- When Bodies Met Galleries: How Performance Art Changed the Art World’s View of Painting
Just before you head for the large, heavy exit door, having submitted yourself to the IKEA-esque herding route through the galleries housing A Bigger Splash, you might be thinking about the strangeness of the room you’re about to leave, with its trompe l’oeilrecreation of empty rooms in an old, posh house (Lucy McKenzie’s Slender Means, 2010). You might also be imagining the use of these rooms for acting and filmmaking (as in Lucile Desamory’s film ABRACADABRA, 2013). But unless you turn around, right before you push out the huge door in the wall, you will miss the gem of the whole exhibition, hanging there on the back of the wall of the fake posh room.
It’s a relatively small trompe l’oeilrendering of a sign by Lucy McKenzie, spelling out the words Communauté Emmaus. The piece is not in the catalog, and no information is given about it on the walls. But les Communautées Emmausare dwellings where anyone who finds him- or herself homeless, for whatever reasons, can come and live. Signs such as the one depicted are found on gates all over France, their distinctive postwar Italian-industrial aesthetic signaling that beyond the threshold is a place where anyone who needs a home can come, for as long as they want—with no need for “rehabilitation,” unless they want it—so long as they are willing to work and to be a “ compagnon.” Originally called chiffoniersbecause of their daily task picking rags, today’s companions still sustain their communities through their recycling (of wood, metal, [End Page 585]bric-a-brac, anything), but their name-change reflects the emphasis on ending isolation in this French response to homelessness. The commitment that Emmausrequires of all who go through its gates is not a commitment to re-housing but to the hard art practiced there: mutual accompaniment.
Perhaps this piece is included, and positioned where it is, because by the time you’ve made it to the end of A Bigger Splash, you’re (aware of your condition as) homeless. Everything you knew as home, in terms of how marks are made or what art is for, has been displaced—or, at least, an attempt has been made to so convince you. And now that you’re reeling with the dissolution this represents, there’s a sign to a community of also-once-homeless people. (Except, of course, it isn’t: it is an illusion.)
That one of modernity’s defining characteristics is homelessness is a well-honed thesis. But this exhibition explores the nature of such homelessness by going further than the usual diagnosis of division from our roots, our relationships to place, and our bonds with everything from other people to gods, institutions, and ideas. Instead, it explores homelessness within our very bodies, personal and political. It captures the moment when we realized both that we cannot do without them and we cannot be at all sure about them. From Lynn Herschman’s parody of magazine makeup advice (and its prescient view of cosmetic surgery) in Roberta Construction Chart #1(1975) to the collective IRWIN’s costumes(1980s), with their suited bodies foregrounding icons’ frames, we are confronted with our reliance on bodies for identities, and for dissolutions thereof.
For all that it both tests and champions bodies, breaking their taboos and reveling in their versatility and dynamism, I was surprised to find that the exhibition’s atmosphere conjured anxiety rather than, say, joy, delight, or a sense of adventure. This process begins with the title itself: A Bigger Splash—bigger than what, one asks, than that made by painting alone? Similarly with the subtitle: Painting after Performance—is performance over?
This anxious atmosphere is furthered by too many “Oh God, they’re not going to do that, are they?” moments. These...