November 19th, 2012 · Roselee Goldberg

The performance era is now

By RoseLee Goldberg


Historical perspectives, the changing role of museums and a performance biennial have propelled the form to centre stage [[MORE]]

Following the opening of the Tate Tanks, for film and performance, in London in July and a seminar on dance in museums in New York in September, the director and curator of New York’s Performa biennial considers an art practice that has come of age


Now that major museums around the world are discovering performance art, the registrars and curators who oversee their collections are learning that they have been harbouring substantial holdings of performance material all along—only by another name. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney in New York, Tate Modern in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Mori in Tokyo, to name a few, each have extensive collections of material produced for or during performances including Dada and Futurist drawings, Russian Constructivist stage sets, Gutai wall hangings and all kinds of instructions, scripts and documents scattered among their various departments as “drawing”, “photography”, “video”, “painting” or “sculpture”. Yves Klein’s anthropométries, Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, Cindy Sherman’s untitled portraits, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s left-over plates, stools and fold-up tables and an extensive assortment of recent work referred to as relational aesthetics, were all performances first and foremost. Only now are they are being recognised for what they are.

Overnight it would seem, several key museums have established performance art departments, appointed curators, built dedicated spaces for performance and now are raising questions about how such work might be collected and preserved. The Tate Tanks just completed its inaugural season, the Whitney’s recent biennial devoted an entire floor of their building to performance, MoMA’s performance art department is in full swing this autumn and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has just announced a year long series of events organised by Paul Miller, AKA DJ Spooky. There is also talk that the British Museum might use its historic Reading Room as an occasional performance venue (The Art Newspaper, September, p18).

So what took so long? When I wrote my book on the history of performance art [Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present] in 1979, I mapped out a history of artists’ performance, or live art (which was the subtitle of the original edition), pointing out that museums, art historians and critics had been seriously remiss in overlooking the significance of this material to the development of 20th-century art. One of the main reasons for this omission was the fact that long entrenched boundaries between departments were difficult to cross, and doing so meant having a grasp of several histories at once—theatre, dance, film, poetry, architecture and music—which few art historians had and few institutions were equipped to do. Another reason was the fact that the work was ephemeral and impossible to “museumify”, which was exactly the point of the artists who made the work in the first place; to engage the public directly with live actions and to counter the safety of conservation, the “museum as cemetery”—as the Italian Futurists notoriously quipped—for storing work of long gone artists.

The record performance-heavy biennials, exhibitions and art fairs of the past five or six years—the Yokohama Triennial of 2011, Art Basel’s Art Parcours or this year’s Documenta—make it clear as we move into the second decade of the 21st century that performance is indeed the art form of our times. Not surprisingly, it is turned to by emerging artists whose background and training is as interdisciplinary as the visual and aural worlds within which we exist daily, on our iPads, computers and smart phones. For these artists performance is a layered container for new content and formal devices of all sorts.

Performance has also found a home in the modern museum because museums themselves have changed radically, from places of contemplative study to cultural pleasure-palaces of engagement, with spaces especially designed for the congregation of large numbers of people to interact with art and artists. The once formal flow of art historical story-telling through quiet halls of display was, around the turn of the new century, disrupted with arrangements that cross-referenced time zones and media, as did the Tate Modern’s hanging of its collection when it opened in 2000, and by event-driven installations that involved viewer participation, such as Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, which encouraged viewers to lie splayed out on the floor in the Turbine Hall. Such actions made the process for absorbing the ideas of art as entertaining as the intended perceptual effects.

Another explanation for the museums’ recent embrace of performance art is the fact that the 1970s is now history. Since decades tend to be re-examined after a thirty or forty year gap, the 1970s as a field of study has become important to our understanding of the chronology of the recent past. To curators responsible for this period it was evident that much of the conceptual art to be included in these galleries was actually performance art, and that the curator’s job was finding ways to display and elucidate the material of a generation of highly articulate and influential artists that took place live and existed only as documents or video. Performances by Joan Jonas or Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta or Stuart Brisley, have since been reconstructed or in some cases re-imagined for museum display.

Last but not least, the impact of the Performa biennials since 2005, and the interdisciplinary organisation Performa, which I established with the intention of making the history of performance art widely known, has acted as a catalyst for a new appreciation and celebration of the medium. Performa has changed opinions about performance art, showing its exciting new aesthetic dimensions, while at the same time, proving that it can have broad public appeal.

Performance is being recognised not only for its ability to attract crowds to museums, especially a younger generation, but also for the fact that it encourages those gathered together to voice their opinions about the art they are viewing. Without hesitation, audiences experiencing Marina Abramovic’s "The Artist Is Present" at MoMA in 2010, or Tino Sehgal’s These Associations, just ended in the Turbine Hall, have plenty to say; they have no trouble at all commenting on events in which they have participated, unlike the hesitation they might feel to speak up on viewing an exhibition of paintings by Cy Twombly or Mark Rothko, given the extensive background knowledge implied by these classic examples of the modernist canon. Followers of Spartacus Chetwynd or Carsten Höller, Abramovic or Sehgal, form a new kind of museum network, building an unusually collaborative and involved version of art and culture, between people and the institutions that house them.

Performance also provides a unique window onto the global culture that is now the expected scope of the contemporary art historian, curator, or collector, for it is through performance that artists from India, China, South Africa, or Brazil, have been able to penetrate the higher echelons of the biennial circuit, art institutions and even the market place, that would be almost impossible through traditional means of painting or sculpture. Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, Chinese artist Zhang Huan, Mexican artist Santiago Sierra or Indian artist Nikhil Chopra, each became known internationally through early performances, although all now work across disciplines, while the Guatemalan artist, Regina José Galindo, the Mexican artist, Teresa Margolles, the South African artists Tracey Rose, Steven Cohen or Athi-Patra Ruga, provide a bird’s eye view of the densely variegated social and anthropological landscapes from whence they come, holding their own no matter the setting where the work might be shown, in Venice, Istanbul or São Paolo. Since the experience of watching a performance is predominantly a visual one, and since the language is a universal one of gestures and movement, fluid border crossing between cultures is possible.

Today’s contemporary art museum has taken on the role of directly activating the creative community, entirely different from 20 or 30 years ago. Curators commission new projects, provide context and public conversation, and spend studio-time with artists, teasing out new work and providing feedback, criticism and expertise. With performance art also under their purview, tech facilities and support staff, rehearsal space and even a green room, must now be added to the checklist for museums of the future. Given the newness of the field, with few curators yet trained to run performance art departments, it will take some time before museums each have performance art departments of their own as a matter of course. In the meantime, they will find ways to make space for the waves of new work that will be coming their way, for they will not be able to ignore this major strand of contemporary art and the many visitors that performance will bring into their museums.



RoseLee Goldberg is the Founding Director and Curator of Performa.

This article first appeared in The Art Newspaper, Number 240, November 2012. It can be viewed online here.

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