Boston University Art Gallery chronicles century of performance art history
Published: Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 05:02
The Boston University Art Gallery is hosting a traveling exhibit until late March, titled "100 Years (version #4 Boston, 2012)." The exhibit reveals the evolution of performance art and is intended as an archive of information about the medium for students of the fine arts. The gallery boasts reproducible texts along with photographic, film and audio materials. All are in loose chronological order in a timeline. Many of the pieces are unsettling but undeniably fascinating.
The display is cluttered and somewhat overwhelming, with the walls covered in a collage of clippings that makes the gallery look like the bedroom of a pseudo-edgy teenager. But despite its shortcomings, "100 Years" is definitely worth a visit to learn more about performance art's history.
One of the earliest movements of performance art discussed in the exhibit is Dadaism, which emerged as nihilistic backlash against the horrors of World War I. A laminated copy of Tristan Tzara's "Dada Manifesto, 1918" explains that Dada means nothing and breaks down the intentional emptiness of the movement.
René Clair's "Entr'acte" (1924) is a short film grounded in the Dadaist notion of "instantisme," the celebration of the fleeting and ephemeral. The piece is extremely esoteric, with images of dolls with shrinking heads, an undershot of a spinning ballerina and two men jumping up and down as a cannon fires. The only thing that connects the images to one another is their short-lived nature. The exhibit asserts that Dadaism leaves its viewer with more than just bewilderment — it also makes observers existentially question whether or not everything in our world is random and insignificant.
Performance art became highly sexualized by the 1960s. Carolee Schneeman's "Meat Joy" (1964) is a film of an erotic Dionysian rite. Partially naked men and women dance ecstatically with one another as they rub raw chicken, fish and sausage on their bare skin. At one point, a man tucks an entire raw chicken — gizzard and all — in his briefs. The video is extremely bizarre; Schneeman created it with the intent to challenge taboos of pleasure and sexuality. The imagery aims to stimulate the viewer's five senses, but it mostly leaves audiences with a feeling of revulsion. Regardless, "Meat Joy's" unadulterated provocation makes the piece unforgettable.
The 1970s performance art on display focuses heavily on eroticism as well. For example, Lynda Benglis' video "Female Sensibility" (1973) beautifully confronts patriarchy. Two women kiss and caress, their faces framed in tight focus. Their interaction is completely silent, though the film has voiceovers of obnoxious male talk show hosts making misogynist remarks. One of the male hosts angrily preaches about Adam and Eve — an intense juxtaposition with the erotic imagery on screen. "Female Sensibility" is one of the most thought-provoking pieces in the exhibit, revealing the extreme tensions surrounding gender and sexuality.
Patty Chang's "Melons (At a Loss)" (1999), is one of the few works in "100 Years" that can be interpreted as comical. Chang is known for her use of humor, embarrassment and masochism in her performances. In this piece, she slices open one side of her bra and reveals a melon. She then starts spooning it out and eating it as she balances a dish on her head and talks about her deceased aunt. The piece conjures up conflicting emotions. On the one hand, the viewer cannot help but laugh at the ridiculousness of her actions, but on the other hand, it is hard to laugh at the solemnity of what she is saying.
This review only describes a tiny portion of the art on display in "100 Years." The exhibit is packed with examples of performance art spread out over a century. Do not visit it if you just want to look at "pretty" or aesthetically pleasing art. But if you want to experience art that makes you uncomfortable, maybe even a little squeamish at times, while sending a profound message, "100 years" is for you.