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Reconstructing the Ephemeral 

Performance art and the Schimmel effect

Wednesday, Feb 18 1998
The very idea of a large-scale museum exhibition that focuses on a group of artistic movements whose common hallmark was an untranslatable ephemerality is so perverse that only its sheer audacity partially balances out the dubiousness of the endeavor. For many of the artists included in "Out of Actions," MOCA's latest bid for blockbusterism, the wide array of activities loosely gathered under the banner of performance art were attractive explicitly for the fact that they subverted notions of art as a containable, transferable, purchasable quantity - the idea that what is essential to art possesses any life beyond the moment of creation. In spite of this, MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel and an international advisory board have assembled almost entirely from the leavings and reportage of these fundamentally evanescent gestures a sprawling, colorful and not quite comprehensive survey covering the most significant and prolific 30 years of these disparate movements.

Taking its cue from pioneer "Happenings" theorist and UC San Diego warhorse Allan Kaprow, the exhibition posits performance art as an extension of the "action" painting of Jackson Pollock, whose No. 1 drip painting, along with Hans Namuth's influential film of Pollock at work, provides its jumping-off point. The first leap is sideways, to concurrent Japanese and Italian experiments in painterly desperation, establishing the far-fetched thesis of global Zeitgeist that provides the bulk of the show's surprises. Otherwise, "Out of Actions" winds predictably and more or less chronologically through the early pop performances of Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Dine, et al.; the post-Cagean poetics of the Fluxus associates; the literally visceral rituals of Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists; the "social sculpture" of Joseph Beuys; and the body-based works of Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy, and culminates in a charming automated toy orchestra cobbled from the detritus of several early Mike Kelley extravaganzas. Most of the major artists are represented by some such yard-sale display of props and jetsam, while the less favored are relegated to the overcrowded steerage of the text and photo-panel sections. Some, such as Vito Acconci and Yoko Ono, seem to have gotten their reservations confused: Acconci, the East Coast equivalent of Burden, gets only two photo panels and a video installation, while the famous widow Ono gets a stateroom.

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With any show of this scope, particularly one that is attempting to establish a master narrative for an era, there are bound to be exclusions and distortions that rankle. My peeves include the absence of Jeffrey Vallance's Blinky the Friendly Hen (1978) and a veritable font of archly subversive residual artifacts, Lynda Benglis' seminal process "paintings" (or gestural pour-painters Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis for that matter, whose only sin would seem to lie in kowtowing to Clement Greenberg instead of Kaprow) and the entire performance work of apparent art-world pariah Dennis Oppenheim. I was surprised and heartened by the inclusion of English porno-provocateurs COUM Transmissions (in the "feminist" room, no less!) but puzzled by the omission of any mention that COUM then renamed themselves Throbbing Gristle and invented "industrial music," delivering essentially identical transgressive material to a much broader and less inured audience. This anti-pop-culture bias also accounts for Laurie Anderson's short shrift, and the total blackout on parallel non-art-world happenings such as novelist Ken Kesey's Acid Tests or the many rich and strange events that passed for experimental dance and theater in the '60s and early '70s. And while it's no skin off mine, those who think the sun shines out of Greil "Lipstick Traces" Marcus' ass will be miffed at the re-revisionist erasures of Guy Debord and the antics of the Situationists.

Conversely, the inclusion of Eastern European, Asian and Latin American artists, however superficially commendable, has a feel of tokenism. The fact that the most substantial bodies of post-WWII action-oriented work outside America emerged from its recently conquered and culturally attentive tributaries Italy, Germany and Japan doesn't seem to have dampened Schimmel & Company's implications of universality, either. There is an unpleasant overall groveling tone to this exhibit, a feeling that the curators were fully aware of the contempt for institutional artifice that permeates the work, and so infect the entire project with an intellectual masochism that doesn't quite jibe with the authoritative weight of the catalog.

In truth, the political implications in this relationship are somewhat less wholesome than those in a good, clean S/M session. Apart from the pitfalls intrinsic to any canonization proceedings, the attempted absorption of work as mainstream-antithetical as John Duncan's Blind Date (where the artist recorded himself fucking a corpse in Mexico, then had a vasectomy) or Paul McCarthy's Sailor's Meat (you don't want to know) into the standard official history of art smacks of blatant co-optation. But the biggest insult lies in the fundamental perversity of removing the various elements of time, process, unpredictability, confrontation, cultural and political immediacy, and the excitement of public physical engagement, then articulating the resulting husks in polite and sanitary museological cubicalese punctuated by lame concessions to "interactivity" - you can, for instance, finally hammer a nail into Yoko's Painting To Hammer a Nail (1961/1998). (Tok! Tok! Tok! At last the barriers between Art and Life are vanquished!) And all the while, the Man Behind the Curtain is pointing, deadpan, saying, "This is the real thing; this is the shit." Utter hubris, perhaps.

OUT OF ACTIONSAt the GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY of MOCA152 N. Central Ave., downtownThrough May 10

  • Performance art and the Schimmel effect

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