Art and theater confront, confuse and annoy in performance piece at Williams College Museum of Art

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Chris Burden's notorious performance art piece, "Shoot," is never going to happen again. Even if you could somehow organize a re-enactment of the piece — in which the artist had a friend shoot him in the left arm one night in November 1971 — it would have a different capacity to shock or surprise.

Like many performance art pieces, it was designed to confront, confuse and annoy, and it has succeeded in reaching a far larger audience than the small gathering of people in the gallery one night. With a few iconic photos, a simple video, and a stream of words and argument through the years, it now lives in a different place.

Performance art cut a wide swath through the art world in the postwar years, breaking conventions about what makes something art (is it an object? a gesture? intention?), as well as personal safety and the roles of audiences. But now, in some cases decades after the fact, is it even possible to communicate the immediacy and authenticity of this work, which couldn't be bought by collectors or archived by curators? How can you explain it without dwelling in nostalgia or giving in to a wistful, academic sense that "you just had to be there"?

"A People's History of Performance Art" suggests one possible way to do so. A collaboration between the Williams College Museum of Art, the Williams theater department, and artist/director David Levine and artist/designer Marsha Ginsberg, "A People's History ..." is a performance piece interpreted through a play embedded in an art museum, with all the layers of overlapping issues of presentation and authenticity that accrue along the way.

"This was an idea that I was playing with for a long time," Levine said before running a rehearsal for the performance last week. "What would happen if you tried to do great works of performance art in a theater."

It takes as its jumping point a series of tableaux vivants featuring photographs of iconic performing art pieces. In addition to "Shoot," there are other pivotal performance works like "Leap into the Void" by Yves Klein and Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece." In addition to classics of the 20th century, there is also Marina Abramovi 's "The Artist is Present," which was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. The 12 works will be presented at 7:30 Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening in WCMA's Rotunda by Williams student actors.

Amy Holzapfel, associate professor of theater at Williams, said one of the occasions for the work was to ask why performance art but not theater is welcome in museums. "We asked what is the most theatrical thing we could do in an art museum," she said.

Running alongside and beyond the performances is an exhibit at WCMA, "Active Ingredients: Prompts, Props, Performance," which runs through Jan. 7. Instead of dwelling on performance art or theatrical artifacts, the exhibit takes up the challenge of trying to tell the story of performance art without performers, or in most cases even images of performers. It is told only by objects that capture the fleeting sense of time that is embedded in performance.

Holzapfel had worked with Levine and Ginsberg on previous projects through the years and brought them in for the current performance. Levine said many of the issues it addresses reflect his own move away from theater to performance art, and the differences he said that exists between the two. "Shoot" in a theater, for example, would be a rather different thing, most likely involving a prop gun and a blood packet. "Theater would ask, why does it have to be real?"

The challenge becomes trying to define a genre that stubbornly resists being handled. "The whole thing about performance art is that it is as opposed to painting as to theater," he said, "and all we have are photos to try to pin them to a certain place."

In the performance, the students reenact different images in a series of tableaux under the guidance of a "Doyenne," played by New York actor Kate Hampton, who tries to tell their story. The performance setting, WCMA's Rotunda, is oddly ovoid with a few large pillars around. In the center is a large stage that fills the space, with a series of backdrops and room for only about 35 spectators per show, who will be perched around the room on gallery stools.

Hampton said she thought of a few prominent monologists when conceiving her character. Among them was Ruth Draper, an actress who made a name on Broadway from the 1920s to '50s with her one-woman shows like "The Italian Lesson" and "Doctors and Diets." There is also a little bit of Anna Russell, the comedian best known for her irreverent yet accurate synopses of Wagner's Ring cycle in the 1950s. The point is a certain dotty energy, with a deep understanding of the work on display.

"It feels like a hybrid," Hampton said. "It's part art history lecture, and sort of performance art-y, and sort of theater. It's not quite one thing."

How this work is supposed to be remembered and processed — in a play in a theater no less — is one of the tensions Levine acknowledges. "[Performance art] is pretty explicitly against everything I'm doing to it," he said. "But implicitly, subconsciously ... it's interesting that everyone felt compelled to take pictures."

Performance artists still want to be part of the history of art, Levine said. "Everyone wants to a total punk. '[bleep] you. You can't collect this, you can't install this, this will [bleep] up your entire paradigm — but please don't forget about me.'"

WCMA interim director Lisa Dorin said she's been involved in the planning for the show for about two years and that the earliest brainstorming sessions were much more literal in discussing the performance pieces — emphasizing photos and artifacts.

"That felt quite unsatisfactory," she said. "It always comes back to a nostalgia or yearning to create a past moment. So the exhibition developed as a parallel but intersecting project that came to question how we define performance art." Specifically, they asked "is it just a live body in a space with an audience, or a state of mind and approach."                                                                                                                                  

One of the first pieces they sought for the show is a sculpture by Richard Serra, "1-1-1," from his series of "props." It is a one-and-a-half ton collection of three lead plates balanced against one another.

"It's physically precarious," Dorin said. "These are objects that exist in this state of potential collapse... that's what we like about it, it gets to this future moment when these things will no longer be upright."

Other pieces more directly suggest performance, even when they aren't "activated." "Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform)" by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1991) is a raised platform with a row of lights around the edge. For five minutes a day — though no one knows which five minutes — a dancer in a silver lam bathing suit with a personal listening device will dance to music only they can hear. Dorin said they have been lining up volunteers.

How to incorporate these works can present a challenge, as in William Pope.L's site-specific work made of peanut butter, which is being installed this week.

"Not only is it food — which technically we don't normally allow in the galleries — but it's alive," Dorin said. "It's going to change over time. It is going to drip and ooze and potentially smell."

But that's the challenge that museums have to figure out a response to, she said. "If artists are making work like this now, we have to change our conception of what art is and how we care for it."

In keeping with the theme of preservation, Dorin said they will keep the stage in place in the Rotunda for the duration of the exhibit.

"There will be basically a big old nostalgic shrine to the moment that we did this thing," she said. "The props will be there, the backdrops will be there, but the people no longer will be. This is the exact thing we are pushing up against."


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