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Theatre Journal 55.4 (2003) 747-748
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In Other Los Angeleses: Multicentric Performance Art. By Meiling Cheng. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Pp. Xxxiv + 407.
Meiling Cheng examines performance art in Los Angeles, focusing especially on the 1990s. Subtitled Multicentric Performance Art, her book is keen, insightful, and rigorous. This work is for scholars, advanced students, and theory-minded performers. It is fresh, important, challenging, and vital. Cheng's writing is rich with vivid and profound definitions, penetrating and exact articulations of complex performance modalities, and vibrant, spirit-charged prose that transports the reader into an image-filled dream realm that well approximates the experience of first-rate performance art, reminding us of "the scars left on flesh by fire spitting tongues" (65). Cheng declares that this book and her act of writing are her own first-person performance, implicitly placing a proprietary stamp not just on her own ideas, but on the artists she writes about. It's as if the same dialogue of engagement that connects her with the medium and its artists endows her with the status of co-creator, the developer and bearer of the artists' flaming emblems. If her writing occasionally slides into linguistic overkill, In Other Los Angeleses is still a work of power: demands made on the reader are well worth the effort. Cheng's ideas will animate informed discussions of performance for a long time to come.
Cheng's L.A. is a First World capital sitting on a sprawling Third World megalopolis. Just as L.A.'s horizontal sprawl is organized around many interdependent centers, performance in L.A. can be understood to happen in and around interconnected clusters of venues, performance cultures, individual performers, and performance communities.
Multiple definitions of performance art are offered, some quite provocative. For example, performance art is "an artistic practice that deliriously celebrates its own insufficiency" (xv). The definitions are variously narrow, broad, historicized, L.A.-localized, poetic, and personal. Cheng's definitions are useful additions to those posited by Roselee Goldberg and other scholars. Cheng exposes as high art snobbery the anti-theatrical biases of performance art's visual art-oriented pioneers. She champions theatre as a legitimate and honorable influence. She likens newcomers to the medium as "immigrants" with "old settlers" reluctant to accept them (60-63). To Cheng "performance art is 'conceptually owned' by whoever desires to name it" (18). She identifies reflective, redressive, and generative functions of performance. The redressive function promotes change of external conditions, usually social or political. The generative function creates a cultural product springing from an internal aesthetic impulse—art for its own sake. It impacts L.A. by altering the cultural texture of the city. The reflective function is never directly defined but refers to the presence of performance in the city's geographical and historical context. Lines of historical events, collective memory, and legend intersect with locations, venues, and present [End Page 747] performance cultures to form a grid that alters and affects the way the city knows itself.
The spring 1998 "Out of Actions" retrospective exhibition of performance art from 1949-1979 at Museum of Contemporary Art is identified and examined as an event of significance. Cheng questions why Judy Chicago's 1979 "Dinner Party" was left out of the exhibition. She asks why there was "not even a single photograph" of this milestone piece (83). Perhaps she herself could offer redress for the legion of L.A. performers admittedly excluded from mention in her book. She can't write about everybody, but doesn't the uninformed reader deserve at least a list and/or brief summation of what's missing? "Multicentricity," a word she uses frequently, is her approach, but the identification of a limited number of "centers" implies that the ones mentioned are the main trees in the forest.
Suzanne Lacy is spotlighted artistically highlighting her woman's body, despite implied essentialism. Lacy's collaborative work builds a frame and structure that accommodates many voices and even allows for controversy. Elia Arce is an example of "transculturation" (xxviii), Cheng's term for the...