Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Born and raised in South Africa, Roselee Goldberg is a pioneering figure in the international study of performance/live art – her 1979 book performance: live art 1909 to the present remains a pivotal text. Kathryn Smith spoke to the New York-based critic, curator and scholar

You founded the first performance art biennale, PERFORMA, which takes place in New York City. The inaugural event in 2005 seemed to enjoy an extremely positive response. What motivated you to initiate this event? Performance is always presented as a sideshow, an oddity in the history of visual arts, yet throughout the twentieth century it has been a critical catalyst in shaping art history. It is a part of art history, not separate from it. In fact it’s impossible for me to look at the work of contemporary artists, whether Vito Acconci, Cindy Sherman, Maurizio Cattelan, Tracy Emin, William Kentridge or Matthew Barney, and not to see performance as integral to their work. I wanted to create a biennial that would look very carefully at the history of performance and to edit contemporary work in such a way as to provide critical reference points for viewers to understand its impact. In some ways, I think of the role of PERFORMA as that of a ‘museum without walls.’ An extraordinary history of artists’ performance waits to be revealed in intelligent and exciting ways and PERFORMA will examine different chapters from this history during each biennial. At the same time, I want to provoke an entirely new chapter in the history of performance, with special PERFORMA Commissions. To suggest new directions for performance in the twenty-first century, which are as sophisticated, seductive and significant as the best contemporary art today. You graduated from London’s Courtauld Institute, and served as the director of the gallery of the Royal College of Art, and The Kitchen in New York. What prompted you to leave South Africa, and how did you become interested in the visual arts as a career option, particularly performance? Growing up in South Africa in the era of Sharpeville, the 180-day detention laws [Criminal Procedure Amendment Act No 96 of 1965], and in the generally oppressive and frightening atmosphere of a police state, I was always anxious to leave South Africa. I imagined a more fair and just society in Europe, and headed to London in 1968. At the same time, South Africa provided an extraordinary education; a hyper-awareness of politics and economics as driving the lives we live; music that moves through the bloodstream and makes one’s heart race; landscape that is imprinted in one’s psyche; an obsession with multi-culturalism before such a word existed. No matter how far one roams, a South African background continues to have powerful effect.As regards my ‘career choices’ in visual arts, art history and performance; the answer is autobiographical. I was a dancer from the time I was four and a half years old (tap, ballet, classical Spanish, classical Indian dance, modern) and I studied art history and painted through high school in Durban. At Wits I majored in art history, fine arts (with Guiseppe Cattaneo, Judith Mason, Cecily Sash, Erica Mitchell, Robert Hodgins, Eric Furney, Elizabeth Rankin) and political science.I was torn between being a dancer and a painter, and when I discovered the work of Oskar Schlemmer at an exhibition of the Bauhaus in London, I found an artist whose entire oeuvre was about examining both fields. Schlemmer wrote extensively in his diaries about his conflicting interests in dance and visual art and developed a theatre workshop and drawing studio to link the two. I wrote my thesis at the Courtauld on Schlemmer, and have continued to write about the connections between disciplines ever since.Practitioners and viewers understand performance art and the performing arts (dance, theatre, music) somewhat differently. You also use the term “live art”. Can you discuss your particular understanding of the various genres? I am not sure I would call them genres per se. Rather we might discuss different contexts – art context versus the dance or theatre or music worlds. Each has its own language and particular evolution. But then there are times when an artist crosses into a different milieu and takes from another discipline, or uses aspects of the other language to articulate their own experiments. Think of Yvonne Rainer or Trisha Brown, who straddled both dance and art worlds, or of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in avant-garde music and visual art. These artists used the art context of the late 1960s and early 70s to develop their most experimental work, which later would be integrated into the histories of their original disciplines of dance or music.Performance art is a very general term that describes the spaces in between disciplines. It recognizes the art world as a permissive place where radical experimentation is expected and its history shows that artists have always instigated live events to confront audiences or to articulate their ideas. Studying this history calls for an understanding of the sociology of artists’ lives, how they think, with whom they interact. The term “live art”, first used as the sub-title of my book when it was published in 1979, says it more directly; live performance by visual artists.You have pointed out that performance is central to the notion of the avant-garde; that it was at the core of some of the most radical, paradigm-shifting moments in modern art, corresponding with social or political upheaval or uncertainty. Given the current state of world politics, do you see a resurgence of interest in live art strategies within contemporary art praxis? Has the register shifted somewhat?The register is always shifting. We’re talking about more than a hundred years of performance history, some of it more radical and paradigm shifting than others. I think there is a resurgence of interest in 1970s performance, but from a generation that seems more interested in its form than its content. The current generation is not especially active politically, as people inevitably had to be in the 1960s and 70s. There’s a general sense of malaise about politics around the globe, but only a few artists have been articulating such concerns in their work (for example Coco Fusco, or The Atlas Group). I am sure we will see changes in the coming year, in response to the distressing wars in the Middle East and in various African countries.The discourses of Dada, Futurism and Conceptual Art are central to your approach to ‘writing’ of the histories of live art. Yet it has been argued that these discourses, particularly Futurism, have a rather problematic relationship to gender issues. Given that performance has been so critical to feminist art practices, what are your thoughts on this?Futurism raises many problematic issues in relation to fascism as much as to feminism. Women were not especially recognised by the Cubists or Surrealists either. At the Bauhaus, they were relegated to the craft departments. Art reflects its own times, so it does not surprise me that such problematic issues existed. The powerful feminist movement of the 1970s in the States, following the Civil Rights movement, provided the launch pad for feminism in art and art history. Performance quickly became a vehicle for radical feminism, because it was an entirely open field. It also provided an immediate outlet and a very public one, for ideas formed in consciousness-raising sessions in collectives such as Women House in Los Angeles. The nature of performance fundamentally challenges and troubles the conventions of museum or gallery display, as well as the historical (and market) fetishization of the art object. What specific demands does performance place on curators, as well as institutional infrastructures? Curators are finally paying attention to performance, for one significant reason. They have no choice. The 1970s is now history and any curator researching that decade will find that almost all the material was performance-based and that most of the ‘solid objects’ that remain are in fact documentation of performances. A few specialized curators are tackling this material and thinking through ways in which this might be explained and exhibited in a museum context. The technology exists to show life-size films of performances, reconstructions are another option and a trained curatorial eye is necessary to sift through and select from the vast photographic and video archives of performance. It is complicated, because one is dealing with art that was intended to defy the museum context – radical experiments in the streets, on rooftops, in the landscape. One is also trying to tell a story about artists’ lives and how they live and work together. We’ll get there but it is a slow process of rethinking art history and inventing new kinds of exhibition display. For example, I couldn’t help thinking about how differently I would have ‘staged’ the recent Dada exhibition at MoMA. I would have opened with a life size photograph of Hugo Ball in his cardboard costume, and material from Cabaret Voltaire, the bar where everyone gathered in Zurich and where Dada was born. I would have put related films front and centre, and focused on the essential activism of this extraordinary period which laid down the tracks for the twentieth century. Art in Europe in the 1910s and 20s was a noisy, fervent cross-disciplinary activity. It takes a profound understanding of the role of performance in the history of twentieth century art on the part of curators, to bring this period to life for the contemporary viewer.Performance is a key aspect of African cultures – rituals, rite of passage, celebration, social catharsis. Has your research brought you into direct contact with any of these traditions, and in what way do you think the traditions of ‘live art’ in the western sense mirrors these traditions?The vast history of African art insists that ‘the live’ cannot be separated from the objects that remain. How this is exhibited and explained is also a huge challenge for curators. In terms of connections to western art history, I think we can make some inspired connections but they remain rather metaphorical and abstract. We might have a longing for ritual, we might wish to connect the making of objects to a more ‘spiritual’ value system, but it would be forcing things to find a ‘mirror of these traditions’ in contemporary western culture. On the other hand, if we look at Korean or Japanese or Brazilian performance, there are parallels. James Elkins is of the opinion that art history has the ability to function like a tranquillizer. In the face of great paintings, too much information about a work can compromise our experience, dulling the work’s affective potential. Would you agree? We’ve all gone back and forth on this one but in the end, it is merely an interesting exercise. How can you measure what is too little or too much information? Who is this single viewer? I am sure that a walk through the National Gallery or the Tate in London, or the Venice Biennale, is more pleasurable, the more one knows about the history and genesis of each work. But we’ll never know, because those who spend that kind of time with art are those interested in its history in the first place. As a critic and reviewer, I often try to put myself in the mind of a first time viewer, or talk to those who have ‘less information’ or even try to remember the first time I saw a particular artist’s work. So every experience is different; some are entirely new, some are layered with vaults of archival information stored in one’s brain. There is no blank slate, no zero point, to measure whether knowledge can act as a “tranquillizer”. On the contrary, I am sure it is an energizer.In a conversation with Robert Ayers, you commented that performance artists are “extraordinary image-makers” whose work imprints “the most unforgettable pictures in our minds”. I really responded to your comment (in the same interview) that writing about performance is “a complete act of the imagination”, in that looking at a still, or even a video, requires a considerable amount of reconstruction, let alone deconstruction. Do you have to be there to appreciate the work fully?You don’t have to be there. I wasn’t at the Battle of Waterloo, or at the barricades of the French Revolution either, but that doesn’t lessen the enormous importance of these historical events. Very few people are ever there. Audiences for performances are always small, yet a work may have impact and influence. This leads to the question about art history in general; mostly, we know about work through reproductions – large projections on a screen in an auditorium, postage size images on the computer screen, a double page spread in a magazine or book. Clearly not the real thing. Yet we are comfortable with our knowledge of the work, even if we have never seen the actual painting or sculpture. I think we are really talking about a big gap in art history of the history of performance, which is only now starting to be filled. When we have the necessary language, and information, we will be able to read the photographs and videos and descriptions of performances, as we do other material.Do you make a critical distinction between artists who perform live for an audience versus those who present their work exclusively as documentation, e.g. Berni Searle? Less and less because artists are now making films or videos that they consider as part of their work. They might make a series of drawings or an action or a film, and each is an extension of the same idea. Francis Alÿs’ work involves as many parts, and each holds its own. What brought you to South Africa earlier this year? A visit to my wonderful mother and sister, and a desire to tell them and my South African friends and colleagues about PERFORMA05, soon after it closed. Penny Siopis kindly arranged for me to talk at Wits. It was thrilling to be back in the lecture-hall of my student days, in the architecture building, which used to house the Art Department. And to meet a new generation of artists and art historians.You interviewed Kim Lieberman in her catalogue for Every Interaction Interrupts the Future, and William Kentridge served as an advisor to PERFORMA05. Do you have relationships with other South African artists?I make a point of staying in touch with friends and artists in South Africa. These include William, Kim, Sue Williamson and Bernie, and I have also met up with Steven Cohen, Tracy Rose, Willie Bester and others. I am also in touch with Carol Brown in Durban, and Michael Stevenson in Cape Town. I rely on these friends to keep me informed about the general mood in South Africa and about new artists as they emerge. As South Africans, the attitude of looking abroad for affirmation and validation of one’s work is so often criticised; practitioners who choose to emigrate are dubbed ex-South Africans. Yet you never hear of European artists who choose to base themselves in the US, for instance, as ex-Germans or ex-Italians. At the same time, it is so frustrating when one’s work is not taken on its own merits, but rather as a mirror or barometer of a particular socio-political context, or some sort of shared experience. How do think through these issues for yourself? Are they even an issue? A complex issue, indeed. The art world is a sophisticated, if sometimes arcane, global operation with its own particular language, economic system, and cultural commentators. In economics we talk of local and global, in the art world the terms would be national and international. The criteria for becoming an international artist are many, but we could certainly learn much from examining those who are: Maurizio Cattelan, Jane and Louise Wilson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, William Kentridge, Pipilotti Rist and the many, many artists who consistently make it into the biennials which have become so numerous around the world over the last decade. We can go case by case and talk about what sets an artist on the international stage. We can also examine what is essentially local about each artist’s work and that moment when perception of their work shifted from one level to the other. The only way for a young artist to cope with this is to understand these various levels. Perhaps it is a kind of rite of passage through the art world. This does not diminish the fact that there is much strength to be gained from being firmly on the ground in one’s own environment. Has an artwork ever really surprised you?Artwork always surprises me. Kathryn Smith is an artist, curator and lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch

Related Posts

Scroll to Top