TDR: The Drama Review 44.2 (2000) 153-155
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Body Art/Performing the Subject
Body Art/Performing the Subject . By Amelia Jones. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998; 352 pp.; illustrations. $62.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
Amelia Jones's volume is part of a recent resurgence of interest by art historians in the genre of performance, which she articulates as "body art." The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art's ambitious exhibit and catalog, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 (Shimmel 1998) took an historical narrative approach. Jones's book, along with the likes of Kathy O'Dell's Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s (1998) and Jane Blocker's Where Is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Peformativity, and Exile (1999) as well as yet unpublished research by a new generation of feminist art historians, reflect more theoretical and political goals, oftentimes aiming at the recuperation of early feminist performance artists who were dismissed as "essentialist" during the heyday of deconstructivist feminist theory in the 1980s.
Jones identifies her work as "phenomenologically inflected feminist poststructuralism" (11), relying heavily on Judith Butler and Maurice-Merleau Ponty, with strategic pinch-hitting by Jacques Lacan and Simone de Beauvoir. Accordingly, she refuses to privilege live performance as an "originary" moment over (art) objects of documentation. Instead, performance is an act of reiteration, which opens out for her utopian postmodern vision the theoretical possibilities for a new production of subjectivity. And the stakes are not inconsequential:
[B]ody art can open up the entire domain of art interpretation, encouraging the development of a new reading praxis that acknowledges the masculinist, racist, homophobic, and classist assumptions underlying the disciplines of art history and criticism and their rhetoric of disinterested aesthetic judgment and historical narration. (19)
Jones proposes that body art, when deeply engaged, is a postmodern critique of modernist critical authority, because it posits a spectator and thus an exchange, which demands acknowledgment of desire and subjective specificity. "As the artist is marked as contingent, so is the interpreter, who can no longer (without certain contradictions being put into play) claim disinterestedness in relation to this work of art (in this case, the body/self of the artist)" (9). If only the dynamics of performance were this simple. Is the artist's postmodern posture automatically incorporated by the viewer? And, if so, does the critic's own acknowledged desire always produce critical self-awareness? Can those contradictions--the stuff that subjectivity is made of--be so easily deleted from the equation?
Jones begins with three paradigmatic body artists: the mythic Jackson Pollock, read as a Foucauldian "performative author function" that serves as text for rewriting; Vito Acconci, who both stages and destabilizes male heterosexual privilege; and a feminist critique of Hannah Wilke's "radical narcissism." [End Page 153] In the final chapter, she turns to recent work, most notably the "technophenomenological body" produced by Maureen Connor and Laurie Anderson; the "particularized" subjectivities articulated by Lyle Ashton Harris and Laura Aguilar; and the mutilated bodies of Orlan and Bob Flanagan. Theirs is a "posthuman" body/self, "technologized, specifically unnatural, and fundamentally unfixable in identity or subjective/objective meaning in the world" (199). The results: "the body/self as dispersed, multiple, and particularized has dramatically progressive potentialities, especially for women and other subjects historically excluded from the privileged category of individual" (204). This chapter on the newer works is the freshest, perhaps because this is the work that provides her theoretical framework, so the theory and practice are conversantly compelling. When engaging the earlier artists, however, Jones's readings get more gymnastic and less convincing. I suggest reading the book out of order, starting with the chapter on contemporary body art, "Dispersed Subjects and the Demise of the 'Individual': 1990s Bodies in/as Art," before proceeding to those on Pollock, Acconci, and Wilke.
Jones's analyses are intricate. Chapters three and four in a nutshell:
Thus, while Acconci attempts to make his (male) body vulnerable in order to open it to intersubjectivity, facetiously enacting (and perhaps benefiting from) the transcendence...