PST: Judy Chicago, James Turrell, Hirokazu Kosaka performance art
Pacific Standard Time began its Performance and Public Art Festival on Thursday with Judy Chicago fogging up a corner of the Santa Monica Airport by building pyramids with chilly blocks of dry ice. Walking through it as it was being assembled, I felt slightly disoriented and almost slipped. That’s surely a sign of a successful artwork in a slippery medium.
An outgrowth of the visual art world -- but with DNA in music, dance and theater -- performance art has had many monikers. Time-based art is a catchall. In Vienna, parading around nude, covered in blood, and eroticizing the yucky bits the butcher throws out is known as Actionism. The Getty Research Institute once labeled its exhibition of public experimentation from postwar Japan as “Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art.” In the late '50s and early '60s, there were Happenings.
No longer just a pretension of academic jargon, the word “performative” has become normative. A news release described Hirokazu Kosaka’s “Kalpa,” which took place at the Getty Center Friday night, as a “performative installation.” But the term that characterized the events I took in on the first three days of the festival was public spectacle.
Saturday night, we packed into the Pomona College football field, huddled in the cold waiting for Chicago to set off fireworks in the shape of a butterfly. We were then herded to nearby Bridges Auditorium, which James Turrell made, with hidden flairs, look as though it were on fire. We watched from a distance in the bushes. A few art-world luminaries were allowed to be up close. The hall's arches had an inviting orange glow that did not look dangerous.
There was a participatory, almost party flavor to these performances. Documentation was favored over experience. Activities were witnessed through digital or cellphone cameras by a great many in the audiences. The uncommon, reality-enhancing phosphorescence of artwork was trivialized by the more commonplace glow of screens. Indeed, much of what was in my line of vision was the spectacle seen on other people’s screens.
If that were not enough, official photographers and videographers were given special license, and their distracting presence was all but guaranteed to unmake an artist’s atmosphere. Crowd control was another preoccupation by sponsoring institutions. The uncertainly principle in physics got new proof. Observers changed what was being observed.
As someone who spends most of his time with the more traditional performing arts of concert music, music theater, regular theater and dance, performance art has long been a guilty pleasure. It permits everything that is otherwise out of bounds, including getting rid of the need for professionalism and specialized technique (although they do tend to crop up in the best performance art).
But most attractive of all is the way that performance art is typically a hit-and-run activity. An artist makes an action to see what happens or makes a point or explores a context. A moment of life is enhanced.
What PST is attempting with its performance festival, which runs through Jan. 29 and includes an impossible-to-categorize range of activities (including intimate work and actual concerts), is the uncertain task of remaking hit-and-run incident from decades past, whether through re-creation or reinvention.
Chicago’s “A Butterfly for Pomona” was a pyrotechnical display based on her “Atmosphere” done four decades earlier. The wonder of this piece is experiencing the flares on the field slowly burn down over 20 minutes, as they make an enveloping hissing sound. But the crowd was restive and began an early mass exodus. Turrell’s “Burning Bridges” returned to a more casual performance in 1971 that was true hit-and-run. No one expected it, and the fire department was fooled and sent a hook and ladder. Saturday night everyone knew exactly what to expect, and this time the trucks and sirens seemed a stagey joke.
The piece that worked Saturday at Pomona was John M. White’s “Preparation F” from 1972 and held in the gym. The Pomona College football team rushed in wearing street clothes. The players undressed while chatting up the audience (shades of Chippendales) and put on their uniforms. A coach (dancer Steve Nagler) led them in awkward movements (choreographed by Pam Casey). The physicality of the thudding of bodies in close proximity was compelling. The gym was crowded, but a sense of intimacy remained.
This felt like a real performance, not a spectacle. Cameras were permitted, but the intimacy was intimidating and surprisingly few were used.
What a thought that is for the 21st century. Once more, performance art made the world immediate by making a part of football normally off-limits to fans accessible. Even more impressive, White momentarily returned us to a time before cellphones and cameras of convenience. And with these banging bodies, he gave a new artistic connotation to hit-and-run.
-- Mark Swed
Photo: Top, John M. White's "Preparation F" at Pomona College Saturday night; middle, Judy Chicago's "Butterfly for Pomona." Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times.