With Anthology, his current exhibition at MoMA PS1, Clifford Owens invited 26 artists to provide him with written scores for performances. The result: twice as many works as those listed. This “two for one” model—the artist’s proposal, and Owens’s interpretation of it—in some cases doubled the emotional content as well as the aesthetic layers of the original, making for an especially rich combination.
Such was the case with Owen’s re-imagining of Lyle Ashton Harris’s iconic work from 1989, a sepia-colored, larger-than-life-size photograph of the nude artist in a wig, face makeup and makeshift tutu. For Restating the Image: Construct #10, 1989, the score written by Harris reads as follows:
Restating the Image: Construct #10, 1989, Lyle Ashton Harris
Performance is to be performed by Clifford Owens
Once image is shot, Owens is to recite memorized paragraph of scholarly text on the image by Kobena Mercer in front of backdrop:
Mercer, Kobena. Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. London: Routledge 1994. 131, 222, 230-2. Print.
For his performance in the museum lobby, Owens, dressed in black, appeared in front of a seamless backdrop. He soon began talking to his audience, as he always does, engaging them in conversation about the original photograph and leading to a larger discussion on identity politics, being a queer artist of color in the late eighties and early nineties, and other highly personal questions. He also asked Harris, who was in the audience, to take photos, allowing him to pose with those people who stepped forward with replies. Harris consented but added, “Just do what the score says,” at which point Owens took off his clothes, improvised the costume with items borrowed from those standing around him – a few scarves to tie around his waist for a tutu, a touch of lipstick – and had his photograph taken. He also, now dressed, posed for one final shot alongside several in the audience who said they had lost someone to AIDs, as had a cross-dressing cousin of his. “This is a picture of AIDS, of love, of loss, of family…” Owens said. He never got around to reading the scholarly text.
With Anthology, Owens broadened his determination to write a substantial history of performance art by African-American artists, and to double it. Well-known figures such as Benjamin Patterson, Lorraine O’Grady, Terry Adkins, David Hammons, William Pope.L, Sanford Biggers and Coco Fusco are all accounted for. With Anthology, we can now add Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Jennie C. Jones, Aisha Cousins and Marin Hassinger to this history, at least for their contribution to Owen’s Anthology, with more to come. Simultaneously art historian, artist, archivist and revisionist, Owens backtracks through history, adding to it as he goes, and making it anew in the process.
RoseLee Goldberg, art historian, critic, curator and author whose book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, first published in 1979, pioneered the study of performance art. She is the Founding Director and Curator of Performa.
Special thanks to Christopher Lew, Assistant Curator, MoMA PS1.
Anthology runs at MoMA PS1 through March 12th, 2012, with additional performances by Owens on January 14th, February 11th and March 11th.