Performance: Live Art since 1960, by RoseLee Goldberg, foreword by Laurie Anderson, 1998, Abrams, 240 pp., $60.
HOW TO MAKE PERFORMANCE ART
WITH A COFFEE TABLE BOOK:
Slowly and sensuously fondle the shrinkwrap
Suddenly bite down with left incisor and rip open
Chew up a few pages and spit into audience
Now, gyrating on the book as pedestal, press shrinkwrap over face
Make anguished expressions as you alternate between
whistling a recognizable 70's pop song and
reading out of context phrases,
occasionally punctuated by yodels.
Okay, I admit it. I was one of them. A performance artist. Hardly unique for my era. It was late '80s San Francisco, and it seemed as though everyone and his (or her!) grandmother was getting up on stage. It was a nutritious time of role-playing, viscous liquids and post-punk caterwauling. But like all good scenes, it couldn't go on forever. Rising out of this tide of self-expression came the twin terrors of mediocrity and self-indulgence, and before long "performance art" became a pejorative term.
But now, as the millennium beckons, a coffee table book resuscitates the good name of performance art. Performance: Live Art since 1960, adroitly assembled by RoseLee Goldberg, is a slick, photograph-laden tome that documents some of the most radically inventive art produced from the 1960s to the '90s.
Taming the ephemeral and volatile performance experience into a static object has its ironies. Now, appearing on the shelf nestled between Martha Stewart and Matisse, we present Mike Kelly humping his soiled butt on a thrift-store stuffed animal! Just the thing to get the conversational ball rolling this holiday season -- titillation and taboo-busting for one and all.
Goldberg, an art historian wrote the pathfinding Performance: Live Art, 1909 to the Present (1979), has divided this sequel into six thematic chapters with broad titles such as "identities: feminism, multiculturalism, sexuality" and "video, rock 'n' roll, the spoken word." Very good, but don't forget the legendary, epic quality of early performance art. Think of Yves Klein's existential Leap into the Void (1960) or Carolee Schneemann's orgiastic Meat Joy (1964) or Chris Burden's Shoot (1971). Performance art is more real than other art. It has a vital "be here now" that grew out of the activist '60s.
Plus there's all that neat stuff they do with lights and costumes and props and stuff.
All told, however, the book's effect is more pictorial than historical or theoretical. The captions are short and sweet (a little too short -- where did the illustrated performances take place, for instance) and the pictures are arranged willy-nilly (by the art director?) rather than by year. The back of the book contains a useful if brief chronology and some thumbnail artists' bios. Goldberg's writing is clear and elegant, and her stockpile of material allows smart correlations between artists and movements.
Goldberg does a good job at highlighting the thread of provocation that runs through the art form, from Hermann Nitsch's "mystery theater" festivals in the 1960s and Yayoi Kusama's naked flag-burning on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1968 to Karen Finley's I'm an Ass Man (1987) and Paul McCarthy's excremental Painter (1995). "Performance artists have shown us things we won't see twice -- and sometimes wish we had never seen at all," she writes.
In addition to "real" performance art, Goldberg gives a quick survey of dance-performance (Trisha Brown, Elizabeth Streb), theater-performance (Richard Foreman, John Jesrun), photography-performance (Mariko Mori, Luigi Ontani), music performance (D.J. Spooky, Christian Marclay) and the like. She also manages to incorporate some of today's most interesting talents, like Alex Bag, Matthew Barney, Vanessa Beecroft and even Sam Taylor-Wood.
In the end, the book is rather more palatable than the art it documents. When it presents, say, a tedious masochistic endurance piece from the '70s, we can simply linger for a moment or two and turn the page, rather than trying to gingerly escape the gallery without disturbing the "sanctity" of the performance. Oh, the wonders of print!
LEX LONEHOOD recently moved to Manhattan. Catch his daily performances crawling up his sixth floor walk-up.