Megan Hoetger reviews You Don’t Bring Me Flowers: An Evening of Re-Performances, curated by Carol Cheh for PØST’s July Kamikaze Shows series, July 14, 2010
In 1960 Yves Klein “performed” Leap into the Void, a fictitious leap from a second story window meant to evoke themes of transcendence and spirituality central to his practice. In 1967 Paul McCarthy re-performed or, one could say, realized Klein’s leap. McCarthy’s Sudden Leap, as the artist titled it, let the air out of Klein’s performance, asserting the raw physicality of the body and the implied violence of the action. The result: McCarthy dislocated his ankle when the leap, as one would anticipate, resulted in a fall.
McCarthy’s re-performance is, for me, re-performance at its best, for it brings to the first iteration (one could call it the “original” performance) a new relevance. In the contextual shift from Paris 1960 to Los Angeles 1967, spirituality was displaced by physicality, and a yearning to transcend the body was supplanted by a sense of loss of individual authority over the body in the face of external conditions.
For You Don’t Bring Me Flowers: An Evening of Re-performances, six artists or collaborative groups were asked to select a performance from the past and find relevance for it in their current practice for their current context (the exception was Lucas Michael, who was asked to perform his own No u didn’t). The night encompassed a diverse group of projects ranging from Elana Mann’s site-responsive interpretation of George Brecht’s Fluxus score, Drip Music (1959–62), to Michael’s piece, a tongue-in-cheek duet between the artist and his own video image from his 2006 U don’t bring me flowers. In his parodic internalization of desire and (dis)play of narcissism, Michael took on the roles of both Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond in the classic 1978 ballad. Through continued re-performance as Michael grows older while the video image of him remains young, the piece also becomes a melancholic reflection on mortality.
[Above images: Elana Mann, Drip Event, 2007 (after George Brecht), installed in PØST’s restroom]
With such a spectrum of interpretations of the term “re-performance,” the evening evinced, first, that there is no one way to re-perform and, second, that the performance was always already a score. Through its various states of mediation (from images and film/video, to artists’ descriptions, to subsequent historical analysis), what is lost and (paradoxically) gained in the translation of a “live” event to its after-lives is the moments between what happened in the descriptive sense, so that what remains is a score-like list of actions upon which meaning is subsequently built. If we understand that any iteration of a performance must necessarily be different, even if performed by the same person in the same way and even, maybe, on the same day, then what constitutes a re-performance? Perhaps re-performance’s potential comes not through its recasting of the performance as a score (as Mann’s choice of a score-based performance from 1959 makes clear, this has been a part of the dialogue around performance since its inception in the postwar period), but its ability to recast histories through the lens of the present.
Thinking through this lens, perhaps the most powerful pieces of the evening for me were Nathan Bockelman’s Drinking of Water after Raša Todosijević (Belgrade, 1974) and Nancy Popp’s The Loneliness of the Immigrant after Guillermo Gómez-Peña (Los Angeles, 1979). Bockelman’s and Popp’s projects, drawing aesthetically and conceptually on the history of endurance/body art, attempted to think through the terms of a broken social contract for a post-9/11 generation, exploring the individual’s physical and psychic relationship to and literal foundation for the politics of nation-building (Kathy O’Dell has written extensively on extreme body art practices of the 1970s and late 1980s/early 90s, suggesting that, by turning on their own bodies, artists could assert their agency within a culture understood as operating under a broken social contract, whether it be a result of events such as the ongoing Vietnam War, the largely ineffectual May 1968 uprisings, or the conservatism of the Reagan/Thatcher era).
In an interpretation of the 1974 Drinking of Water, Bockelman began by speaking expressively to the audience about scientific debates around existence gravity and the possibility that gravity is no more than the universe continually reordering itself. Letting the audience know that he “does not eat meat, does not eat fish” and insisting that “we are not predators,” Bockelman poured the contents of a small bowl, which included a male Siamese fighting fish, onto a towel on the floor. After scrawling the word HARMONIOUS on the wall (in response to an audience member who had scrawled a large question mark), he opened a gallon of distilled water, laid down, placed his shirt over his face and began pouring the water over his nose and mouth.
Turning Todosijević’s 26 cups of inhaled water into three roughly 20-second sessions of waterboarding (this term was coined in 2004, although the technique has existed in various forms since as early as the 14th century), Bockelman inflicted a highly contentious form of “clean” torture on himself, but by cutting out the intersubjective relation between interrogator and interrogated, he focused on the action and the movements of the body. As in the 1974 iteration, Bockelman set up a reciprocal relation between himself and the fish—both being tortured by suffocation. In Bockelman’s performance, though, neither artist nor fish was going to die (Siamese fighting fish can live for hours outside of water and, because of the relation of the head to the lungs, drowning from waterboarding is extremely rare), but what viewers experienced was the writhing of bodies which believed they were going to die.
Forcing to the fore questions Todosijević raised about the neutrality of the artist and the ethical innocence of art in 1974, Bockelman’s 2010 actions bring to mind questions of the value of human life, animal life, and the relation between the two. Despite the fact that the excess water from Bockelman’s sessions was visibly draining into a fish tank below his head—creating a space, one could imagine, for the fish to live in the excesses of the action—one audience member became so outraged by the treatment of the fish that she took matters into her own hands, “rescuing” it from the towel while Bockelman was in the middle of his third and final session, and racing off from the gallery in her car. While the audience member’s intervention broke the poetics of this exchange, Bockelman’s suggestion that “maybe this is the performance’s way of reordering itself” seemed accurate.
In a less active but equally chilling performance, Nancy Popp lay bound and still for her two-and-a-half-hour re-performance of The Loneliness of the Immigrant. Popp was first ceremonially wrapped in white and blue cloths and bound with nylon rope before the audience, then left on the floor of PØST’s isolated freight elevator shaft for the duration of the evening. A silent intervention into the space, Popp’s bound body could be seen as in dialogue with the text posted on the wall of the elevator:
“Moving to another country hurts more than moving to another house, another face, another lover… In one way or another we all are or will be immigrants. Surely one day we will be able to crack this shell open, this unbearable loneliness, and develop a transcontinental identity.”
— Guillermo Gómez-Peña, The Loneliness of the Immigrant
Whiteness erases—personal history, cultural identity, self-knowledge. How do I know my own history, if it hasn’t been recorded? If it’s been written over or obliterated? Without this history I expunge the histories of those I do not know, rendering them other, categorizing them as illegal, terrorist, enemy combatant…erasing them.
In a post-nationalist society where does xenophobia go to die?
The statement from the piece’s first iteration was paired with questions Popp presumably posed in relation to her own identity as well as current national and global immigration policies, such as the ongoing controversy around Arizona’s newest immigration law or the growing tensions around immigration policy in the Netherlands. The relation between Popp’s body and the text spoke to the ways in which identity is formed in language—the laws and codes that order the body, addressing issues similar to those confronted within the recent Not Content series at LACE. At the end of the night, viewers watched as Popp was unwrapped and slowly made visible once again, underscoring the relation between her former status as invisible and the text on the wall.
But if intense endurance actions are not your bag, the evening also included more playful projects, such as CamLab’s re-performance of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bagism press conference (1969). Bagism, in Lennon’s words, “[is] like… a tag for what we all do, we’re all in a bag ya know, and we realized that we came from two bags—I was in this pop bag going round and round in my little clique, and she was in her little avant-garde clique going round and round, and you’re in your little tele clique and they’re in their…ya know?” In the collaborative duo’s interpretation, viewers were invited to ask the artists (Anna Mayer and Jemima Wyman) questions over a 15-minute period.
Working from the absurd image of a talking amorphous blob established in the work’s first iteration, CamLab brought to the press conference structure a non-linear, theoretically-driven, and at times rambling dialogue. An extension of their research on the theme of “psycho-ness,” topics discussed by the artists, which were only sometimes related to the questions asked by the audience, ranged from the unsexualized anus, to the politics of imperceptibility, to the homemade soup they consumed for lunch, to an a cappella rendition of the opening verse from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Charging the mostly banal questions with humor punctuated by a dense discussion of performance, CamLab presented a complex response to the hippy-dippy hopefulness that dominates John and Yoko’s pop culture persona.
Nothing but the kitchen sync from The Bride of Rock and The RockNess Monster played with persona as well, performing the signifiers of the “rocker” persona (chin cocked upward, chest puffed out) without any of the thrashing around on stage that one might expect. The grungy bride (aka Janice Gomez-Hoang) and her groom (aka Fatima Hoang) stood still as earlier iterations of their air guitaring, performed at actual air guitar competitions (but themselves already re-iterations of the songs’ performances with actual instruments), were projected onto the wall behind them from projectors mounted on their backs.
After a theatrical entrance in which the two raced up to the gallery in their car, screeched to a stop, and jumped out, the audience’s expectation for an over-the-top air guitar finale may have been thwarted, but the work as such offered an unanticipated subtlety in its conceptually-driven reflection on the grandeur of the rock performance. Once the projected set ended, the two returned to their car and sped off into the muggy Los Angeles night, bringing to an end the re-performance evening.