Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers – 5 April, 2011
What makes this show so interesting is the relationship between Allen's live performances and their documentation. Alongside the remains of the final act - a scaffolding structure littered with dried paint and scrunched up newspaper - viewers can watch films of both Allen's original 1970s performances and the documentation of these recently restaged at ARTSPACE.
5 March - 21 APRIL 2011
I have to admit that I was gripped by a kind of childlike excitement in the lead-up to Jim Allen’s performance series at ARTSPACE. Over the past three weeks the gallery has hosted a re-staging of Allen’s seminal 1974 performance Contact. Like many in the ARTSPACE audience my only experience of Allen’s works has been through slides shown in art history lectures about post-object art in New Zealand. Where these images showed stilled fragments of what seemed like quiet dynamic performances - paint splattered people, analog technologies and floral 70s underwear - the ARTSPACE redux offered an exciting opportunity to experience the works in the flesh and in their entirety.
The performance series Contact is being toured by the Govett-Brewster whose retrospective exhibition of Allen’s work Points of Contact also included works by Len Lye and Helio Oiticica. Where the latter also exhibited some of Allen’s significant sculptural pieces, the ARTSPACE exhibition offers a more concise focus on the Contact series and its documentation.
The three performances that make up Contact each centre on the corporeal interactions of a small group of participants. Computer Dance involved six blindfolded women and men attempting to ‘make contact’ through the machine by matching receiver and transmission devices held in their hands. With a nod to Oiticica, the participants of Parangole Capes were similarly reliant on one another to tear free from the beautifully constructed hessian cocoons that bound their arms and legs. Body Articulation/Imprint saw a more energetic and impish interaction between the performers as they smeared each other with bucketfuls of primary-coloured paint.
Each performance seemed designed to focus attention on the fundamental conditions of human activity revealed through basic interactions between bodies, space and material. The audience carefully watched as the participants - all of whom had some theatrical training or experience - negotiated the physical and conceptual conditions of their performance. In this way each work generated a notably different tone. Parangole Capes hinted at a primitive sexuality where performers used their mouths to tear each other free of their elaborate fastenings. The fumbling interactions of participants across a slippery paint smeared floor in Body Articulation offered some truly comic moments with peals of laughter coming from both performers and audience. Conversely, the constant flicking on and off of lights in Computer Dance had a more authoritarian and controlling tone. Watching Allen’s performances was to witness a series of small, strange and unscientific experiments in human behavior.
At times the emphasis on heterosexual pairing made me uneasy. Although the prominence of sexual difference had been notably toned down from the original performances, Computer Dance set the scene for an essential heteronormative pairing of man and woman. Opposing genders could only generate a buzzing sound by blindly directing their devices at each other. Some in the audience suggested that the men were more active and forceful than the women in their attempt to make a match. Others disagreed with this interpretation of events. Either way, I was reluctant to draw any transcendent human truths from this sexual pairing.
Nevertheless, Contact is not simply a standard retrospective airing of Allen’s seminal works. What makes this show so interesting is the relationship between Allen’s live performances and their documentation. Alongside the remains of the final act - a scaffolding structure littered with dried paint and scrunched up newspaper - viewers can watch films of both Allen’s original 1970s performances and the documentation of these recently restaged at ARTSPACE. The result is that the experience of Allen’s performances - all of which appeared so focused on momentary corporeal interactions - is no longer solely located in the unique moment, but has been stretched over several different temporal forms and filtered through successive technological means of documentation.
Allen’s restaging of Contact comes at a time when artists are exploring different ways of engaging with the historical past and also, more specifically, with the radical performance practices of the 1960s and 1970s. Although Marina Abramovic’s epic and complex work Seven Easy Pieces of 2005 requires greater discussion, I can’t help but briefly mention it here. Abramovic’s restaging of seminal performance pieces from the 60s and 70s - works such as Vito Acconci’s infamous Seedbed and Valie Export’s brilliantly titled Action Pants: Genital Panic - effectively problematised the radical ephemeral character of performance art by steadfastly focusing on its documentation (these issues were discussed in interesting, although somewhat polemic, lecture by art historian Amelia Jones in Auckland last year).
Performances by artists such as Allen and Abramovic fundamentally challenged the prevailing ascendancy of the material art object. Their works focused on the momentary relationship between performer and audience and left little material residue to be collected by institutions or sold by dealers (I understand that only one of Allen’s sculptures exists in the collections of a New Zealand public gallery). Younger performance artists such as Tino Sehgal have taken up this resolute ephemerality by not allowing any documentation of their works to exist. This yearning for an authentic, unmediated experience was perhaps the underlying cause of the irritation felt by many during the Computer Dance performance where a cameraman ‘intruded’ into the participants’ space to film them. Far from maintaining an inconspicuous distance, the cameraman stepped into the scaffolding structure and stood right in the thick of it. The process of documentation had become part and parcel of the performative experience itself.
Nevertheless, as someone who uses Facebook, I realise that all sorts of experiences-from babies at bath-time to drunken karaoke nights-are similarly mediated by photographic technologies. It is not so easy to evade persistent documentation during an era where the spontaneous moment must always be somehow reproduced and relived. Nevertheless, Allen is drawing on the traditions of another more ancient artform. The Contact series has become like a play -something that can take on another life and character in a different time and place.
On a final note, Allen’s film Hanging By A Thread playing in ARTSPACE’s long gallery offers a moment of release from the circulatory comparison of old and new. In contrast to the carefully determined conditions of Allen’s performances, the film can be somewhat disorientating. It brings together a collection of cinematic fragments that include among other things: panning shots of shoes being placed one after the other along a wooden structure, passage of Lygia Clark texts and flowers clustered around tinfoil wrapped tree branches. It is as though the random pages of an artist’s journal have made into a beautifully produced film. A reminder, perhaps, that Allen’s significant and exploratory practice continues to weave its way through a variety of media.