On our class trip to the Whitney Museum, we were to focus primarily on the “Rituals of Rented Island” exhibit which centered on ephemera (like photographs, video footage, props, etc.) from “happenings” or performance art pieces performed during the 1970s and 1980s. Artist’s creating within this temporal art form were most prolific at this time, incorporating different traditions such as acting, music, spoken word, and dance. These “happenings” would mostly take place in dingy lofts, and alternative spaces; their work generally commenting on the social, political, and cultural zeitgeist of that time.
One piece in particular, Michael Smith’s “Secret Horror”, seemed to bea critique on the inconsistency and absurdity of American culture. This piece, which is shown in a video format, involves Smith’s popular character Mike, a naïve individual who constantly falls prey to trends and fashions and his own foolish ambitions. We watch Mike as he wakes up and discovers he has a drop ceiling accompanied by an aimless voiceover. The video shows Mike getting ready for a partyand as he irons his clothes the situation gets continuously bizarre: sheeted ghosts arrive and take him away, the TV whispers peculiar things to him, and he joins the ghosts in a song and dance of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Smith utilizes the televised tradition of entertainment in order to shed light on its homogenizing quality. His persona—Mike, serves as a prototypical example of an American television viewer and the influence that may have as well as the silly mimicry that can take place when the viewer attempts to amalgamate his own image with the one onscreen.
Squat Theater’s “Andy Warhol’s Last Love” is a video in which a performer wearing a mask of famous pop artist Andy Warhol rides the street of New York City on horseback. This peculiar scene would seem to criticize much of America’s actions during the 1960’s Vietnam War. As the actor gallops through the streets, a girl raises her skirt for him, a man is shot, and a man with half of his face burned passes on the street. However, the artist just rides pass, unaffected by the turmoil unraveling before him—this disregard possibly paralleling the indifference of those in power to the masses affected by the war at home and overseas.
The ephemeral quality of this temporal art form is an obvious distinction from other kinds. Although the work is mainly conceptual which is something yet to be diluted even with time, the visceral nature of the performance aspect is stripped from the piece. The living/breathing trait which defines performance art is completely lost when shown in the showcase style of the gallery. While I could still be somewhat affected by the pieces and grasp some vague understanding, what I ended up experiencing were but vestiges of the intended aesthetic of the artist.
Video, color, sound; 13:17 min.
“Claim Excerpts, 1971”
Videotape, b&w, sound; 62:11 min.
“Andy Warhol’s Last Love”
Video, b&w and color, sound; 60 min.