, for personal narratives, Sagri produced her own archival record of an experience that supersedes what has or has not been documented for preservation in the annals of official histories. In tracing her life and career backwards, charting a temporal progression that mimicked the performance’s shifting relationship to time, her dialogue became more assertive as she circled around the dinner table. “No, I don’t like this position. No, I don’t want to. I will say ‘no’ now. I demand to be on my own. I love to say ‘no’ to all of you. It is the time of the NO.”
Sarah Wang: I want to talk to you about your performance at the Emily Harvey Foundation, Moved by Surprise, Speak by Surprise. Tell me about the genesis of this project.
Georgia Sagri: The performance was made with the goal of connecting the Emily Harvey Foundation, which is where the Fluxus archive is held, with the School of Fine Arts in Athens. The idea for Moved by Surprise, Speak by Surprise was to reenact the memory of my refusal to participate in a performance for the artist Ben Patterson during my first year at the School of Fine Arts.
In 1998, you were in your first year of college there…
At that time, on the occasion of a large-scale exhibition on Fluxus at the school, the students were encouraged to reenact Fluxus performances. One of them was Lick Piece by Ben Patterson, which involved him pouring cream and rice on a naked girl. Although I had initially agreed to perform, at the moment of the performance I decided not to do it given the fact that I felt mistreated and objectified.
What was the premise of the performance in 1998?
In 1998, a lot of artists from the Fluxus generation were being asked to reenact performances for museum openings, and artists’ retrospectives, the issues regarding the reenactment of historical performances were prominent. As a student at that time my literacy about performance was limited, but it was important for me to participate in the exhibition. I asked Patterson why he chose to reenact this work, but he never told me. This triggered my eventual refusal to perform and allowed me to take the situation in my own hands. Moved by Surprise, Speak by Surprise was the revisiting of this refusal.
Did the performance happen, even though you refused do it?
I made a big mess—chaos in the exhibition space. I threw the table down on the floor and spilled the rice and the cream with my hands, I offered rice right through the casserole, while screaming that the show is over. I created a catastrophe. Of course, Ben accepted this: a minute before I leaned close to him and I whispered "now I will take over" and gave him a kiss. He stepped aside, sat on a chair and smiled the entire time. I think he was pleased, but we never had the opportunity to talk about what happened. I never found documentation of the event, though I know it exists.
So at the Emily Harvey Foundation this year, you—in some way—reenacted this refusal. A small group of people was invited to have dinner around a table with you, and an hour later the public began to trickle in, forming a circle around the perimeter of the table.
The performance unraveled in this way: by me moving around the space while revisiting recent events (for example the memory of reading an email five minutes before the performance) and then slowly retreating further and further into the past. All the elements that, psychologically speaking, are placed in the space around the table, inscribe this retreat into the past. So the performance does not really take place in the here-and-now; it takes place in various stages of the past. I’m questioning the authority of linear history. I think that artists have the capability to break linear structures. It can’t happen from the institutions; the artist needs to do it, herself. It was very important to make this piece at Emily Harvey, in order to be included in their Fluxus archive.
This, of course, makes me think about labor, specifically women's labor, and women's bodies. In art and literature, we talk about "the body," but in this case, it was your body, specifically. You’re using your body as a vehicle in 2018, to talk about your body in this performance in 1998. It's very specific; your body is the carrier of information.
This is the demand of my work. I think that there is no generalization of the body. There are only specific bodies that carry specific information.
Can you describe your movements and the repetitions in the performance, not only the repetition in movement, but also the repetition in language, in the words that you were speaking?
The bodily movements were comprised of repetitions, gestures, and awkward postures. But they weren’t posing, they were a kind of awkward posturing. They function like stickers. They stick, and then they fall.
The repetition happens because my voice was looped. I try to do that without the technology of recording but to loop myself within the score inside the performance. This performance was a presentation of the technology of the body. I wanted every movement and sound that I was making to correspond with the references and variations. I think that reality, in a way, is the correlation of sound and motion.
It's interesting to consider the body becoming technology, editing and looping in real time. I was thinking about how memory functions in this way: thoughts loop in your head, memories reoccur and pop up, and through speech there is an editing process of what comes out and what doesn't come out.
It's a technology of the body, but there is also a force, an empowerment that occurs. It's not just information that is transmitted. There is also something that is not my information. There are some things that just appear. The body is like the first technology. I think that there is a fixation with the body, the presence of the body, and also the representation of the body. And for me, sometimes it is important to dismantle this linear and very coded representation.
What is the significance of the location in these two performances?
For me, it is a place that carries history, not only of a particular scene in New York, but also the evolution of this groups of artists and their involvement in the city, other scenes, and the current generation. Emily Harvey is not only the site of the archive…it's also a home. It was the home George Maciunas, of Alison Knowles, of Simone Forti, and of Emily Harvey herself. There were artists’ studios and violent and not so joyful moments in this building. So this, for me, is the archive of the space—it’s not just the photographic materials, the contracts, or the written texts, but also the events that the building contains.
I like thinking of spaces as a kind of palimpsest, where there are layers of history, people, memory, events, and trauma. I also like to think of spaces in terms of their multiplicity. For example, a sidewalk is a public space for pedestrians, a place for municipal garbage collection, a free store where books and furniture are available for others to claim, a meeting place, a playground, and a place where people living on the streets sleep. This might be a good bridge to talking about your shows at Portikus in Frankfurt and the Kunstverein Braunschweig in Germany. I know that these are two very special shows, do you think of them as separate shows or are they two parts of the same show?
It started as one exhibition at the Kunstverein Braunschweig, and then expanded in Portikus. The basis of both was similar. I wanted to think about how to bring past works into a “state of ease.” To look at them not as a display of objects to be viewed, but as guests to be taken care of. This happens with all the works: sculptures, performances, videos, photographs...some of the objects in the exhibition have previously been used in performances. In the exhibitions, they aren’t treated as remnants of an event, but as sculptures in the space.
Objects used in performances are either treated as inanimate by the status of the event, or as objects that are part of the event. In the past five years I’ve initiated a strategy to get rid of this binary and have made doubles of every object that have participated in performances.
In Kunstverein Braunschweig, because the architecture of the space was symmetrical, I displayed the works in sets of two that mirrored each other. The works are guests, in a sense. They are guests that come back. Or they're guests taking shape again in space, taking over the spaces in which they are presented. It's not that the works are just placed in the space. That's why the idea of having two dates on some of the works was important—the dates of their initial and subsequent participation in performances and exhibitions.
By placing objects that have been used in performance in an exhibition space—they correspond to all the different histories and structures in which they have been shown. So objects that have been used in performances are not treated as remnants of the event, but as sculptures. I’m trying to get away with synthesizing the object with the performance.
In the case of the exhibition at Portikus, I had musicians from Athens contribute. They created a soundscape, almost like a reoccurrence, or echoes of the time that the objects were transmitting. The objects have their own information to give away and expose. They are used, they are affects, and they are stories.
I also think about how, in your work, you've used doubling to show objects in a gallery space, and then move them out into public spaces. The objects continue the life of the work outside of the exhibition space.
Doubling maintains this limbo, expanding the time of the work. For me, choosing between inside and outside, or material and immaterial production doesn’t exist. I don't want to choose. It's an "and," it's not an "either, or."
It’s private and public, woman and man, material and immaterial. The objects are able, by the very fact of being doubled, to sustain, expand this essence of not making these choices. The violence of choice and binary systems don't allow for decisions to happen. For me, the decision happens in the way that the viewers move within the exhibition space where the objects are placed. The objects cast their shadows in the space without having to choose between the inside or the outside.
Sarah Wang has written for BOMB, n+1, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Joyland, Catapult, Conjunctions, Stonecutter Journal, Story Magazine, The Third Rail, Ugly Duckling Presse, semiotext(e)’s Animal Shelter, Black Clock, Musée d'Art Contemporain de Lyon, and The Last Newspaper at the New Museum, among other publications. She has an essay forthcoming in The Shanghai Literary Review as well as a short story in the anthology Tiny Crimes: Very Short Tales of Mystery and Murder. See more of her writing at wangsarah.com
Georgia Sagri) lives and works in New York and Athens. Recent exhibitions include: Georgia Sagri Georgia Sagri, Kuntverein Braunschweig (curated by Christina Lehnert), documenta 14: Learning from Athens (curated by Adam Szymczyk), documenta 14; Exercises on Freedom (curated by Paul B. Preciado), Manifesta 11 (curated by Christian Jankowski); The Eccentrics, Sculpture Center, New York (curated by Ruba Katrib). Her upcoming solo show Georgia Sagri and I at Portikus Frankfrut opened on April 20th, 2018 with the launch of her first monograph catalogue.