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A noisy silence
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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 21.1 (1999) 1-10

Exhibition Review


Out of Actions
Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979. February 8-May 10, 1998, The Museum of Contemporary Art at the Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles; June 17-September 6, 1998, MAK-Austrian Museum of Applied Arts; October 15-January 6, 1999, Museu d'Art Contemporani, Barcelona; February 11-April 11, 1999, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

A not so subtle tension lurks just beneath the surface of the Los Angeles Musuem of Contemporary Art's extraordinary exhibition, "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979." If the essence of performance is an immediacy that by definition disappears once the performance is over, how does an institution, especially one devoted to the presentation of art objects, create a physical encounter with a disappearing act? And, more importantly, how does this institution, through its curatorial voice, address the significance of an ephemeral art without reducing the art to its artifacts: props, photographs, videos, sets, costumes?

This dilemma receives immediate attention at the entrance to MoCA's vast exhibition. Across from the admission's desk is the Visitors' Gallery which was established to provide a user friendly introduction to whatever exhibition is on view. For "Out of Actions," two L.A.-based artists with long track records in performance and multimedia, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, were invited to "introduce" the exhibition in what would inevitably be a controversial manner, given their proclivities (McCarthy's contribution to the '97 Whitney Biennial featured a video of Santa's helpers defecating into pots; but more on feces later). To the museum's credit, they let stand what is essentially a debunking of the exhibition's very existence, which, in Kelley's and McCarthy's eyes, is an atempt "to sway the construction of the history of performance art in the direction of a materialist art-historical reading." "Museums," they go on to say in a printed statement available in the gallery, "continue to find it difficult to present work whose . . . form and subject are time, memory, perception, spoken language, sound, human action, and interaction. . . . This prejudice creates an object-oriented history of contemporary art. Many significant works of art do not reference the genres of sculpture or painting and are not meant to be seen within the physical framework of the museum." Touché. With this as an introduction, why should any self-respecting art lover venture into this obviously museumized/historicized/commodified/object-ified, not to say greedy, spectacle that stands in such stark contrast to the spontaneous, low-tech, unfunded artist actions it claims to celebrate? Because it is an exhaustive, essential exposition that goes far toward creating a memory filled with irrefutable evidence that a movement called performance art did indeed exist in time, fueling a revolution in art that no museum can contain. But it took a museum to do it; and to do it with such style that it accommodates the iconoclastic, anti-object spirit so eloquently stated (and presented) by Kelley and McCarthy.

With representative work (photographs, videos, re-creations, and, yes, a multitude of objects related to performances) from a broad range of international artists and collectives, "Out of Actions" succeeds in positing links between disparate groups (especially Japan's Gutai, Vienna's Actionists, and the so-called New York School) that, often without direct knowledge of one another's activities, were engaging in politically or socially charged actions that emphasized the processes of art making and the making of art based on the basic material of the human body. While it is possible that "performance" and "object" are ultimately irreconcilable terms, "Out of Actions" is laudable for its curatorial ambition and historic reach.

With the assistance of an international team of scholars, curator Paul Schimmel cast a wide net across many movements and continents to support his tightly conceived thesis that in the wake of World War II (characterized by the Holocaust and the atomic bomb) the art world developed a new consciousness that incorporated "destruction" as the co-equal of "creation" in the making of art. In 1949 the canvas was inexorably insulted by the drippings...

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