Performa 17

Various venues, New York, USA

Loosely influenced by the legacy of dada, the 2017 Performa biennial – led by chief curator RoseLee Goldberg – sought to blur the boundary between art and daily life and, at its best, consider a new age of anxiety not so dissimilar to the Weimar era. Throughout the month of November, Performa seemed to be everywhere – in the tube, splashed across billboards and pulsing away in after-hours gatherings.

In this sense, the most emblematic work may have been Jimmy Robert’s Imitation of Lives (all works 2017), which situated viewers among several performers at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. A series of vignettes modeled on the Kammerspiel, or intimate stage drama, incorporated text by Audre Lorde and music by Brian Eno, with references to the security state, the policing of desire and the over-policing of black subjects. Bodies moved unnervingly across the staid and pristine modernist pilgrimage site. The leitmotif was a reminder of Johnson’s affair with Jimmie Daniels, ‘a cabaret singer from Harlem’, complicating the site’s white-bread 1950s idylls.

Barbara Kruger was perhaps the highest profile contributor this year, with projects that included limited-edition subway cards, a roving school bus and a Lower East Side skate park, all emblazoned with her signature white-on-red dicta. These, and a collaborative merchandizing pop-up with Volcom, were presented under the arch-heading of The Drop. And yet, for all of their bluntness of address and exculpatory affinities with earlier avant-gardes, Kruger’s contributions seemed like a particularly stale form of regress. Kruger once repurposed sans-serif sloganeering, then lifestyle brands like Supreme repurposed Kruger. In 2017, consumers queued up to purchase bespoke trophies of cultural proximity from each. Gilded youth culture, it seems, is as good a business as ever.

web_img_0115_bk-billboard-hi-res.jpg

Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 2017, installation view, New York City. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 2017, installation view, New York City. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

Such moments are another reminder that the boundary between art, commerce and spectacle is blurrier than it was 30 years ago, before Kruger’s rise, or indeed a century ago during the dada ‘fairs’ of the 1920s. This was certainly the case with critic Teju Cole’s first foray into performance, Black Paper, which was staged at City Point, a Brooklyn mall, food court and condominium. Cole’s recent book, Blind Spot, showcased his talent for wringing poignance from the concise juxtaposition of text and image, like his forerunner W.G. Sebald. At City Point, audiences watched Cole disrobe and climb into bed for an in-the-round experience meant to evoke anxious dreams, wherein his photographs played across six channels. 

Black Paper, however, ultimately read like a 4D version of the book, a forced scroll through the well-curated Instagram feed of a celebrity influencer. This stood in stark contrast to Julie Mehretu’s merging of image and sound, MASS (HOWL, eon), which set her eponymous, monumental abstract diptych to a subtle, expressionistic score by Jason Moran, which he composed while Mehretu painted in an abandoned gothic church. The result was a textured aural journey that built on Moran’s ongoing collaboration with abstract painters, and further erodes the illusory cordoning of the visual and the sonic. Their pairing echoed Performa curator Adrienne Edwards’s recent inquiries into blackness as a visual and cultural field, and also demonstrated the biennial’s capacity to foster powerful new collaborations. 

web_img_1532_kemang_i-cut-my-skin-to-liberate-the-splinter_performa-17_photo-paula-court.jpg

Kemang Wa Lehulere, I Cut My Skin to Liberate the Splinter, 2017, performance documentation. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court 

Kemang Wa Lehulere, I Cut My Skin to Liberate the Splinter, 2017, performance documentation. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

 

Performa was animated by an envoy of artists from South Africa. The tightly blocked movements of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s I cut my skin to liberate the splinter – an array of playground set pieces and rude musical instruments, apparently built from refuse – conjured the innocence and terror of youth, adapted to the violent games of our modern age. The exhausted performers’ bodies and elegiac gestures linger in memory weeks later, from a mournful trumpet solo to the delay-pedal dirge of a fearsome, improvized harp and Wa Lehulere’s declaration of his own name, which hung in the air like an incantation.

Similarly, William Kentridge took the stage under a vaulted nave at Harlem Parish for a one-time rehearsal of Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 sound poem, ‘Ursonate’. Kentridge commanded the room with an earnest, percussive rendition set to his signature projected drawings. At certain points, the breakdown of language merged seamlessly with the palimpsest of images, which conjoined the trauerspiel (tragedy) of Kentridge’s Johannesburg with the mechanistic terror of WWI-era nationalism and our own grim present. By turns hypnotic and humorous, it nonetheless sounded the alarm.

web_sebenzile-parktown-2016-0210.jpg

Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016. Courtesy: Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York, © Zanele Muholi 

Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016. Courtesy: Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York, © Zanele Muholi

 

Above all, though, this Performa belonged to photographer Zanele Muholi, whose rich self-portraits delighted straphangers on train platforms and hung strategically at commercial intersections as welcome icons of a better future. Muholi, in the midst of several major solo shows, used the occasion as an extension of her ‘visual activism’, by which image making and exhibition become zones of collaboration, conversation and advocacy. Her many events across the city elaborated the dadaist merging of politics and unmoored creativity, but without directly citing that past. (This included a jubilant showcase at a gaudy downtown hotel and a three-hour series of performances in the Bronx.) Her multi-platform residency delivered on the latent promise of art’s social function – so often invoked on the biennial circuit – and was a microcosm of an ambitious, rambunctious and timely Performa.

Main image: Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives, 2017, performance documentation. Courtesy: Performa and The Glass House; photograph: © Paula Court

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, USA.

Issue 193

First published in Issue 193

March 2018

Most Read

Ahead of ARCOMadrid this week, a guide to the best institutional shows in the city
At La Panacée, Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud’s manifesto for a new movement and attempt to demarcate an artistic peer...
A report commissioned by the museum claims Raicovich ‘misled’ the board; she disputes the investigation’s claims
In further news: Jef Geys (1934–2018); and Hirshhorn postpones Krzysztof Wodiczko projection after Florida shooting
If the city’s pivot to contemporary art was first realized by landmark construction, then what comes after might not...
Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018