Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Passing Through, 1977. Performance at Sonnabend Gallery, New York, May 20, 1977. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Babette Mangolte. © 1977 All reproduction rights reserved.
Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Passing Through, 1977. Performance at Sonnabend Gallery, New York, May 20, 1977. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Babette Mangolte. © 1977 All reproduction rights reserved.
January 16th, 2014

Rituals of Rented Island: Babette Mangolte

Babette Mangolte is a filmmaker and photographer whose work is currently featured in the Whitney Museum's "Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970-1980." In the Tribeca loft that the artist has called her home and studio since 1974, Mangolte shared some thoughts about the show, current modes of performance, and her memories of and reflections on working with artists including Robert Morris, Richard Foreman, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Sylvia Palacios Whitman.


Mary Coyne: Your images of Richard Foreman, Yvonne Rainer, and Sylvia Palacios Whitman’s performances helped define their work. Could you expand a little on what it was like working with them? How did you perceive your role in the relationship?

Babette Mangolte: I never felt I was collaborating; I took photographs of things I liked to see more than once. I needed to see it once, form an opinion, and, if I liked it, I would photograph it. I was always there, I was hanging around when people were warming up, in the space; many performances were done at the last minute, actually. You got a sense of what was important for them. I always felt that the more time I spent around the work, the better my photographs were going to be. You can't do photography by snapshot. But photographing is not a totally calculated act, I don’t think, at all. It is a question of luck and also instinct about the work. You have to work on developing your instinct about the aesthetics of the artists you photograph.

Your work is predominantly featured in the Whitney Museum’s performance art exhibition, "Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama — Manhattan, 1970-1980," and your photograph of Sylvia Palacios Whitman is actually the poster image for the show, yet you are not actually credited as an artist in the exhibition. What are your thoughts on this?

Photographers of performance are often dismissed as just being just documentary and nothing else. Intentionally, the art market wants the photographer to disappear behind the subject matter of the photograph, with the performance artist’s name and the performance title. Some performance artists want to appropriate your images, as they are the only things they have of their work to sell.

The purpose of my photography was to make sure the work I was photographing did not disappear. It is an affirmation of the importance of the work I photographed that indeed it has happened. But Yvonne [Rainer], Steve [Paxton], Trisha [Brown], and Richard [Foreman] would not have disappeared because of the quality and resonance of their work, and my strength, I think, was to mostly photograph very talented people. And in doing that, I got myself a very good education! This is what 1970s art was about. People were doing what they wanted to do and were open to spending time for others selflessly. It was the spirit of John Cage.

I was fortunate because I was interested in space, and so much of the performance work at that time was about space. Dance, however, is more about movement than space, and about the way the movement is functioning within the space. In my work, you always get a perspective of the space in which the dance is performed, and that is the big difference, I think, from the other photographers of that period.

When I went to see Richard Foreman’s play Total Recall in December 1970, I said to myself, "Nobody is seeing this play, so I have to photograph it because the photograph will be the record of its existence. If I don’t photograph it within the run of the play, it will disappear." And definitely, Richard’s work was about space. It was about structuring space with props and the bodies of the performers, so I owe a lot to Richard, and to Yvonne too. She was the first dancer whom I photographed.

The fact that as a photographer I am not credited as an artist is not only recent [practice]—it was even worse in the past. It is interesting because performance was originally a mode of art production to avoid the art market. It is the subject of the photograph—the performance—that is discussed and studied. But many people shot, for example [Trisha Brown’s] Roof Piece in 1973: Peter Moore, Johan Albers, and maybe even Nathaniel Tileston were there next to me. I was not the only photographer there, but I’m the only one who created the photograph that became emblematic of the piece. You have to accept a level of contribution from the photographer in an image of a given piece.

Can you talk more about how your photographs work as documents of the performances?

My photographs don’t really require captions. They can work in a vitrine or in a display to represent the work of Stuart Sherman or whoever the subject may be. And because I shoot in series, my photographs often evoke a succession of actions that forms a narrative, like a graphic novel. But to really understand performances, you need to bring an element of duration, or time. In inventing my installation "Reading Yvonne Rainer’s this is the story about a woman who…," I wanted to show the enfolding of time into the story as well as to create a time experience for the Whitney visitors.The display of photographs, script pages, and film fragments under that angled vitrine adds that element of time. You can look and read chronologically. You reactivate the archive by returning to what that piece is about, not just visually, but also thematically.The display includes a written description and Yvonne’s score and script.  You experience the performance through a series of fragmented texts and images, which is how we think today—in fragments.

There is a problem in art history, which tends to over-categorize things by medium or techniques. In the 1990s, you would see an exhibition on performance art and Yvonne Rainer and Richard Foreman would not be included. Yvonne was still considered a choreographer, part of the dance world, and not a performance artist. Now that idea is quaint, and not including performance, dance, and avant-garde theater in one show [on performance] cannot be done. That would not have happened twenty years ago. Context is what is chronicled in the Whitney show. Jay [Sanders], curator of "Rituals of Rented Island," put Richard Foreman and Stuart Sherman in the same show, not only because they knew each other well, working together and influencing each other in spite of their differences, but the period was so much about this cross-hybridization between activities and people.

What do you think of the museum transitioning into a site of live performance? For you, is there a specific value to be found in live performance that cannot translate into the archive?

I am not sure. I think both archives and actual re-enactment are needed to understand a performance work. But I also think that looking at a painting also requires time: you don’t look at a painting in a second. You need to get closer to see details, you need to have a spatial relation with the work even if it is a flat surface. I made a film on looking at painting, which is very much a time-based activity. Looking takes time. You can see that desire to put time into the museum in the Whitney show, and that is actually great. The show is mostly an archival show but time is inscribed in it, so you are conscious of the time-based activity that is performance. What's also great in the Whitney show are the conversations between rooms and specific works; every gallery brought a different flavor from the period. For example, putting Jared Bark and Sylvia Palacios Whitman next to each other was a great idea because they knew each other quite well, they came from the same circle, but at the same time, they both had this shared recognition of the importance of the object. 

Over the past several weeks, we have had radically different approaches to performance by the New York museums—the Whitney’s exhibition was heavily archival, relying almost entirely on documents and documentation, whereas MoMA’s support of choreographer Boris Charmatz’s Musée de la danse emphasized live performance as a mode for historicizing work. The "problem" of including performance art into the museum is certainly something that has been a lively topic of discussion over the past few years.

Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present changed the way that performance art was thought about. In my opinion, the archival aspect to the show on the sixth floor was less interesting than Marina’s performance in the Atrium at MoMA. The video documentation of Marina in the early 1970s was able to impose a presence that was more vivid than the recreations with live dancers.

In terms of retrospective, the most beautiful show was "Gutai: Splendid Playground" at the Guggenheim. It was important for them to have time-based documentation and actual live performance. So, the desire to do both an archival show and schedule specific performances seems to be what museums are trying to do.

For me, the most interesting reflection about performance displayed in the museum is from "Seven Easy Pieces" [2005, presented as part of Performa 05] at the Guggenheim, where Marina re-enacted pieces from performance history in idiosyncratic interpretations of her own, with Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Bruce Nauman, whose performance was never actually performed [by the artist] but only scripted by Nauman. His score emphasized that the face of the performer was never seen, but at the Guggenheim, Marina performed before a glass wall, and you saw her through it. It was very interesting for performance history, as Marina’s performances were often the opposite of the documented performances that inspired her.

Indeed, and that’s just what Marina intended. It is interesting to compare that to Boris Charmatz’s Musée de la danse at MoMA. In the first week (the exhibition was presented as a series of three weekly performances), dancers performed loosely within the galleries, performing a series of historically important choreographic works from the 20th century.

Yes, again, but as you came upon those dancers without much indication of the dances being performed or the identity of the dancers, as an educational exhibition model, it may not have been very successful. I personally was extremely frustrated by it. The enactment of Charmatz’s new choreography inspired by David Vaughan’s book of fifty years of photographs of Merce Cunningham and company was, I think, a total failure in evoking Merce Cunningham and his endless invention. To get back to "Rituals of Rented Island," it is important to notice that the show is about the context of a period as much as about the specificities of some performances from the period of the 1970s.

It is interesting to think of MoMA’s exhibition as an experiment in exhibiting performance rather than an archive.

Yes, but in terms of "Rituals of Rented Island," it is not just an archival show. For example, the installation for Jack Smith was not invented by the curator but was a reconstruction of the installation Smith did at the Cologne art fair [Art Cologne, 1977].

In the exhibition, often only one time-based work of one performance could be shown per room. If you don’t want to use headphones, you can only have one time-based work. If Richard [Foreman] or Sylvia [Palacios Whitman] had kept more of their props, they would have added another dimension. But that’s also a reflection of the time. I know Jay [Sanders] tried to find objects for Stuart Sherman but could not find any. So there is that other idea of object-based performance, which is very different than movement-based performance.

Much of your work is so directly related to the idea of the archive; your installation pieces are like opening up an archive into the history of avant-garde performance and dance.

Yes, that was the point actually. I have an archive, but the archive is inert if it is not activated by an idea of how to present it. In general, most of the photographs I have printed are moments that have been agreed upon between the performance artist and I. Trisha [Brown] was so good at selecting the best photographs. She has a great eye. The archive has to be brought alive in the right museum setting.


Mary Coyne is a writer, critic and curator based in New York.

"Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980" is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York until February 2, 2014.

End of article