One of the most problematic areas of contemporary art is that of performance art. It would not be far fetched to say that the standards of what should be considered as art in performance art have been increasingly lowered during the past five years and in particular since the creation of a rather problematic institution: Performa in NYC. The first issue that performance art raises is that of its setting. I am saying this because it usually takes place inside the white cube of the art gallery which indicates, as it has happened since Duchamp’s ‘ready made’, that anything that is placed (of happens) there should be considered as art.
I think that all these issues emerge when considering Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at the New Museum. In one of the pieces called ‘Me, My Mother, My Father and I’, a video projection of a scene from one of the first feature films to be made in Iceland ‘Morosaga’ (‘Murder Story’) from 197 is included. There, a well-to-do woman fantasises about seducing a plumber. She rips off his shirt and says: ‘Take me, take me here by the dishwasher!’. They embrace and drop to the kitchen floor. The actors are Kjartansson’s mother and father. According to family lore, he was conceived the height after the scene was shot. The projection of it loops on a wall in a bare, white, echoey space at the New Museum where ten musician, all men, sit on a miscellany of chairs, stools, a couch, a mattress and the floor. Wielding acoustic guitars, they play and, in scored parts, sing a song with lyrics that are varying arrangements of lines from the seduction scene’s stilted dialogue. It was composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, a former member of the Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros. Peformed repeatedly, the song, which is about three minutes long, generates a surging polyphony.
The musicians were recruited from New York’s plentiful ranks of talented singer-songwriters; they are among other things, band members, subway buskers, recent graduates of the Berklee College of Music and a journalism student who writes about music. At a rehearsal, Kjartansson, an amiable man, thirty eight years old, with fray blue eyes, pomaded reddish hair, a fuzz of whiskers and a becomingly modest mien, urged a spirit of ‘hominess’. He told the musicians that they should fancy themselves playing alone at home and should wear any old thing they liked, be it pyjamas or just underwear, to create an effect of inhabiting private worlds of their own. They perform the piece called ‘Take Me Here by the Dishwasher Memorial of Marriage’ (2011/2014), continuously, with staggered twenty minute breaks, for seven hours a day (ten on Thursdays), Wednesdays through Sundays, for eight weeks. Three alternate musicians will be kept on call. Kjartansson wanted to provide them with unlimited cigarettes and beer to produce a cumulative fug of smoke and alcohol and workingman sweat. The brew is on hand, in a refrigerator. Not the cigarettes. ‘Everybody at the museum tried everything to get permission. It is not possible in New York’. Kjartansson said. Staff members experimented with synthetic aromas, to make up for the lack, but succeeded only in fouling their offices with inaccurate stinks.
So one on hand we have the intention of the ‘artist’ to ‘fashion’ ‘hominess’ through clothes, attitude and smell which moves the source of artistic value from the material to the intentional. However, since this happens in an over professionalised and regulated museum, that fashioning is simply not possible. It seems that in today’s world, creating the conditions for something authentic to happen is just impossible. In a way, this is the death of the ‘ready made’ as a ‘ready made’ and the acceptance of performance art as an instrument to negotiate that death in a corporatised museum world. Is it me or the most allegedly forward thinking museums (the New Museum or the Serpentine in London) have become the most conservative ones? Just a thought.