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Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
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"Happy Days in the Art World" is a self-mythologizing art-world satire by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the Scandinavian artist duo responsible for the superbly furnished Danish and Nordic pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale. As the opening night attraction of the Performa '11 Biennial at NYU's Skirball Center on Nov. 1, 2011, the premiere at was actually less theatrical than those walk-through installations. It was also more instructive.

"I think this will be theater," said Marina Abramovic, who was among the schmoozing art-world insiders in attendance -- an audience that took a good 30 minutes past the scheduled curtain time to settle into its seats. "Not performance."

The empress of performance art, who recently played herself in a theater work by Robert Wilson, had reason to doubt the purity of the Elmgreen and Dragset enterprise. The more popular performance art becomes, the closer it gets to entertainment. And though it was conceived and written by visual artists, "Happy Days in the Art World" was not confused about its aspirations to theater.

First, the playwrights borrowed half their title from Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days," which features two characters buried up to the neck in rubble and desperate to survive both their physical circumstance and their relationship. (The other half came from Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World.)

Next, the production had two stars of the British stage, Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards, in the principal roles of ID and ME, stand-ins for the two artists, directed by Toby Frow, a veteran of the prestigious Donmar Warehouse company.

The action, which was strictly No Exit with a bit of Waiting for Godot thrown in, began with the two principals waking up from a blackout. Dressed in skinny black suits and ties, they find themselves in a white bunk bed set in an undisclosed location. (Those familiar with the artists' work may recall the bed as an element of "The Welfare Show," a politically astute, institutional environment that Elmgreen and Dragset created in 2006 at the Serpentine Gallery in London.)

"Where the hell are we?" said ID, who was missing his Prada shoes and socks, as well as his sense of self. A hotel? With a bunk bed? Maybe a hostel? A yoga retreat? A prison? No, it must be New York.

ME, irritated at being jolted from a pleasant dream, could only protest. "In my dream we were successful artists, based in a city where everybody else was an artist too -- Berlin, I think," he said. "And all of them were young artists, no matter what their actual age."

Satire, as the playwright George S. Kaufman once said, is what closes on Saturday night -- and it threatened to stifle this Tuesday night production with art-world "in" jokes about Ukrainian oligarch collectors and Larry Gagosian that bombed with an audience that clearly had little sense of humor about itself. But the jokes also glossed over the drama of the artists' real-life situation: a mid-career crisis the two weathered when the breakup of their romantic partnership threatened their ongoing collaboration. "Remember," says ME at one point. "If one of us dies, the other won't be worth anything."

That threat is a worthy issue to explore in any medium. During most of this 75-minute show, however, the two actors' fleeting references to high points in the Elmgreen and Dragset career did not fulfill the demands of theater, which is to entertain, and if we're lucky, also engross and enlighten as well as touch a nerve. Unanchored to any action or conflict between them, aside from some adolescent bickering over a ringing phone and the missing socks, those allusions came off as filler rather than context. "We seem to be in one of our own installations," says ME. "Hans Ulrich would have foreseen this situation -- two people lost in the art world."

Actually, this was a case of two performance artists lost in the theater.

What reads funny on paper does not always translate to effective or naturalistic speech on stage. Yet Elmgreen and Dragset, who wrote the script with help from Tim Etchells, are no strangers to theater. The same team collaborated on "Drag Queens," an acerbic send-up of contemporary art world acted by life-size robots of iconic sculptures like Andy Warhol's Brillo Box, Jeff Koons' Rabbit, and Alberto Giacometti's mournful Walking Man. It played to theater audiences in Munich, Basel, and London.

The evening at the Skirball was also a two-edged sword. It pointed up a peculiar double-standard in the art world that this year's Performa, which includes stand-up comedy acts as well as a courtroom drama, is doing much to amplify. Art audiences are willing, even eager, to tolerate amateur and even tedious performances by artists, but the have less patience for good performances by professional actors of amateurish scripts by artists.

The general consensus after the "Happy Days" premiere was that the show was too long and that the characters were no deeper than the static, running-man logo projected on an upstage screen. Yet how many hours have members of this same audience paid rapt attention to task-oriented, non-narrative and often nonverbal experiments in "durational" performance -- another word for testing the limits of patience. Sometimes that trial can be cathartic, especially for the artists. Yet art audiences willingly tolerate amateur performances from artists attempting to play fictional roles, either live or on video, suspending disbelief with paternal sympathy.

In "Happy Days" we had two theater professionals putting their considerable skills as actors to work to enliven a decidedly awkward script, only to meet with resistance by a been-there/done-that audience expecting to be entertained, not challenged.

The lithe Fiennes chewed up the scenery, even though there wasn't much of it. Edwards, who resembles both Elmgreen and Colin Firth, did his best to ground the duo in a reality beyond the pair's grasp. Nonetheless, with no emotional thread to unravel -- when the play begins the artists have already broken up -- the repetitive dialogue was all tell and no show, leaving us cardboard characters reminiscing about a life they seem to have read about in their press clippings rather than lived.

However, the production offered one indelible, star-is-born showstopper in the person of Kim Criswell, a belting, flame-haired theater professional who literally lifted the evening into a stratosphere that had eluded it until her appearance, in the production's third and last act.

Criswell, a major new star of the Ethel Merman variety but with the soul of an Adele, played a blind soothsayer who dropped from the flies in the guise of a "SpedEx" messenger, charged with delivering a letter from Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector requesting a studio visit. The actors knock her out, only to watch her rise up and sing the U-2 song, One. ("Did I disappoint you/Or leave a bad taste in your mouth….") She stole the show.

Criswell's rapid-fire speech contained a litany of museum acronyms (MoMA, MOCA, MUSAC, MAXXI) building to "Marfa, mama, papa and mmmmph, mmmm, MOTHERFUCKER" that was genuinely funny and cutting. This was closer to the critical ground the artists actually walk.

After the show, the famished audience repaired to Skylight SoHo (formerly the Ace Gallery) for an exhibition of living sculptures -- re-creations of past performances staged by the artists or by actors under their direction. They included Elmgreen and Dragset's first work together, a 1996 performance during which they unravel long white knitted skirts from each other's bodies.

In fact, most of the pieces featured nudity. In another, two men seated on either side of a bed disrobed and spooned each other in the bed. Across the room, a naked man sat in a Hans Wegner Ox chair reading and listening to music through headphones, oblivious to the crowd milling around in search of food.

Lacking the context and atmosphere of the originals, these "re-performances" were no more successful than those by other artists have been, though they literally fleshed out the references in the play.

Conversations with Fiennes and Edwards at the reception revealed that their research for their roles included a visit to the recent Frieze Art Fair in London. For them, I gathered, the experience was like dropping down Alice's rabbit hole into a wonderland of the inexplicable. They were also confused by the audience's casual attitude toward curtain time, which nearly threw them off their pace. They thought people went to openings to see the art. No, Elmgreen said. They go to openings to see each other.

I asked Fiennes if he made any distinction between theater and performance art. "Theater is an empty room with two strangers talking," he said. "This is theater. Everything is theater. It's all entertainment."

According to the artists, it was an experiment with form that included "a lot of nonsense about the nonsense in the art world." That wasn't enough to sustain the drama, which was really about escaping pain through art. I give the guys points for trying, but I would have called it a happy day if there had been a little more of them and a little less nonsense.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.