I don’t know much about performance art. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed until I met artist Saba McCoy a few weeks ago. Still, neither her nor Wikipedia’s explanation was entirely clear. The only thing to do was to experience it for myself. Unfortunately, now having attended Performa 09, supposedly the most prestigious performance art festival in the world, I am only more lost and confused about what the hell performance art is.
My first impressions of Performa 09 were formed at the Performa HUB, the festival’s headquarters located at the new Cooper Union building in the East Village. There I saw my first performance, “Pasta Sauna” by Marije Volgelzang. The installation was a small, freestanding square room constructed from plywood and plastic tarp located in the corner of the HUB. Inside, three “performers” in white jumpsuits stood on ladders and made pasta for the “audience” with music boxes. The steam from the cooking was trapped inside the room, creating a sauna-like effect that made the audience feel tired and lethargic, which, according to theorists from the futurist movement, is the same effect that eating pasta creates. At this point, I could have marveled at the piece’s artful irony or debated whether or not it constituted art, but instead I chose simply to be grateful that these affable strangers were so insistent that I be fed.
So reserving judgment and maintaining an open mind, I opened up the Performa 09 schedule—a three-foot by three-foot, haphazardly organized program that is nearly incomprehensible. Without reading the description I chose Ylva Ogland’s “Snöfrid Ruby Distillery.” Had I bothered to read it, this is what I would have learned about the piece:
“‘The Ruby is for the core of Lust…for the connection to the uncontrolled controlled.’ The artist’s mirror twin will enter the earthly world through an ancient alchemical process, made present as a distillate of rubies…. ‘We serve me from the distillery, so that you can drink me.’”
“Snöfrid Ruby Distillery” was held at the Swiss Institute, which was located on the third floor of a building down in SoHo, where in order to be buzzed in I actually had to ask for the “Snöfrid Ruby Distillery.” Upon getting inside, I was led by the receptionist down a long narrow hallway and through several pitch-black rooms to a small studio space. There I found a scantily clad woman and a man with a beard, ponytail, and no comprehension of English hunched over a mini-distillery while a Peter Jackson lookalike lurked in the corner carving homemade corks with a large kitchen knife. Although all of my instincts told me to run away, I ended up talking to Peter Jackson, who explained to me how the installation worked. The woman and the bearded man were taking perfectly good champagne and distilling it with rubies to create 168 proof alcohol—for what reason, he did not seem to know. He further explained the purpose of the cooling system, actually a giant pot. Apparently it and only it prevent the whole concoction from exploding. I suddenly noticed the numerous fire extinguishers and the terror-stricken look on the bearded man’s face.
The other—and perhaps oddest thing—I noticed about the installation was the fact that I was pretty much the only attendee. During the forty minutes I stood there, the only other people to show up were a friend of the two artists and their assistant, hardly the turnout one would expect from what is supposedly the largest festival of its kind. Before I left, they offered me some of their moonshine. Mindful of my frail underage body I politely declined and headed off to my final installation: “Mother Earth Sister Moon” by Princeton’s very own Christian Tomaszewski.
The physical construction of the installation “Mother Earth Sister Moon” was rather interesting. Inside a giant room surrounded by windows on the ground floor of a building right in the middle of hectic midtown lay a giant hollow spacesuit on its back. The suit was modeled after Russian Valentina Tereshkova, the first female astronaut in space. The performance took place inside the spacesuit: a futuristic sci-fi fashion show depicting a world that Communist regimes of the former Soviet Union may or may not have imagined.
Inside the spacewoman, fifty or so audience members found their seats on the floor while one performer lounged in a chair and another, a barmaid, served only milk. Models entered one at a time through random zipper-like entrances placed around the interior of the spacewoman. The outfits ranged from plausible to extreme, the most absurd ones being a woman with a dead body tied to her back and a woman dressed up as a giant umbrella. As this went on, cacophonous music played from outside the spacewoman, giving the whole thing an eerie vibe. After all of the models came through for a second time, the show ended. The woman lounging in the chair got up, walked over to the barmaid, drank a glass of milk, and left.
The sternness of the models juxtaposed with their absolutely ridiculous outfits made it impossible not to laugh, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so; over half of the audience was laughing. The performance certainly had interesting concepts and themes, but in the end it was just too ridiculous for a performance-art-newbie to take in, analyze, and retain.
Ultimately my one-day excursion to Performa 09 has led me to conclude that there isn’t much to performance art that makes it meaningful or worthwhile. While they go out of their way to be weird and abstract for the sake of trying to justify their work as art, performance artists might be better served if they acknowledged the fact that performance art is art and focused more on trying to make good art. Then again, I did only see three performances. Maybe if I had seen the Thursday night premiere of “Jesus Christ is a Sausage” I might think differently.