Biennial Contemporary art Exhibitions USA

Putting it on: Performa takes over New York

The New York biennial explores performance art’s history from the Renaissance to the present

Pawel Althamer (above, Common Task, Bródno district, Warsaw, 2008) will be at Performa 13

On 6 July 1923, an anxious crowd gathered at the Théâtre Michel in Paris for a performance of Tristan Tzara’s absurdist play “The Gas Heart”. Though it had premiered two years earlier, the new show featured higher production values, including costumes designed by the painter Sonia Delaunay. But the audience was not particularly appreciative. The bizarre, staged dialogue between an eye, a mouth, a nose, an ear, a neck and an eyebrow, moderated by a narrator, apparently led nowhere, which upset some onlookers. André Breton, formerly a close friend of Tzara, allegedly jumped onto the stage and began berating the actors and destroying the set. The police intervened, preventing a full-scale brawl.

RoseLee Goldberg, the founder and curator of the Performa biennial, which opens this month in New York, presumably would not appreciate any violence during this year’s event, but she is interested in this long history of performance art. When she founded the biennial in 2004, her goal was to breathe new life into old dialogues. “Performa started because I saw people talking about performance as if it were something brand new, as if it just popped up,” she says. “There are long-standing precedents, which reach beyond even the 20th century.”

As early as the Renaissance, artists were organising elaborate pageants. In 1490, Leonardo da Vinci directed an event at the court of Ludovico Sforza, then the Duke of Milan, featuring performers dressed as planets. Forty-five years later, the Mannerist painter Polidoro da Caravaggio planned a parade through Messina for Emperor Charles V. In 1794, at the height of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre proposed a new religion to supplant Catholicism. The Cult of the Supreme Being was inaugurated with a grand festival arranged by Jacques-Louis David at the Champs de Mars.

“The starting point [of Performa 13] is that I want to educate people about a particular moment in art history when performance was important,” Goldberg says, which explains the inspiration for a number of this year’s performances: Surrealism. In preparation, organisers provided artists such as Ryan McNamara with a reader on the movement’s history, including primary and secondary sources, which the artists were free to interpret in any way.

By any measure, the end result is a sprawling affair. In just over three weeks, more than 90 artists are due to present more than 100 performances. Around 40 venues will host shows and 50 institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, are partners. Eighteen events are part of a new initiative, “Pavilions Without Walls”, which is modelled on the Norwegian and Polish pavilions at the Venice Biennale. Fifty curators helped organise the festival.

So where should audiences begin? Goldberg encourages everyone to visit the Performa Hub, which opens on 1 November in SoHo. This headquarters of the biennial will host free classes and seminars on the history of performance and its importance for contemporary practice. “This is a place to ask questions,” Goldberg says. “Then, if you see three or four performances a week, you’re in great shape.”

The shows reflect a broad range of disciplines. The German sound artist Florian Hecker has been commissioned to create a work based on the writings of his collaborator, the Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani. Alexandre Singh is scheduled to present “The Humans”, a play inspired by the comedies of Aristophanes. William Pope.L is due to host a 25-hour marathon reading of John Cage’s edited anthology “Silence: Lectures and Writings”. Around 80 collaborators have been invited to take part in this performance.

Performa, various venues, 1-24 November

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