To rephrase Karl Marx’sfamous quote, “History repeats itself, first as art, second as farce” (Thank you, Peter Frank)
I was in a gallery somewhere in Chelsea last week, a group show—I've conveniently blocked out exactly where—when I had to walk around someone lying under a blanket on the floor, supposedly a work of art. And I thought, OMG, when will it end? When will people stop thinking this is new already? Maybe it was interesting once, but now it’s just annoying.
Moments like that make me ashamed for the art world. But then there was Sigur Rós Monday night at Madison Square Garden. A band of three that collaborates with 20-30 classically trained musicians who’ve been influenced by rock and traditional Icelandic music, Sigur Rós’s sound is uncategorizable (more info and video here). Without a word of English except Jonsi’s modest “Thank you for coming,” their synergy of music and projected visuals was so emotionally calibrated that it kept the audience of more than 15,000 transfixed for two hours, and at the end—taking it down perfectly by concluding with the same piece they started with—stunned (everyone, that is, except the Times’s Ben Ratlif, who must have a ear of tin and a heart of stone). It was a singular human achievement, which is what I want from art, not just someone lying on the floor.
Which brings me to Tilda Swinton, an actor I admire, who is napping these days in a box at MoMA (see Jerry Saltz’s take here). My friend Larry Gipe writes: please Art Vent you're our only hope! This idea is 40 years old!
In Bed Piece (1972) Burden sleeps in a single bed placed inside a gallery for the duration of the entire exhibition (February 18 to March 10). He does not speak to anyone during the performance. The curator Josh Young, on his own initiative, provides food, water, and toilet facilities for the sleeping artist. The time for this endurance performance lasts twenty-two days. The space is framed by the boundary of the gallery, and the bed becomes the stage entirely occupied by a performing body. Source here.
Larry adds, “Tilda, however has a schedule, and like, we don't know when she'll show up.”
Now I don’t want to say that no one can ever do anything like this, because no form of art is off limits. But if you’re going to tackle a hackneyed subject, it had better be great. Like landscape painting, portraiture, still life, flower paintings (not to speak of video, photography and, any time now, digitally printed art)…we can only take them seriously if they’re approached in a way that gives the genre fresh new life. It’s my theory that Gerhard Richter purposefully challenges himself by choosing the most trite subject matter (a mother and baby—really!) and making something wonderful out of it.
Marina Abramovic, with The Artist is Present is an example of an artist who took the genreto another level. It wasn’t just a test of endurance; she filled that room with her charisma, her persona—qualities developed over a lifetime of experience and performance. We know this about actors—the best are those who can “hold” the stage, fill it with their presence, just as I want to make paintings that will “hold” a wall. This is why The Artist is Present worked and the “re-performances” didn’t, simply because the performers were not Marina Abramovic.
So next time you see someone lying on a bed in a gallery, or on a floor under a blanket, don’t kick them—that would be rude—but please, for me, give them a gentle tap and suggest they get a life.
** And wasn't there someone lying in a bed a couple of years ago at The New Museum? (I could have made that up.) However, all this reminds me of having read about about “human zoos” at 19thcentury World’s Fairs, where “primitive” families, usually from Africa, were presented in cages surrounded by ephemera from their natural habitat. So we've made some progress; at least those currently on display are doing it willingly.