Contemporary art Comment USA

The performance era is now

The director of Performa, RoseLee Goldberg, asks what took curators so long to catch on to live art?

Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich at the Tate Tanks

Now that major museums around the world are discovering performance art, the registrars and curators who oversee their collections are learning that they have been harbouring substantial holdings of performance material all along—only by another name. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney in New York, Tate Modern in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Mori in Tokyo, to name a few, each have extensive collections of material produced for or during performances including Dada and Futurist drawings, Russian Constructivist stage sets, Gutai wall hangings and all kinds of instructions, scripts and documents scattered among their various departments as “drawing”, “photography”, “video”, “painting” or “sculpture”. Yves Klein’s anthropométries, Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, Cindy Sherman’s untitled portraits, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s left-over plates, stools and fold-up tables and an extensive assortment of recent work referred to as relational aesthetics, were all performances first and foremost. Only now are they are being recognised for what they are.

Overnight it would seem, several key museums have established performance art departments, appointed curators, built dedicated spaces for performance and now are raising questions about how such work might be collected and preserved. The Tate Tanks just completed its inaugural season, the Whitney’s recent biennial devoted an entire floor of their building to performance, MoMA’s performance art department is in full swing this autumn and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has just announced a year long series of events organised by Paul Miller, AKA DJ Spooky. There is also talk that the British Museum might use its historic Reading Room as an occasional performance venue (The Art Newspaper, September, p18).

So what took so long? When I wrote my book on the history of performance art [Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present] in 1979, I mapped out a history of artists’ performance, or live art (which was the subtitle of the original edition), pointing out that museums, art historians and critics had been seriously remiss in overlooking the significance of this material to the development of 20th-century art. One of the main reasons for this omission was the fact that long entrenched boundaries between departments were difficult to cross, and doing so meant having a grasp of several histories at once—theatre, dance, film, poetry, architecture and music—which few art historians had and few institutions were equipped to do. Another reason was the fact that the work was ephemeral and impossible to “museumify”, which was exactly the point of the artists who made the work in the first place; to engage the public directly with live actions and to counter the safety of conservation, the “museum as cemetery”—as the Italian Futurists notoriously quipped—for storing work of long gone artists.

To read the full commentary, which appeared in our November issue, pick up a copy on sale now or subscribe to our digital or print editions.

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