None of them claims to be the voice of a generation, but there they are: three artists roughly 20 years apart. Geoffrey Hendricks, 69 this month and long identified with the Fluxus movement, quietly practices yoga with an instructor on a square white stage; projected behind him is film footage of a cow being slaughtered, and behind that a slide of fat clouds, crisp sky. William Pope.L, 45, sits atop a toilet on a 10-foot throne, calmly eating pieces of The Wall Street Journal, guzzling milk or ketchup, then spitting it all out. Patty Chang, 28, tries to balance on an extraspongy waterbed while a video camera taped to the mattress simulcasts every lunge and misstep on the wall.
The current “Söma Söma Söma” show at the SculptureCenter almost begs the spectator to come up with generational generalities, or to speculate on the current state of performance art.
Pope.L, who organized the show, says he wanted a “minisurvey” of what’s going on in body art, since, to some extent, it’s disappeared into photography and video. “People seem more interested in packaging it than in actually doing it.”
Let’s just say that if performance grew out of a wish to make art more present, more visceral in the ’60s and ’70s, that trend has decidedly reversed itself. Over the past decade, this art form definitely shifted toward entertainment—or, at least, the proscenium—and away from such anti-tainments as those described above. That makes the “Söma” show an anomaly, not to be missed. The last performances happen this Saturday, July 15. (Call 879-3500 for times.)
In 1971, Geoff Hendricks did a piece called Body/Hair at a 23rd Street gallery, shaving his entire body from the neck down. The “Söma” show includes documentation of that event: the video, the written ruminations, the reliquary of 20 small jars with labels like “Hair From the Right Leg of the Artist.” He’s also re-presenting Dream Event from 1971. He spent 48 hours in bed at the gallery for that piece, fasting, sleeping, and recording his dreams.
Hendricks included both these pieces because 1971 marked a turning point in his life, when he decided to acknowledge that he was gay and his 10 years of marriage came to an end. Hendricks and his wife, Bici (who had also come out), then collaborated on Fluxdivorce, publicly cutting their bed, their wedding documents, and other items in half, then staging a division-of-property event in the backyard.
“Body/Hair was like shedding a skin,” he says, while Dream Event was about “the private becoming public.” But did he tell himself in 1971 that he was shedding a skin? Not really, he admits. Insight into what it meant came later.
Artists in the ’70s used the body as a tool for self-discovery. In his new piece at the SculptureCenter, Eating/Breathing, Hendricks works with yoga teacher Christina Read for several hours, stretching, breathing, doing headstands. They pause near the end to eat brown rice with their hands. Hendricks then paints his calves and feet blue, ties grass to his thighs, and stands on his head. Even upside down, nature is right side up.
Hendricks says he realized during the performance that “all parts of the body are thinking. It seemed suddenly like the flip side of what Yvonne Rainer was saying when she spoke of the mind as a muscle. The body is a mind.”
In Eating the Wall Street Journal, William Pope.L makes theater of bingeing and purging. Dressed only in a jockstrap and some crusty-looking glasses, flour covering his body, he plays a character he describes as “part shaman, part clown.” Seated on a toilet that rocks like a rocking chair, he peruses the Journal as thoughtfully as any businessman, tears off a strip or maybe a little square, looks it over, then stuffs it into his mouth. He’s built a little bed under the throne, and whatever he spews back out tends to land on the pillow. By the day of his fourth performance, discarded newspaper and crud have built up under there in layers one could only call sculptural, and Pope.L has taken to descending during the piece to lie on the bed, trying to get spectators to lie down next to him. A couple of art lovers actually do.
Pope.L, who is African American, combines identity politics with abjection in uniquely discomfiting ways. The earlier work he is showing on video here is Budapest Crawl: The Black Sports Body in Europe. He’s done a number of Crawl pieces over the years, and says they’re about the tradition of struggle for African Americans. In Budapest, he wiggled along between a busy roadway and a river wearing some combination of soccer and basketball gear, holding a glow-in-the-dark globe. The struggle does seem rather universal.
While the Wall Street Journal piece seems to be all about debasement as well, Pope.L says, “I think of something like the black church metaphor where it is the job of the pastor to show that he is struggling, he is suffering for the congregation. That’s the tradition where you need to show some kind of self-mortification and a willingness to go into this dark place, in order for people to be convinced that you have something of value.”
As for the “magical Bible” of the stock market, Pope.L says he’s done some research into West African bocio objects. “They’re like voodoo,” he says. “I’ve been reading a lot about these ritual practices and the idea of using objects to affect the world.” Though he’s questioned his right to use Africanisms—”not being African”—he’s now decided “it’s something I can own, in the sense that I’m interested in making objects that cause change.”
Patty Chang says she originally wanted to cut out holes in a lawn, insert waterbeds, and replace the sod. She could have created her own personal earthquake. For lack of a lawn, however, she stuck to one waterbed at the SculptureCenter, filled just enough to make it seem like she’s walking on mush. She falls a lot. Balance is impossible. In the video simulcast, she appears to be walking on a deck in rough water. The imperfect storm. She says she wanted to make something about instability, and she’ll be doing a new piece, as yet undetermined, for the July 15 show.
Chang often plays with how technology changes perception. In one of her signature pieces, Fountain, she kneels to slurp water from a mirror. The video simulcast makes it appear that she’s kissing herself, the perfection of Narcissus.
Chang is one of the most promising new performers to come along in ages, but in her striking imagery there is little self-exposure, no social critique. This is body art for a new century. She uses her body as a metaphor, though some of the pieces also involve odd ordeals. In Candies, for example, she stands still for about an hour with her mouth clamped open, full of peppermint, and she drools. She has no particular interest in, say, identity politics. “It all comes into play, but it’s not my message,” she says. “My performances are time-based sculptures.”
This idea that art might change the self, or even the world—could she relate to that?
“I guess not,” she laughs. “That notion’s a relic.”