Imagine a place and time in New York where multiple city blocks were devoid of pedestrians and in which the passages from one neighborhood to the next occasioned drastic psychic shifts. This was lower Manhattan in the mid 1970s through the early ’80s, as it evolved into a discrete zone of interdisciplinary arts communities. Can anyone who was not present then still imagine today the elasticity of time, place, and aimless purpose that characterized the downtown New York arts scene?
On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
October 31, 2013 – February 2, 2014
Ritual of Rented Island is an intriguing show that invokes this transitional time in the art/life of the city with a fairly small selection of mostly unknown (to wider, popular audiences) performance-oriented artists. These include, among others, Julia Heyward, Erica Beckman, Stuart Sherman, and Yvonne Rainer. It takes some skill to comb out a representative selection of this wild and wooly period that helped spawn many rumors and a few legends of anti-heroic and, in turns, tragic and comic nature.
Jay Sanders, the show’s curator, is too young to have been around at that time, but it became evident to me (I myself, as a young artist, frequented Franklin Furnace, The Kitchen, and some of the other venues represented) that in selecting the work he listened closely to those who were. There is an accurate and evocative essay by J. Hoberman in the catalogue in which Hoberman notes that this milieu, while having precedents in Futurist and Dada “scenes” evolved into its own “first stirrings of ‘object theater,’ ‘loft performance,’ and a new form of solo ‘psychodrama’ (that) may not seem like art at all.” Sanders’s essay eloquently elaborates this point in detail, tracking influences and artists who are not represented in the show, and how performers like Eric Bogosian and Karen Finley later emerged from this mix, albeit in a more conservative political climate.
Individuals ranging from the cryptically flamboyant Jack Smith to the comically obtuse Michael Smith bracket the show’s range of idiosyncratic performance types, replete with hand-made props, found objects, primitive video, and printed matter documentation. The do-it-yourself scrappiness of many of these props and the aged tactility of paste-up poster layouts and black-and-white photos help to ground the show’s wildly shifting aura with a low-tech physicality. Laurie Anderson’s photo-documentations of her pre-recorded violin performances in different locations throughout the city are revealing of the character of the street at that time. Some of her bemused onlookers could have been lifted straight out of Weegee or Walker Evans images. They are stark indicators of how much the culture of downtown New York has changed from a wider working class habitation to increasingly polarized neighborhoods of privilege. Squat Theater, a familial group of Hungarian émigrés who established their storefront space on West 26th Street, literally let in the unpredictable mélange of street passersby in a dramatic mix between current events, missed interpretations, and a spontaneous situational awareness. The richly diverse and ragged city at the time became, in effect, their productions’ default audience and supporting cast due to a large picture window open to the street. This window is fabricated here and looks into a room of posters, props, and video documentation of the group’s infamously inscrutable productions such as “Andy Warhol’s Last Love” (1979) and “Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free” (1982). Throughout the larger exhibition the implicit and explicit interplay between private and public psychic space is made similarly transparent.
On the more hermetically-sealed scale of production and concept, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theaterpresented disembodied narratives attended by starkly embodied sets and strange call and response sequences between a live narrator and recorded voices. The show recreates on a small scale the black box of his space, (originally located in a loft at 491 Broadway) with grainy, not quite life-size video documentation of actual performances. Foreman populated his sets with tables, chairs, moveable screens, and clothed and often unclothed performers who functioned like set objects or stage hands busy within a crazily disembodied mind. By so orchestrating his stage with animate and inanimate common objects, Foreman contrasted their stolid gravity with his fragmentary scripts, thereby estranging customary decorum.
Rituals of Rented Island is significant in its careful resurrection of what became a plausible art community within a specific cultural moment. With the art world’s current focus on socially-engaged practice as a foil to commodification of both fetishized objecthood and an individual’s subjective (and neural) networks, the show expresses an important subtext concerning what psychic or real estate is occupied (and when) and who ultimately winds up retaining ownership.
The means of social networking during late 1970s thru the early ’80s was less efficient than now, but retained in its gaps a cryptic charm that could be used to animate very local scenes to evolve idiosyncratic aesthetics. Sanders writes in his essay, “This ‘Rented Island’ is inevitably someone else’s, a temporary occupation, and a floating city of only provisional stasis whose rituals continue to change.” This is a key concept of the show. It helps it to crack open a calcified nostalgia for lost leases on low-rent pasts to get at the marrow of the critical uses of conditional occupations within an increasingly unaffordable present.