The “Performance Now” exhibition, currently up at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery, at Wesleyan University, undertakes a task which, to me, is one of the greatest challenges in exhibition curating today: dealing with a heavy amount of time-based work. Moreover, its retrospective quality—exhibiting material that has been collected over several Performa Biennials, in New York City—undoubtedly added to the challenge in the process of selecting what was to be included and what was to be left out of the show. The show is dense and the videos displayed are long, and though I would usually find this not suitable for most exhibiting situations, the Wesleyan scenario is one of the few places where such a time-consuming show makes sense. The show is occupying the University’s most important gallery and will be on for the entire semester, and because Wesleyan students live on the campus (which is not very big) it becomes extremely accessible as a show where one can return various times, and patiently enjoy those videos that have most intrigued them.
Certainly the volume of material displayed forced the space to be explored to its fullest potential, even if at times to the point of overuse, as when one work’s audio compromises the audibility of another. Because of the gallery’s spatial limitations, the curator did well in placing headphones for the majority of videos presented. This allows the viewer to engage with the videos more intimately, entering the work’s “bubble” for a fully invested experience. It was nonetheless a wise decision to have a few works on open sound, as a way of engaging the audience from the get go and setting a generally lively mood for the exhibition space. Still, one work’s presentation at times overpowers the presentation of its neighbor.
Some works are very engaging and fun to watch, such as William Kentridge’s Drawing Lesson 47 (Interview for New York Studio School), and Kalup Linzy’s A Family Finds Entertainment, and Conversations wit de Churen II: All my Churen, and keep you hooked because of their irreverent and ironic tone. The video records of live performances lose quite a bit of meaning, for though their concepts may be interesting, they are often too slow for what we as viewers expect from a video, so they don’t translate that well into that medium. However, one live performance that succeeds in its video translation is Liz Magic Laser’s I Feel Your Pain, because the dialogues and movement of actors across space make for a dynamic recorded account. But in Marina Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces, on the other hand, the videos have very little movement and scarcely any sound, making the headphones almost unnecessary, with the exception of few rare moments. The photographs of Nikhil Chopra and Clifford Owens too are beautiful, but offer very little information on the performances themselves, so they remain somewhat inaccessible to our understanding.
The manner of display of the exhibition as a whole is a bit stylized, but it works. It is hard to deliver the same excitement and pulse of performance works only through their documentation. When their mode of display mimics some aspect of the performance being shown, it activates the world of the performance for the viewer, making them, in a way, feel present in the experience of the performance. You can, for example, walk around the circular display of screens that feature Marina Abramović’s seven performances, which were originally performed in the iconic circle of the Guggenheim. Or you can sit on the bleachers at the end of the hall and have the feeling you are in Omer Fast’s “Talk Show” scenario, where even the style with which they filmed the performance mimics television camera movements: closing in on the person talking, and having three cameras film different angles simultaneously. Or you can also watch Liz Magic Laser’s movie theater performance, displayed on a projection and with comfortable armchairs that resemble the setup of a theater. Right beside it, a couch is set in front of Kalup Linzy’s mock soap-opera-type video, which is shown on a TV set. There are even hula-hoops beneath Christian Jankowski’s Rooftop Routine video, as a tempting invitation to recreate the performance inside the gallery.
Finally, it gave me immense pleasure to see works that can be classified as Video Art incorporated into an exhibition about performance, as opposed to using video solely as documentation resource of performances that at some point happened live. The show embraces the undeniable historical bond between these two art forms, which were born so tightly connected and which in many ways still depend so much on each other. The exhibition makes me eager to get to know the Performa Biennial and become more acquainted to the lively panorama of Performance Art that is being produced today