Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A group show of the work of 30 photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung in a two room divided gallery on the 3rd floor. Many of the works consist of multiple prints (black and white or color), either in series or sequence. The images were taken between 1960 and 2007, and many are recent acquisitions by the museum. The exhibit was curated by Roxana Marcoci and Eva Respini. (Installation shots at right.)
The following photographers/artists have been included in the show, with the number of works/prints on view in parentheses:

Vito Acconci (group of 12)
Bas Jan Adler (1)
Ai Weiwei (4)
Matthew Barney (1)
Gunter Brus (1)
Robert Filliou (group of 3)
Lee Friedlander (1)
Gilbert & George (1 album in case)
Eikoh Hosoe (1)
Huang Yan (group of 2)
George Maciunas (group of 5)
Ana Mendieta (group of 4)
Otto Muehl (1)
Laurel Nakadate (4)
Bruce Nauman (group of 5)
Hermann Nitsch (1)
Adrian Piper (group of 6)
William Pope.L (1)
Richard Prince (1)
Arnulf Rainer (1)
Robin Rhode (group of 28)
Rong Rong (group of 4)
Lucas Samaras (group of 18)
Rudolf Schwartzkogler (group of 9)
Cindy Sherman (1)
Mieko Shiomi (group of 8)
Lorna Simpson (group of 12)
VALIE EXPORT (group of 6)
Ben Vautier (1)
William Wegman (group of 2)
Comments/Context: With the widespread adoption of staging as an accepted technique of contemporary photographic practice, the unspoken elephant in the room is how we place this new trend into art historical context, and how we rationalize and categorize its many embodiments and methods into some kind of coherent whole. The questions start to multiply almost immediately:
  • Does staging inherently tie back to performance art? And if so, which kinds?
  • Or is the key beginning point the Pictures Generation? or conceptual art/photography?
  • Is this the next thematic stop beyond postmodernism?
  • Where do the teachings of Wall, Baldessari and Crewdson (among many others) fit?
  • Should photographic self-portraiture be reconsidered of as a kind of "staged performance"? Can this kind of recategorization also be done with other traditional genres?
Once you open this unwieldy can of worms, it's hard to get it closed again, given the sheer diversity of the possible outward connections.

MoMA has been picking around the edges of this broad "performance" problem for the past few years, with the last room of the Original Copy show, the Marina Abramovic blockbuster, and now this smallish sampler. The challenge is that this is a thorny, complicated set of issues to untangle, and a simple gathering of similar photography isn't going to get the job done; we need a careful, full bodied 6th floor explication that offers a systematic, edited line of thinking to be followed. I'm not talking about a robust history of performance art, but of a "precedents, influences, and motifs" analysis of the photographic trend in staging. To my eyes, Staging Action seems to be more of an attempt to back fill - the museum has actively been making acquisitions in this area so that more of the historical story can be told, and this show gives us glimpses of what they've been buying/rediscovering and the very beginnings of how they seem to be putting it all together. But it's clearly still very much a work in progress.

One of the main difficulties faced in trying to analyze the roots of staging is the shifting definition of the "audience". One one hand, "traditional" performance art has had actual watchers/bystanders, where the camera is merely a vehicle for documenting/recording the live action happening (often in multiple images taken in sequence). On the other hand, other forms of performance art have had no watchers/bystanders, where the camera is the only audience and is therefore enlisted into being more of a collaborator or co-conspirator; these scenes have been designed to be photographed, from elaborate sound stage ready tableaux to intimate personal moments or quirky conceptual tricks.

Staging Action slices off a diverse selection of this second group, where the camera is a willing participant in the theatrical art making, not just a mute witness. The problem with using a solely "process" centric definition is that the subject matter gets so widely dispersed: in just two rooms, we wander from body mutilation and endurance art, to gender/identity studies, to witty conceptual jokes, to political commentaries, and back again to any number of inward looking personal explorations (all the way to a Friedlander self portrait), traversing 50 years of cultural history in the process. The 1960s Vienna Actionists share the wall with Wegman and Nauman, flanked by Matthew Barney and Lorna Simpson. With such a broad scope, I could not help but wonder: why this and not that? over and over again as I looked at the selected works. In the end, my conclusion was more pedestrian: MoMA had a bunch of new acquisitions that it wanted to display and this was a relatively straightforward way to get them on the walls and signal that this line of thinking is open for active study and interpretation.
So I'd like to think that this show is a smart appetizer for something larger to come in years hence. What's on display here is certainly one part of the broader discussion, but it lacks a strong point of view; it's more a collection of "what", rather than an exploration of "why". We'll get yet another related piece of the performance puzzle with the big Cindy Sherman retrospective next year, but I'm hoping that sometime soon we'll get a comprehensive, intellectually rigorous, thought leader appropriate deconstruction of all of these merging tributaries and their relevance in the larger context of contemporary art. In many ways, it is the foundation art history problem for a significant portion of contemporary photography, and in my view, the general public is ready for a high quality argument for how it all fits together. This show compiles some of the high points, but left me wanting much more.

Collector's POV: My favorite work in this show was the series of Rong Rong images, East Village Beijing, No. 8, 1995; it's on the far left in the top installation shot. In each photograph, a body part wriggles to get out through a small slit/hole in a rough hewn metal panel; fingers, an ear, a nose, and a tongue each make cameo appearances trying to escape. To me, these black and white works were successful in symbolically describing a cultural environment where external stimuli (smells, sounds, tastes, etc.) are being constrained/limited, and the people inside struggle to make a connection through the tiny hole in the otherwise impervious armor.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here).
Transit Hub:
  • Reviews: NY Times (here), Brooklyn Rail (here), New Yorker (here)
Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960
Through May 9th

Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

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