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iona rozeal brown, ana rogu, sentinel (After Yoshitoshi's Moon on the Southern Sea), 2008
iona rozeal brown, ana rogu, sentinel (After Yoshitoshi's "Moon on the Southern Sea"), 2008

PERFORMA 11, BIGGER THAN EVER

Sept. 13, 2011

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“Impress me, please, without taking your clothes off,” pleaded RoseLee Goldberg to performance artists during yesterday’s press conference announcing commissions for Performa 11 the upcoming biennial in New York, Nov. 1-21, 2011. “I guess I’m becoming kind of a puritan.”

Indeed, it seems that only one of the director’s commissions comes close to the cliché of performance art as shock pageantry. Frances Stark’s I’ve had it, and a Half is “rated PG-13,” according to Goldberg, because she takes viewers on a live, confessional tour through a day in the artist’s life, transforming literary phrases into a narrative of visual cues and incorporating a dancer and a DJ, and, somewhere along the line, “sex on the internet.”

But most of the 17 or so other commissions in this year’s edition of the biennial -- the largest since the event launched in 2005 with just three original works -- invoke less sexy themes, like language, politics and the intersection between disciplines of architecture, dance, film, design, music and theater.

Shirin Neshat builds upon her previous commission for Performa with a production of live actors and projections that create a courtroom scene invoking Iranian political trials. Through the use of music, poetry fragments and color -- some figures are white, some are black and others, the artistic dissidents, are red -- Neshat explores the censorship of Muslim women artists. 

Another work dealing with the contemporary artistic experience is Elmgreen & Dragset’s Happy Days in the Art World, a semi-autobiographical story of two art partners, played by actors Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards, who worry about what will happen to their careers when they split up. The Samuel Beckett-inspired performance opens the biennial, at the NYU Skirball Center, and is followed by a “walking retrospective” of the duo’s work at the Skylight Studios space on Hudson Street (former home of the New York branch of Ace Gallery).

Liz Magic Laser was inspired by absurd real-life political theater for I Feel Your Pain, in which she restages politician interviews in a movie theater with actors (in one, Glenn Beck is played by a clown who is with his lover, a fictional Sarah Palin). The project recalls Russian Constructivist notions of “living newspapers,” whereby Laser will be present at the venue editing the live footage recorded by cinematographers in order to shape a stylized news soap opera.

Ninety-five percent of the more than 100 performances from 150-plus artists are original works, Goldberg said. But a few, dubbed “Performa Premieres,” have debuted elsewhere. Some of these are Robert Ashley’s That Morning Thing, an opera and dance piece that originally appeared at the ONCE Festival in Ann Arbor, and Zhou Xiaohu’s Crazy English, in which a kind of speed-English teacher from China instructs students on the language through a rapid succession of hand and body gestures.

Ancillary events, known as “Performa Projects,” are the more miscellaneous undertakings that Goldberg said “sometimes graduate to commissions.” This year, these include a three-day Fluxus Weekend, Nov. 11-13, 2011, in which artist “actions” take place across the city. Plus, there’s a shop of artist-produced objects and a Fluxus-themed concert and film program.

Another such “project” -- though it should not be considered a minor endeavor -- is this year’s Performa Institute, co-sponsored by the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, and housed in the converted Old School in Little Italy. There, an expansive curriculum with topic headings like Fluxus, the Russian avant-garde, utopia, biomechanics, "cinefication and theater" and "designing for an unimaginable future," is taught by a group of curators, writers and artists. An archival exhibition on the history of Russian performance art is to be installed inside the school as well.

“The school adds a whole new dimension,” Goldberg said. “It pushed the budget up.” That budget is just over $1 million, curators estimated, not including contributions from the dozens of consortium partners, such as the Kitchen, Garage and Anthology Film Archive, who funded projects individually.

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