At H&R Block Artspace, Performance Now enlivens the gallery with a visual carnival of pop music, parachutes, IKEA furniture and claymation gore.
And that's just the first floor.
Your first visit to Performance Now can feel a little like window-shopping, as you peer into each of curator RoseLee Goldberg's carefully chosen curiosity boxes. There's more here than the sort of performance art that can feel deliberately inscrutable or self-consciously provocative, but if you're looking for shock value — crotch close-ups, blood and guts, satanic imagery — you'll find it in this exhibition. Explore a little longer, though, and the power of these artifacts as instruments of political and personal inquiry rises to the surface.
Marina Abramovic's human-endurance tests offer a potent reminder of this power. Each of the divisive artist's "Seven Easy Pieces," for example, is a seven-hour-long challenge of will in which she must hold demanding postures without rest. Performance Now displays an undoctored video record of each piece on its own monitor, the screens arranged in a circle similar to the circular pedestal on which she performs.
In Abramovic's "Lips of Thomas," an almost sensual asceticism emerges. Over the course of the seven-hour piece, a nude Abramovic consumes 2 pounds of honey and a liter of red wine (without bathroom breaks), taking small sips and spoonfuls between periods of extreme self-flagellation. She whips herself, carves a pentagram into her belly with a razor blade, and lies down on a cross of ice.
She also shows up in Valie Export's "Action Pants: Genital Panic," taking a circular stage in black leather and combat boots and clutching an Uzi to her chest as gallerygoers walk by, their sneakers squeaking on the museum's cold floors. She moves only occasionally — her presence alone is confrontational, transgressive.
Performance art seems dependent upon just that kind of encounter, and there's an initial coolness in seeing these pieces on monitors rather than live. Still, Performance Now is more than mere archive. Yael Bartana's video "Mary Koszmary (Nightmares)" fully embraces its medium, appropriating traditional cinematic shot sequences and emotionally evocative music, and editing to both capture and critique the nationalistic fervor of World War II propaganda films. Bartana's artifact becomes a new vehicle for the performance, supporting in its form what her original piece cultivates in content.
A few artists, like Bartana, deal in narrative, but most of the artists on display seem more concerned with visual composition than knitting together a linear progression of happenings. Ryan Trecartin's "A Family Finds Entertainment" plays like a Terry Gilliam fever dream. Through the artist's video and audio manipulation, a lush jungle of colors, textures and feedback-laced screams becomes the sensory backdrop for a coming-out tale with the frenetic energy of a glowstick rave at a clown college. Trecartin's film is remarkable in its mashing of camp aesthetics with moments of spiritual transcendence. There's the baptismal kiddie pool. There's the front-yard fireworks show while Trecartin's protagonist, Skippy, dances with wild and infectious abandon.
That sense of joy and play is more simply expressed in Christian Jankowski's "Rooftop Routine," a brief but buoyant encounter with hula hooper Suat Ling Chua, his neighbor. Chua, all smiles in a bright-red tracksuit, instructs viewers on proper hooping technique while sneaking in her daily exercise on the rooftop of her Chinatown apartment building. Jankowski splices shots of Chua mouthing along with an earworm Chinese pop tune against brief glimpses of the film's supporting cast: dozens of hoopers on nearby rooftops joining in the cheery morning routine.
It's hard not to feel charmed by Chua's complete lack of self-consciousness as she sings and whirls the hoop around her core, grinning and flashing dual peace signs to the sky. The Artspace's staging invites a closer encounter with the piece — a stack of multicolored hoops rests against the wall in case you feel inspired to take Chua's lesson to heart.
Though many of these performances are video recordings, the exhibition's still images are every bit as dynamic and intriguing. Nikhil Chopra's "Yoj Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing IX" captures the creation of an anachronistic character, preserving layered and well-composed shots of an artist engaging in his own process of documentation.
The sheer scale of Performance Now is daunting enough to make repeat visits necessary, at least if you want to gather more than surface impressions. The depth in Goldberg's exhibition is in its genuine, nostalgic love for performance — for preserving and cataloging these seemingly ephemeral projects. The result is a traveling scrapbook of comedy and confrontation, ready to fascinate and prod but also to entertain.