Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art
Grey Art Gallery, NYU
September 10 to December 7, 2013
100 Washington Square East
New York City, 212-998-6780
Part two of Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art will open November 14 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and will remain on view until March 9, 2014.
The ambitious two-part survey Radical Presence, originally organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, is a thrilling endeavor. The exhibition showcases 50 years of performance by black artists, with two dozen artists featured in the first installment on view at Grey Art Gallery. According to the gallery’s director Lynn Gumpert, this portion of the show will be the more historical of the two, with a selection of contemporary works to open at the Studio Museum in Harlem next month. It was inspiring to see a show entirely devoted to black artists in performance, one which exhibits Cassel Oliver’s deep investment in tracing a historical lineage for artists of color outside the modernist fabric of aesthetic judgments or the strategies of production central to postmodern cultural critique. The exhibition will be accompanied by more than a dozen live performances during its run. However, it is the historical evidence of these works—the document, the artifact, the object—which are central to the installation, forming a new heredity of black performance rooted in the subjective experience of viewing.
Cassel Oliver’s mission to find historical precedents (ie generational links) for artists of color is readable through her installation, which places canonized performances (Adrian Piper and David Hammons) next to lesser known ones. Radical Presence presents black performance art not as an extension of theater—a medium rooted in visual passivity—but rather in terms of body art practices that illustrate questions of racial difference by actually enacting this difference through its relationship to the body of the viewer. One such artist is the brilliant Pope.L, whose work Eating the Wall Street Journal (2000) occupies a prominent place in the exhibition. The installation consists of a toilet mounted on a 10-foot tower where Pope.L originally sat for several days, dressed in a jockstrap and caked in flour, reading pages from the Wall Street Journal before consuming and eventually purging them. The wall text quotes the artist who writes, “I am a fisherman of social absurdity, if you will…. My focus is to politicize disenfranchisement … to reinvent what’s beneath us, to remind us where we all come from.” His crawl pieces, a project he began in the 1970s, also display the politics of embodiment and social history. For The Great White Way, Pope.L crawled down 22 miles of Broadway in New York, making himself horizontal against the pavement amidst a capitalist jungle of high-rises and industry. For this work he donned a capeless superman costume—an appropriated illusion of (white) strength, historically unavailable to him. These works engage a cross-cultural conversation: why is it that we conceive of whiteness as somehow separate from blackness when one relies on the other for signification? Rather than seeing either culture as “authentic” or segregated, Pope.L’s work performs the ways in which binary social structures are in fact deeply imbricated in one another.
Coco Fusco is another artist interested in our preconceptions of “the other.” She is perhaps most well-known for her 1992 collaboration with Guillermo Gomez-Peña in The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992–1994), which traveled widely and remains the archetype for contemporary questions of colonization, the aesthetic of primitivism and the very function of the museum. Fusco’s Sightings Photo Series from 2004 continues her examination of the role and responsibility of the viewer. The work came out of her video project In her video a/k/a Mrs. George Gilbert (2004) in which Fusco weaves together archival video and staged surveillance footage of the FBI search for Angela Davis. In a portion of the video Fusco narrates “Some women began to fear that an afro had become a one-way ticket to a holding cell, other women decided to put on afro wigs to pass for black.” During the FBI search, hundreds of black women were wrongly detained or arrested before Davis herself was brought to trial. What then does it mean when white women appropriate this righteous black aesthetic without any potential for misidentification and thus no actual bodily risk? This notion of “passing” is something that Adrian Piper commented on extensively early on in her career—a question that is rooted in the experience of the seer as opposed to that of the subject.
Benjamin Patterson’s 1962 work Pond is on display as a series of instructions for performers to produce an indeterminate work. The open action is guided by a grid designed by Patterson, as well as a number of wind-up frogs that direct the participant’s movements. In the exhibition catalog Cassel Oliver notes that it was actually an investigation into Patterson’s career that prompted her to begin researching work for Radical Presence. Patterson, a classically trained musician, was one of the founding members of Fluxus yet remained largely absent from canonical discourse, that is, up until Cassel Oliver organized his retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The Fluxus preoccupations with destabilizing hierarchies through chance operations and the group’s emphasis on the phenomenological (and thus subjective) experience of the viewer is very much in line with the more provocative works in Radical Presence.
The artist Rammellzee (1960-2010) also comes from a musical background. Known for his elaborate performance costumes and narratives, he became famous in the 1980s New York underground through his freestyle rapping and graffiti tags in the subway. A photograph on display at Grey Art Gallery features a selection of his elaborate costumes, as the original garments were installed as part of the exhibition in Houston. Also on view is his 1979 document, Iconic Treatise on Gothic Futurism. In this treatise, Rammellzee speaks to the political power of language, in particular letters, which, when separated from their narrative function can become powerful weapons that work in opposition to what he calls “counterfeit linguistic systems.” He was directly inspired by monastic traditions and illuminated manuscripts, in which letters serve both a literary and formal function. Interestingly, the wall text glossed over Rammellzee’s sci-fi, urban shaman persona; like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, he began as an artist by using the city’s walls as his drawing board.
The art historian and performance art theorist Amelia Jones notes the power of body art, as enacted by the non-normative subject, to expose the naturalized exclusionism in modern art history. The works in Radical Presence hinge on elements of social construction, intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, and the idiosyncratic relationship between seer and seen. This is art that challenges not only the structure of the art institution, but also makes an indelible impact on the social structures beyond the gallery’s walls: Radical, indeed.