There is a certain Hans Ulrich Obrist-ian logic at scheduling Trisha Donnelly’s show immediately after Marina Abramovic’s ‘performathon’ of nothingness at the Serpentine Gallery. Both artists’ projects entail a transformation of the space through an ‘intervention’ of sorts which in the case of the former is achieved through the deployment of fragmentary objects (or images of objects) and in the case of the latter through showcasing herself as art. In any case, there is a transfer of the source of artistic value from the object to the viewer as part of the mechanics of artistic creation in post-Duchampian times.


Let’s agree on the fact that for performance art to happen, the artistic ‘event’ must coincide with the duration of its ‘viewing’ and it is precisely that performance of viewing that Abramovic monumentalises and Donnelly deconstructs. A few years ago in Manchester, I saw the latter delivering a drum-pounding, soprano screaming, incantatory performance titled ‘The Second Saint’ at Hans Ulrich Obrist’s and Philippe Parreno’s performance-art extravaganza Il Tempo del Postino, a fully confident yet, for all its noise, muted display ending with the fall of four black obelisks. In ‘The Redwood and the Raven’ (2004), she documented the headscarf-wearing dancer Frances Flannery performing, against a tree in a forest, a dance called ‘The Raven’, choreographed to Edgar Allen Poe’s eponymous 1845 poem. It was borderline perverse because you couldn’t grasp the moves, hear the poem or precisely remember the previous images you saw. The performance of viewing it or experiencing it was announced but always stopped. These performances problematised the possibility of the interruption (or the dilusion) of that experience as a constitutive part of the artistic experience. Art as a promise that never happens and because of that, should be understood as art.


In her New York solo debut at Casey Kaplan in 2002, Donnelly rode into the opening on a white horse, dressed in Napoleonic garb, and, acting as ersatz courier, delivered the oration that the French emperor supposedly should have given at the Battle of WaterlooL ‘If it needed to be termed surrender, then let it be so, for he has surrender in word, not will. He has said, ‘My fall will be great but it will be useful’. The emperor has fallen and he reses his weight upon your mind and mine and with this I am electric. I am electric’.

Untitled, 2014

By 2005, Donnelly didn’t even require a real horse, stage-managed rumour was enough. At the opening of a show at the Kölnischer Kunstverein celebrating a major artist’s prize she’d won, word ‘got around’ that another steed was waiting somewhere in the institution, that Donnelly would perform -and the artist, curator Beatrix Ruf remembers, left the preview dinner a few times to reinforce the idea. It never happened but the very possibility coloured the event. This is what Suzanne Cotter has called Donnelly’s ideal of the ‘uncontrived encounter’, something Donnelly herself calls ‘natural use’ and which is the carefully controlled outcome of so much of her work.

It is characteristic of Donnelly’s art that one simultaneously falls under the spell and has a sense, related to critique, of how a spell is cast. What’s likely is that no spell at all or at best a pale shadow of a spell, is cast if this art is received secondhand, and here her work twists uncharacteristically polemical. I am saying this because it always risks falling into a mere illustration of a formula which could be summarised as ‘fragments presented as fragments but never truly shown’. If you want, my problem with the Serpentine show is how much of a contemporary art slogan it is. J A T