The first in a two-part essay about artists on television. Part one: Nao Bustamante and The Work of Art: The Next Great American Artist
Performance art is enjoying an unusual visibility. Marina Abramović’s MoMA retrospective made headlines for the duration of the show. Last month, the Bravo television network launched a reality show designed to single out ‘the next great American artist’. The programme features Nao Bustamante, a well-established performance artist – who was eventually dismissed from the show for a mystifying installation and performance. Last month, in Los Angeles, the actor James Franco initiated a collaboration with the daytime melodrama General Hospital and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Franco claims his appearance on General Hospital playing a performance artist (in a role he created, and took up in November, 2009) is itself part of a performance project, the boundaries of which are still unclear. (The actor-cum-artist is currently enrolled as a graduate student in English at Yale.)
Bustamante describes her participation in the reality television show, The Work of Art: The Next Great American Artist, as a kind of ‘social sculpture’, exploring what happens when an artist like her ‘penetrates the television bubble’. If we take Bustamante at her word, we should treat her appearance on the game show, and her participation in the publicity surrounding the program as marking the (expanding) boundaries of a performance. Using The Work of Art as a platform, Bustamante is creating a site-specific, interactive work located and unfolding in a media space over which she has no ‘authorship’, at least as the term is traditionally defined. Considering her participation in the contest as a performance yields a series of interesting insights that telescope out from the programme to the larger issue of what constitutes a performance-based text, and furthermore suggest new directions of performance and new media work, in which artists participate in a broadcast culture as agents of interference.
Bustamante’s face won the programme’s first challenge. Artist-contestants were paired up and told to make portraits of each other. Bustamante’s partner, Miles Mendenhall (pegged as a likely winner for the season), won that week’s episode with a simple silkscreened image of the artist, eyes closed, head slightly tilted back, as if she were dead. On seeing Mendenhall’s portrait of Bustamante, those of us who follow her work realized that we were looking not at his work of art, exactly, but at a documentation of hers.
This is, of course, always a possibility when photographing a performance artist (think, for example, of Catherine Opie’s portraits of the artist Ron Athey, as he stages moments from his performances for her camera). The confusion of authorship, ownership and authenticity in the production of portraits of the artist is one of Bustamante’s signatures. In her one-on-one portrait/performance series, ‘Find Yourself Through Me’ (2006–ongoing), Bustamante leads participants in a meditative exercise in which that person becomes transformed into a living portrait of the artist. She coaxes them into mirroring her. She records the process and integrates images from it into a digital self-portrait, in which dozens of versions of ‘Nao Bustamante’ stand together, en masse, as the artist’s avatar. The San Francisco gallery Baer Ridgway Exhibitions furthermore exhibited a series of Bustamante’s self-portraits, produced in the weeks before The Work of Art went into production. In these digital prints she is lit from above, and her face appears frozen as if in the grip of a final ecstasy. Loosely inspired by the experience of viewing Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz lying in state in 2003, Deathbed (2010) extends Bustamante’s dialogue with the light-tricks and sparkle of celebrity personas like Cruz and Jack Smith’s muse Maria Montez. She introduced her exhibit of her almost post-mortem self-portraits with a live performance, in which she appeared lying in state, caught between life and death, as a celebrity corpse in waiting. There is no mistaking the similarity between these images and the portrait of Bustamante that was offered up to audiences as the programme’s first successful ‘work of art’. (Bustamante’s own non-figurative, process-oriented submission was, in contrast, in the bottom three.)
When interviewed about her participation in the show, Bustamante cited Salvador Dali’s appearance on What’s My Line as an inspiration. In the 1950s game show, a panel of experts guessed the identity of the episode’s guest according to the responses elicited from a limited number of questions. To ‘are you a painter?’ Dali answered, ‘Yes.’ To ‘are you a sculptor?’ he replied, ‘yes.’ Have you appeared on television? Yes. Are you a leading man? Yes. Are you affiliated with sports? Yes. Writer? Yes. And so on. In the end, he’s identified by his association with the words ‘art’ and ‘performance,’ and by the fact that with every response, he made the audience laugh.
One can see how such a moment might inspire: Dali co-operates fully with the show’s premise, his appearance on the programme is categorically disruptive, and completely pleasurable, because Dali is a work of art, in and of himself. In taking the show seriously, and in not taking himself seriously, he gave the television audience an expanded vision of what being an artist might involve.
Bustamante’s ambition seems to have been something along this line – take the show seriously, and don’t take yourself so seriously that you try to ‘top’ television. Perhaps this is why her participation in the show is most successful when her work ends up at the bottom of the critics’ ranking. (By ‘successful’ here, I mean the amount of airtime given to her.) Bustamante figures prominently in the show’s first episode. She nearly lost, because she was the only artist to refuse the logic of representation. To the indignant panel of judges, she calmly declared ‘I am not responsible for your experience of my work.’ That statement featured prominently in commercials advertising the show’s premier, which inspired Bustamante to sell T-shirts emblazoned with it. She is most prominent, however, in the fourth episode, which she did lose, spectacularly. That week’s challenge was ‘shock art’.
Those of us who work with ‘shock art’ could see the problem coming from a mile away. ‘Shock’ is nearly impossible to programme – the most interesting ‘shocks’ are ones that you don’t anticipate. Art people – whose baseline posture is one of cool sophistication – are reluctant to admit to themselves that they can be shocked, and often don’t actually know their own limits. Furthermore, within discourse on ‘shock art’ there seems to be an implicit agreement regarding what one will admit to finding shocking – images of sexualized or racialized violence, for example, are OK, perhaps because they suggest a politically correct liberal conscience (think Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker). There is a protocol, in other words, to what kind of ‘shock’ the art world will admit.
When something is really shocking (as opposed to being about something shocking, as was the case for the episode’s winner), it makes critics and audiences pull back in disgust and confusion. It defies judgment – because the most shocking thing, really, is destined to fail when tested immediately against the critical mandate. When you are shocked by art, you usually don’t think, ‘Wow, that’s great art!’ but ‘What the fuck was that?’ An artist could only win this challenge, in other words, by losing it.
Bustamante approached what would be her final project for the show with an open mind. She created a strange installation/performance in which she sat under a collapsing cardboard teepee, covered in art trash, and caressing what looked like a ‘shit flower’ (her words for the plastic she gripped in one hand and smeared with art detritus – paint, clay, paste etc.). She looked great in the way that Helen Chadwick’s ‘Piss Flowers’ (1991–2) or William Pope L.’s collages of photographs, hair and sperm are pretty. It’s a look, and it is not without art historical context. (Bustamante’s piece reiterated the look and feel of her 2007 performance, Given Over to Want, described by a Brooklyn Museum blogger as a comment on ‘waste, consumption, and gender’.)
Guest judge Andres Serrano was uniformly positive in his take on her work. ‘It was the weirdest thing I saw tonight,’ he said. He seemed to delight in the fact that it was inexplicable. The programme’s regular panelists (who include the art critic Jerry Saltz) overrode Serrano. They couldn’t say what it was about, and that was a problem. In her exit interview, Bustamante embraced the work as failure, and left audiences with the pedagogical pearl: ‘Sometimes as an artist you have to fail.’ It was the wisdom of an accomplished artist and an experienced teacher (Bustamante is a tenured Professor of New Media and Live Art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York). It is, of course, also one of the tenets of performance art – lifted right out of the hands of Allan Kaprow.
The audience’s fear of failure is built into the genre – it can be what keeps performance art in dialogue and in tension with other mediums like theatre, sport and dance. Where artists associated with traditional practices of those genres work towards a ‘successful’ spectacle, a performance artist is more likely to work on the edge of disaster – making work that bores, that rattles, that seems to have no ‘art’ in it, or that seems somehow to have too much. Critics have manifested the fear of failure in their discourse on Bravo’s show by assuming that only a failed artist would turn to such a thing in order to ‘make it’ or that an artist’s exit from the program might represent a failure in and of itself, as if winning the contest were the only aim that a participant in such a show might have.
When asked why a mid-career artist with an international exhibition history and a tenured faculty position would ‘risk her career’ by participating in this show, Bustamante responded: ‘That’s precisely why I would do this – instability is a big generator in my art practice.’
As true as this may be, it belies the artist’s longstanding dialogue with pop culture and celebrity. She took her first trip inside the television bubble in 1992 when she pulled off a ‘stunt performance’ by appearing on The Joan Rivers Show as a polymorphously perverse exhibitionist (‘Rosa Does Joan’). More recently, she made an audition tape for The Next Food Network Star, but was not cast. She calls the format of some of her recent work ‘filmformance’ – the word signals not only a blend of cinematic projection and live performance, but the presentation of Bustamante as a Maria Montez-like movie star, on screen, and also in the flesh animating and reacting to the screen image (Silver and Gold, 2009).
Looking at her standing in the programme’s line-up, still in her Leigh Bowery-like garbage costume, it is hard to believe that it wasn’t all by design – Bustamante must have hoped for a chance to give us this deeply absurd and inarticulate figure. It isn’t the least bit tragic – it is hilarious. If The Work of Art succeeds in only this – in having provided a performance artist the opportunity to toy with the mediatization of art, and to model art-as-interference – it will have been worthy television. 1 I included one of Bustamante’s installations in a group show, ‘I Feel Different’ (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, October 2009–January 2010). In our discussion of which piece to include in the exhibit, the artist showed me these photographs – they were produced weeks in advance of her participation in the Bravo series. Ironically, we were not able to include these pieces in the LACE exhibit because Bustamante was cast in the show (unbeknownst to me) – the artist was not available to produce the prints, or set up the performance that was to accompany them.
2 Alex Gartenfeld, writing for Art in America, thus asserted: ‘The contestants here do not represent the art community…because someone in an existing art community would not risk their career to be on TV.’ (‘What Doesn’t Work, Saves’, April 27, 2010)
Jennifer Doyle is the author of Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minnesota, 2006). She lives in Los Angeles, teaches at the University of California, Riverside, and, with Raquel Guttierez, is curating ‘Aqui No Hay Virgenes: Queer Latina Visibility’ for the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Center’s Advocate Gallery.