Performance and Play
Absent without Leave, Victoria Miro Gallery, London
17 February–17 March 2007
The curators James Lindon and Erin Manns have taken the idea of the "absentee performer" as a starting point for this exhibition, and present a wide range of possible formulations of 'performance' in contemporary art. The idea of performance is continually repositioned here to encompass notions of illusion and theatricality, ritual and process, social etiquette and subversive behaviour, in which the viewers themselves play a key role.
Andro Wekua's painting "The Play" (2007) provides the most overt reference to the conventional perception of theatrical performance, depicting a woman in a white cap and diamond patterns suggestive of a harlequin drifting in a blue space. This is surrounded by a thick white border, a heavy frame that grounds the dreaminess of the central image and which delineates a sharp edge between fantasy and reality. Such clear-cut lines are less obvious in the other artworks on show; many of them stand as evidence of an unseen process while others remain incomplete without the input of an active participant.
Some of the pieces on show posit making as a performance in itself, during which materials undergo transformation. One such piece is Terence Koh's sculpture "Yesterday" (2007), a strange and lovely mix of minimalism and excess. Its form is a simple box, the exterior of which is thickly coated in wax, dead bees and, according to the exhibition guide, honey “spilled from the artist's mouth”. Koh's bodily involvement in the object's making adds a ritualistic aura to the piece. While its outer surface is an abject mix of insect carcasses and dripped yellow wax, its interior is lined with copper-coloured mirrors, reminiscent of a Donald Judd cube.
With "Frequency of an Image" (2007) Loris Gréaud uses his own brain activity to illustrate the difficulties in fully conveying the nature of artistic work. In collaboration with a neurologist, Gréaud has recorded his neural activity while thinking about his practice, and transmits the resulting patterns using the impoverished medium of two light bulbs. The bodily residues or traces in Koh and Gréaud's work combine both the promise of intimacy and its impossibility.
Koh and Gréaud's processes and rituals may add value to apparently simple objects but they are also reliant on a certain degree of trust: trust that an unseen activity has taken place; that materials and processes are as we are told they are. Dan Colen's "Birdshit Paintings" (2007) play on this idea of trust in an amusing simulation of shock art. The heavily worked surfaces of this series of over 50 canvases are not the result of several months atop a city building, but rather a riot of scatological special effects carefully created by the artist with oil and enamel paints.
Kirsten Pieroth's work explores objects, their appropriation and potential interpretations. In a recent project on Thomas Edison, the artist presented a series of letters detailing her attempts to patent an excuse that Edison made to get out of a social engagement. There is an absurd and pleasing poetry to this fastidious attention to detail and the conceptual twists and turns that result as her correspondent's grapple with her enquiries. For this show she presents the remains of a broom which she has put through a shredding machine, swept into a small, neat pile of broken wood and bristles. This simple, humorous act creates a kind of conceptual Möbius strip as the object and its purpose fold in on themselves.
As previously mentioned, a number of the artworks require some form of viewer participation. Andreas Zybach's "Self-reproducing pedestal" (2005) consists of plywood frames laid on top of red balloons: when a participant-performer walks on this seemingly precarious structure their movement causes a balloon raised above the platform to inflate; this in turn re-inflates the sculpture. Meanwhile, Jordan Wolfson's three light switches, borrowed from the apartment of a renowned clairvoyant, allow visitors to turn on and off the lights in the gallery. Elmgreen & Dragset's "But I'm on The Guest List!" (2007) is like an empty stage set awaiting active participation. Their free-standing door marked "VIP" speaks of the social codes of celebrity and exclusivity but indicates their ultimate banality.
Finally, Jeppe Hein's "Invisible Moving Wall" (2001/2007) could be described as both an object which performs and has the potential to engage the viewer in a performance. Compared with the grand scale of "Distance" (2007), the artist's current installation at the Barbican's Curve gallery, an 80 metre rollercoaster structure around which balls roll and spin, this piece is incredibly subtle, yet no less captivating. The movement of the wall is barely perceptible and one must pause and look very carefully before the slow squeezing of space becomes visible.
The works in this show wrap an engaging playfulness around ideas of work and practice, the figure of the artist, and the division between observer and observed. The multi-stranded concepts of performance and performativity are currently subject to much theoretical exploration and these artistic enquiries work to expand the realms of what performance can be.