FROM DUST TO DUST: CLOSING THOUGHTS ON THE CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE ART EXHIBITION, REMAINS BY IAN DELEÓN
FROM DUST TO DUST: CLOSING THOUGHTS ON THE CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE ART EXHIBITION, REMAINS
FERGUS McCAFFREY GALLERY, NYC
By Ian Deleón
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-TROUBLED ARTIST
Going back as far as the Renaissance, when artists sought to differentiate themselves from the trade of craftspeople, an idea has persisted that the true artist is an outsider to the world––isolated and divinely inspired. Early on, artists were thought to be unified under the astrological influence of the planet Saturn, which explained their supposed melancholia and detachment. In their study Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, Margot and Rudolf Wittkower dissect these persisting assertions and stretch an eclipsing hand of doubt over them while reaffirming their deep, symbolic significance, “Alienation, in effect, was a rung by which artists sought to climb the social ladder.”
And just how far up that social ladder have artists been able to climb?
According to Andrew Russeth, editor at ARTnews, artists have been using their self-propagating uniqueness for hundreds of years, getting off the hook for various petty crimes, but sometimes even getting away with murder. One such incident involving the sixteenth century sculptor Cellini prompted Pope Paul III to declare that artists of such caliber “ought not to be bound by law.” In 1873, the rebellious French youth Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “I do not understand laws [...] I have no moral sense. I am a brute.” Performance artist Ulay, at the beginning of his career, showed a little less desperation during his brazen abduction of a Hitler-beloved painting from a German museum for 1976’s There is a Criminal Touch to Art.
In When Felonies Become Form: The Secret History of Artists Who Use Lawbreaking as Their Medium, Russeth also discusses Mike Kelley’s 1988 installation Pay for Your Pleasure, in which a long hallway lined with painted portraits of dead white men and quotes describing their intellectual flirtations with destruction, violence, and criminality are shown alongside an artwork by an actual murderer, such as serial killing clown/painter John Wayne Gacy.
Writing about Pay for Your Pleasure, ever-sensitive Kelley wondered, “How can we safely access destructive forces?” and suggested that “criminals themselves, safely filtered through the media, serve the same function” as art. Gacy’s paintings, he argued, “allow us to stare safely at the forbidden.” Taking Kelley’s comment at face value, it would appear that the only real difference between the artist and the criminal is restraint, and not, worryingly, intention.
Such a claim puts me uncomfortably close with self-contradiction, having written in my previous essay about REMAINS, that comparative exercises between art and criminality, while intellectually satisfying, only muddle the discourse and public opinion for active practitioners. I must however stay true to myself and my belief that there is some connection here worth teasing out, however tenuous, however painful it might be.
I’m reminded of the words of French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous, for whom “the writer is a secret criminal”. Writing in The School of the Dead, a chapter in her larger piece Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Cixous goes on to describe writing as, “the attempt to unerase, to unearth […what] will become the scene of the crime.” For her, “When I write I escape myself, I uproot myself, I am a virgin; I leave from within my own house and I don't return. The moment I pick up my pen––magical gesture––I forget alI the people I love; an hour later they are not born and I have never known them. Yet we do return. But for the duration of the journey we are killers.” She goes on to add that this is not symptomatic of the writer alone, but the reader as well, from which I like to draw the corollary to performer and viewer.
Regardless of the “killer” journeys we may undertake with a work of art, my interest in Cixous stems from her emphasis on the individual’s inevitable “return”––a necessary step back down the ladder, which could eventually lead to chaos. Drawing a parallel to the world of magic, the final and arguably most important aspect of any great trick is said to be “The Prestige”, the moment in which whatever has been made to disappear, or whoever has been apparently dismembered, is brought back. “If anybody really believed the things I did on stage, they wouldn't clap, they'd scream.”
The return to restraint is what allows us to glimpse “the forbidden” Kelley was so attracted to and “safely access its destructive forces” without getting lost or mired in the full reality of the criminal act. Cixous again: “We need the scene of the crime in order to come to terms with ourselves: we need the theater of the crime [...] To live at the extremity of life”, without falling over the edge. The return of the stolen object, or the restraint of pilfering a tiny chip off a priceless sculpture, along with a “breathtaking assumption of privilege” [Russeth] is often what guarantees the criminal artist safety from the full force of the law, but it is productive for our purposes to distinguish between what Russeth calls “the criminal artwork” and performative acts of civil disobedience. The latter are typically defined by self-restraint, the refusal of violence––sometimes to a fault. But from them we can learn a great deal about the live artist’s particular transformation of restraint, of control. Teetering along the brink between criminality and martyrdom, oscillating between vulnerability and sovereignty, it is here amongst certain live performers that we find the most thrilling and universal expressions of tension and suspense.
“THE WHITENESS OF MEMORY IS LIKE A SUPERMARKET”
These are the words of Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who died this past July while serving an 11-year prison sentence for supposedly treasonous acts against the Chinese government. Xiaobo, 61, was a dedicated poet and human rights activist, making waves for Beijing’s ruling class ever since Tiananmen Square in 1989. During the student protests there, Xiaobo was actually a faint voice of reason, urging the students to prioritize democratic principles in their own ranks and cautioning, "To replace a military dictatorship with a student dictatorship would hardly be a victory [...] It would be a tragic failure."
His death came just one week into the opening of REMAINS, and proved to be a sombering, albeit grounding force for one of the show’s artists in particular, Taiwanese-born Liping Ting. Having come of age by the time of the unrests at Tiananmen, Liping not only identifies with Xiaobo’s frustrations, she also recalled playing her part by spreading subversive literature amongst the Taiwanese underground in her youth. Xiaobo’s struggles against the Chinese government and yearning for democratic freedoms were also Liping’s struggles and yearnings, recounting for me how for a very long time it was illegal in Taiwan to speak the native languages, which had only recently been supplanted by the Mandarin of Chiang Kai-shek’s mainland-fleeing army. “It’s the nature of language to pitch itself against the smothering oneness of the state.” [Don DeLillo, from the rear jacket of Liping’s book on Xiaobo]
But Liping admits to always harboring a disappointment towards what she called Xiaobo’s “naive” tactics and militant pacifism. Nevertheless, “Liping was hit by a truck with his death”, according to friend and collaborator Terry O’Reilly, “she couldn’t talk about it.” So Liping, an accomplished poet and operatic singer as well as visual art performer, engaged all of her talents in a series of subtle and sublime excavations of language and the creation of images, of meaning. For the duration of her performances at REMAINS, which went on through August, Liping’s acoustic and corporeal explorations resonated with her “embodied grief”, according to curator Tif Robinette, while creating a space for her actions to transcend the subjective moment. Liping identified with this sentiment, adding that in the past she, “had too much attachment to [her] own drama”. Robinette and O’Reilly both agreed that there were several moments throughout the show’s run when Liping’s pieces seemed to reach a climactic moment, “crashing through the conceptual wall and eventually liberating her from her own score, or preconceived notions––that’s when she entered into the trance of the performance.” And at these moments Liping was able to take the audience along with her, on the journey from witnessed trauma to a feeling of lightness and freedom.
This dichotomy of weight was at the heart of several of Liping’s performances, most pronounced in Stone Timing, Paper Timing, which were characterized by interactive exchanges of breathing, murmuring, whispering, and silence––invitations from Liping to the audience to contribute their “human voices” to a looping live score. Liping’s installations, performative objects and post-performance detritus tended to be comprised largely of organic, or elemental-looking materials that created a particular aesthetic the artist described as “anthropological”. Dirt, ink, stones, paper, feathers, aluminum and wood were used in myriad configurations by Liping to reference what she perceives as the stagnation of human evolution, an “age of stone still in insomnia”, and the need for new, personal rituals for our increasingly alienating times.
A friend, performer, and philosopher of occult history, Dr. Al Cummins emphatically agrees with Liping, declaring that artists and performers are “ritualists of this epoch” in a recent essay on the modern applications of Necromancy, Death’s Talking Head. Clarified in his paper is the emphasis of Necromancy on communion and consultation with rather than control of the dead. Delivered in the context of an evening of visual art performance also organized by Tif Robinette and collective Wild Embeddings (and, full disclosure, this writer), Dr. Cummins’ performance of his text underscored the useful application of Medieval Necromantic thinking towards the discussion of contemporary live arts.
Interestingly enough, the essay was divided into sections discussing variations in Necromantic practices according to the specific attributes of the various influential planetary bodies. Dr. Cummins characterizes Saturn in particular as speaking “in dead languages of forgotten history.” In channeling the Lunar body, he adds, “We are the knife in the dark, the blood on the door, the bones bobbing upon the river, the chalk lines traced. We are the witchcraft.”
Writhing her body against the wall with a large rendering of the Chinese character for “person”, contorting her mouth and exhaling manically, her sight blotted out by an interweaving spool of adhesive tape around her head––Liping’s deconstructions of language are wraith-like in their haunting sonic cacophony and also somehow soothing in their slow, deliberate T’ai-Chi-reminiscent pacing. Her movements, on one occasion punctuated by O’Reilly’s powerful and methodical recitation of Xiaobo’s lamentations (“The struggle’s trembling vitality [...] nameless corpses transformed into ash”), are volcanic in their time-forsaking resolve and unpredictable in their explosive potential. Robinette describes Liping’s performances as feeling like she’s been “chewing something up and spitting into our heads”, and if that conjures up an image in your mind of Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son, then you’re more prepared for one of her pieces than you know. That’s how they work on you...slowly, building up over time––they have an almost cumulative effect. Her concepts and preoccupations are admirably too large, too species-specific to be easily digestible. Instead you have to get into Liping’s rhythm, slowing your body down to the speed of stones and paper and just chewing, gnawing, masticating your way to the truth. By then, her visual poetics have seeped into your consciousness and taken hold, perhaps flowering at a later date, when you least expect them or when you need them most.
As Xiaobo’s words resonate gently throughout the cavernous gallery space, Liping reaches up, stretching past its ceiling towards the sky: “The terrified flesh of the diplomat in the bath”...
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.
On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!
The words above were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from his 1866 poem The Slave in the Dismal Swamp. “Dismal” here is an adjective as well as a pronoun, describing an actual coastal wetland spanning from southeastern Virginia to northeastern North Carolina. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s believed that thousands of runaway slaves used the swamp as a stop on the Underground Railroad, with vast numbers remaining and settling into its maroon communities. On the run from the rule of law which cemented their inhumanity, these marshland gatherings of fugitives coalesced around their imposed sense of abjection.
In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva talks productively about the abject as that which “disturbs identity, system, order”, what “does not respect borders”, “the ambiguous, the composite”, even “the criminal with a good conscience”. In her words, abject-hood deals primarily with that which draws attention to the fragility of artificially defined rules or distinctions. The realization of that fragility is what constitutes the point of horror––the rejection of which, led white, slave-owning colonialists of the 1700s like William Byrd II (founder of Richmond, VA and credited with naming the Dismal Swamp) to label that marsh and its inhabitants as nothing more than disagreeable pieces of property. But the nature of the abject, even from a place of banishment or exile, is to, by its very existence, continue challenging and disrupting.
THE ROPE THAT BINDS US MAKES THEM FREE
...That is the title of a series of performances begun in the mid 1970s by the artist Nigel Rolfe, as a meditation on the “smothering, isolation, loss, and failure of the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. These performances consist primarily of the artist fully binding his head in a length of twine covered in creosote, a toxic material whose various applications include the treatment of necrotic tissue, seagoing vessels, constipation and congestion. Rolfe previously said about the work: “When bound tightly on my head, the ball smothers me completely and becomes, in fact, life threatening. As I perform I enter a completely interior space and I lose sense entirely of the exterior.”
For an artist whose work has become, in his own words, “a foil for death”, the former description for Rope would seem to be paradoxical. But Rolfe has been challenging that dividing line between life and the abjection of death for over 40 years. “I suppose it is one of my tricks to hide behind a mask of threat—like an angry face with a child inside.” Rolfe’s torturous and “inconclusive investigation” of the body as outcome “has always been a lot of hiding and masking—quite complex issues about identity really, being a Brit, living in Ireland, in this place of civil war. I’ve always been reminded that I am on the wrong side of the fence, which leads to the idea of risk.”
But the wrong side of the fence has often placed Rolfe’s work on the right side of empathy. Video pieces of the past such as Hand On Face or Dance Slap For Africa, which confront the shifting dynamics of power in an apartheid-transitioning South Africa, elucidate the artist’s internalized moral sympathy with nations undergoing bitter civil conflicts. While adopting a gentler, more symbolic and universal approach to addressing issues of violence and social unrest in his later years, Rolfe (now nearly 70) continues to take on the role of an “old radical”, finding himself drawn to sites of working class struggles in the face of bureaucratic inefficiencies. This is the impetus that brought Rolfe from the UK to the Dismal Swamp in preparation for his new body of work for REMAINS.
Spending a number of days literally Immersed in the arboreal-aquatic environment of the Dismal and its surrounding townships, tall and gentle, soft-spoken Rolfe arrived in New York with some incredible accounts from that particular part of the world. He claimed at one point even to have seen a human skeleton hanging by a noose deep in the swamp––whether this was real, imagined, or simply a grotesque southern scarecrow we can’t be too sure––but the quality of materials that make their way into Nigel’s work is far less shocking than that, perhaps even more powerful, symbolically, for their arresting and disarming banality. From the swamp, Rolfe fished out and shipped several objects to Fergus McCaffrey gallery for the show, including: coils of rope; a dowel; a funnel; various tin buckets, pots and trays; and perhaps most curiously, a beautiful wooden, doll-sized chair.
The latter occupied a prominent position in the gallery, despite its size, hanging about ten feet off the ground (ahead of Rolfe’s physical arrival to the gallery), in a delicate and sophisticated arrangement that greeted visitors to REMAINS for several weeks. During his week of consecutive performances at the gallery, Rolfe actually remarked on his desire to make work along a path somewhat contrary to what he saw many of his fellow artists in the show doing. Whether due to youth, pride, or an overwhelming experience of architecture, Rolfe believed much of the show to be in an unnecessary competition toward “monumentality”.
For his series of performances, the veteran artist would bafflingly command significant numbers of viewers (many of them lulled right off the street) for long periods of time while doing the simplest, most minimal gestures. Each action began unassumingly enough with Rolfe just standing––patiently, quietly waiting, with a gaze directed out towards 26th street, while the audience gathered itself around him. According to Rolfe, “In any kind of performance context, if you take that live space you have to make sure you hold it and fill it with something that people will never forget.” On one occasion, this was achieved using a brilliant juxtaposition of Rolfe’s hairless cranium gingerly resting on the cold, concrete floor of the gallery next to the doll-sized chair. The “live image”, as Rolfe calls them, created by the artist conjured ideas of frailty, abandonment, and institutional failure without uttering a single word, or taking up more than a few minutes of our time.
It can be difficult to understand why Rolfe’s performances work on us the way they do. There’s something about how he’s made his body and his entire life the object of real and symbolic trauma that creates an extraordinary amount of empathy between the artist and the viewer. It also helps that Rolfe seems to give himself over to the moment completely in body, while in mind there is something held back, something kept private just for him. In this way, you would be hard-pressed to find Rolfe enjoying or getting off on his own endurance, as performers are often wont to do. Instead, Rolfe’s peaceful stoicism and literally backbreaking labors, independent of audience interaction, resound with the experience of watching the actions of a beast of burden, or the forced performances of an animal in captivity––if attuned and present enough, there is a moment when the viewer’s perspective shifts from expectation of spectacle to a new kind of empathic mirror-identification with this steadfast, beleaguered Other: “The time of life I’m at is involved with those things.”
Returning to his work with the semiotics of rope, Rolfe now uses a large ball of it, having been covered in white marble dust and stretched tightly around the black suit jacket covering his torso, to evoke the current sociopolitical truth of systemic “white domination”, albeit with the implicit critique that the rope, while taut and suffocating, eventually becomes “limp” and falls slack to the floor, powerless. It’s an unexpected but appreciated gesture from a career artist with the age, class, and academic privilege one would assume to guide him into safer, less charged work––Rolfe long ago chose a different path. Actually, he admits his longstanding relationship to academia stems from a Beuysian desire to connect with impressionable students in a socialist and democratic way: “the more years I do it, the more I become an intellectual.” The assertion helps reframe his intellectual background as more accidental, something that just happened along the way, but did not take root alongside the development of his artistic language. Like Beckett, whom Rolfe discusses at length during our conversation, one gets the sense that his performances are meant to “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.”
At the end of the week, what remained of Nigel Rolfe’s performances?
The swamp objects were again carefully arranged in relation to Rolfe’s designated gallery wall, greeting visitors. Dust-covered jackets and clay-stained shirts hung as mementos in the back offices with the staff. Rolfe’s drawings had all been catalogued and professionally photographed. But where does the performance reside? Does it live some kind of twisted half-life inside each fragment or documentation, like a horcrux? For Rolfe, these other elements have their uses, but the work of art exists primarily in the lived experience. Visitors to REMAINS on Rolfe’s final day witnessed the artist leave the gallery for the first time and walk the several blocks down to the Chelsea piers. Here, Rolfe would collect a brimming bucket of river water, which after being brought back to the gallery, he would push around the floor with the crown of his head, laying on his side, stiff in his pressed suit. Curator Tif Robinette recalls: “As small streams of water collected on the floor I looked at Nigel and he looked at me. His eyes brimmed as well. Both of us were full of something like empathy, some kindness that he both gave and received. I was not sad, and I was not happy. I was full of something nameless and something one can only receive in a great performance. It sloshed out of me.”
Whether compelled by Saturn, seduced by crime, or motivated by an internal death-drive, the great actionists of our time are frontier artists, disciples of the borderline as a matter of course. These live performances skirt and straddle, rather than specify. They do not succumb to the dark forces, but offer us a productive glimpse into their catacombs. Through expert applications of physical restraint, mental resilience, and spatial awareness, these “time-bending” [Robinette] artists of REMAINS showed viewers that in an age of hypermobility, sometimes slow and steady wins the race.