In the darkened spaces at the Kitchen in New York, an exhibition of artist moving image and sculpture creates a choreographed experience of altering temporalities for a visitor to move between. There is a backstage industrial feel to the gallery which is exaggerated by the presence of black scaffold structures from which flat screen monitors play. Initially I see and hear numerous bodies on screen; speaking, gesturing, rolling, walking, running, returning and repeating. But the space I inhabit, is absent of any consciously performing bodies. This exhibition is not ‘of’ performance, rather it invites thought on how performance and the performer can be positioned to challenge current inequality, oppression and false-truths. Julia Phillips’ sculptural works accentuate this absence through her disjointed contours of figures constructed with solid household materials, where the negative spaces are intended ‘to be the site for the unsaid and unshaped’. Kevin Beasley’s sculptures, also human-like, are resin cast house dresses. They create a rigidity to push up against, and run counter to our inherent understanding of penetrable, fallible bodies.
Before arriving at the exhibition, I’ve repeatedly stumbled over the title. It is a quote by Ian White (writer, artist, performer and curator) which acts as a device in the exhibition to encourage a close, critical reading taking into account historical and contemporary context (similar to philosopher Jacques Derrida’s practice of deconstruction). The ‘, to go on:’ implies an action, a ‘now what?’, and in the exhibition, it is the performers on screen that propose the dynamic impulse.
Martine Syms’ ‘Notes on Gesture’ (2015) features the artist Diamond Stingily performing in front of a purple studio backdrop. She repetitively produces gestures on screen and with every looped movement the audio jerks back and forth with her. As the performer responds to prompted fictional scenarios, she acts out movements: clasping hands, shoulder shrugs, quizzing expressions, claps, taps, dances and flicks of braided hair. A language of gesture is played out with comic ease, but with each repetition the artists draws attention to the fictions and conceptual staging of the situation. The work challenges constructions of identity, here played out through gesture, that are advocated through popular memes and previously US sitcoms, unpicking how performance of a position, however unfixed, is engrained in our encounters with popular culture. These encounters are informed by our relationship with them in that time and place. This truth is experimented with by Babette Mangolte in her film work ‘Four Pieces by Morris’ (1993) in which she emphasised the bodies of the performers as a method to take to acknowledge that the sense of time in the 60s (when Robert Morris’ performances were conceived) is different to the 90s. Likewise, ‘Obama’s Grace’ (2016) by Lorenza Mondada (with Nicolle Bussien, Sara Keel, Hanna Svensson, and Nynke van Schepen) reflects on the responsive and repetitive interactions between the then president Barack Obama and his vocal audience, during his speech fiercely denouncing racism in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting of 2015.
Steffani Jemison’s three-part moving image work ‘Personal’ (2014) similarly uses repetition as a device to draw attention to the political power of a physical occupancy of space. Three vignettes focus on walking black male protagonists, their steps re-orientated between scenes where they appear to walk forward and backward, amidst standers-by moving forward at their true pace. Linear time is disjointed and disoriented and it is hard to decipher the direction at any one moment. The most resonant of the three scenes takes place in front of an unfinished painted mural depicting the recognisable faces of Nelson Mandela next to Obama. A man slowly walks back and forth between the faces of Mandela and Obama, these two men who are frequently considered to symbolise ‘racial progression’ (I draw on US critic Ben Lerner’s observation of the work here). The idea that the state of equality in the US has progressed is unpicked through the slow, ambling of the man on the street. The three protagonists in each part of Jemison’s work are all actors, performing slow occupancies of public space, at a time in the US when activist campaigns such as Black Lives Matter are once again having to fight to protect the lives of people under systematic threat in the US.
If these interventions look into recent history through a lens on the US and its global influences in popular culture, other works in the exhibition consider how narratives of the individual are formed, and positions are taken or imposed upon. The performance-to-camera work ‘Foe’ (2008) by artist Brendan Fernandes appears to be an elocution class. The performer (the artist himself) is learning to speak an extract from the novel ‘Foe’ (J. M. Coetzee, 1986) in the ‘accents’ of his cultural backgrounds; Fernandes is Kenyan, Indian and Canadian. In his attempts to act out these different voices through this book’s script, he prompts consideration that positions are not static and challenges the idea that an accent is some kind of authentication of a culture. Silvia Kolbowski’s two portrait moving-image works of Ulrike Meinhof (1934-76) and Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) reference a more distant history in Germany of Marxist resistance to escalating capitalism. In ‘A Few Howls Again?’ (2010), we see an actress as Meinhof coming back into consciousness from death through a stop-motion sequence. The work recounts a historical narrative of the female militant figure that was produced through the press hysteria since and Meinhof’s own writings in relation to the inequalities of her time. Her ‘terrorism’ sounds rational through her own writings but is terrorised through the mediation of the press. A tactic that feels all too familiar in both the UK and the US media now in 2017.
The exhibition, like other contemporary art projects of this moment, cites the urgent social and political crises being experienced in countries like the US and the UK. The works in the exhibition, decipher the truths and fictions of representation and identity through dislodging our relationship with time. Importantly they show how through performances that challenge the falsities created by those in perceived positions of power (particular politicians and press), truth can be under continuous construction through the actions of every performer.