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Ed Ruscha, Annie, 1962 © Ed Ruscha. Photo: Paul Ruscha.

by Deanna Sirlin
The Art Section

Our April issue is a diverse one. However, I think there is an interesting theme that runs through these essays and the work of the artists they’re about concerning the ways the conceptual emerges in art. U. Aldridge Hansberry has written, at my request, about her work as an American percussionist and composer who has lived in Paris for the last twenty years. I hope you will enjoy reading her texts and listening to her compositions as much as I have. 

We expect to experience music in many different forms (for instance, live and recorded) and to hear the same music repeatedly. But Marina Abramovic’s re-performances of performance art pieces at her MoMA retrospective has brought the issues of memory and repetition into play in that realm. I wish to thank Harry Weil for engaging us in this discussion.

And I am so appreciative that the retrospective of the American artist Ed Ruscha: 50 Years of Painting premiered at the Haywood Gallery in London, UK, and has been deliciously dissected by our London correspondent, Anna Leung. The show closed in London, but travels to Haus der Kunst, Munich (12 February-2 May 2010) and Moderna Museet, Stockholm (29 May-5 September 2010).

I want to acknowledge all your positive response to our March issue, which focused on the artist Alice Neel. I would love to know if there are other artists our readers might suggest to us, as we plan to devote an issue to a single artist every year. I look forward to your suggestions. Please contact me at

All my best,




      U. Aldridge Hansberry in Paris. Photo: Laurence Pratt.

A Road Less Traveled

by U. Aldridge Hansberry

Conveying why I came to live in Paris can be compared to explaining the “why” of an on-going tempestuous love affair. Certainly we all want to think that the reason we were first attracted is also the reason we continue in a relationship – but the reason we start is rarely the reason we stay….

Paris, in its great history, has given shelter to a host of non-French who have contributed to its creative community – Frédéric Chopin, Marie Curie, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Nathalie Barney, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Sidney Bechet, Richard Wagner, Richard Wright--to mention just a very few of those who distanced themselves from their native lands to explore other ideas. This alone could be enough to influence one to seek “l’aire de Paris.” Being from New Orleans could also be considered an element for me, as children in Louisiana learn French history first because New Orleans, which existed within the French colony for many years before being sold to the United States, has no English history. And during my childhood, the first foreign language studied was generally French. In fact, we usually have French surnames or, as in my case, at least a French first name.

But all this is has little to do with the direct influences that steered me toward France in my quest to experience some other aspects of the planet. Neither did the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysées, nor the fashion scene measure in my considerations.

No, it was the French writers – particularly Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Regis Debray, and especially Jean Genet—who espoused the political-philosophical thought of the day, coupled with the fact that France had harbored a growing population of American musicians whose music was taken “seriously” there, as were they themselves. This was an outstanding feat for the epoch. Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Clifford Thornton, among a whole host of artists who were changing pre-conceived ideas of what music was and where it could go, all made Paris their home for a time. Although they may have been critical among themselves, they resolutely defended each other’s right to another idea of creativity.

So I had the idea that here was a community. And in fact, there was a community but it was as virtual as Web-based communities are today. There was no particular place to gather except the clubs, bars, or concert hall dressing rooms. This meant that one had to have the budget to go to these concerts or personally know the musicians. Of course there were, for some, apartments, which were most often the apartments of admirers, or girlfriends. None of these places were openly accessible. Understand that, of course, the players were mostly men. Some of these forward thinking men were light years ahead in terms of music, and some in their socio-political idealism, but many hadn’t yet left the “cave” in regards to how women fit into the scheme of things. But as always, there existed individuals who were not trapped in their epoch. (They are all around us, but we must recognize them.) And for some reason, I was fortunate enough to have met quite a few.


Clockwise from top left: 

U. Aldridge Hansberry and Rasul Siddik.

U. Aldriddge Hansberry playing flute.

U. Aldridge Hansberry with flute trio No Sax, Paris.

U. Aldridge Hansberry in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo: Charley Reuvers.

Point A to Point B

I will not pretend to give even a brief summary of the different lineages of Jazz here; it is not the purpose of this short piece and is too vast a subject. I would like in any case to be clear as to how some artists who were writing/performing at a certain period in my development affected my initial direction in composing and performing.

For many on the branches of the “Jazz Tree,” getting from point A to point B is pre-determined. For some erudite boppers, and post boppers, chords, scales, and modes, either extended or altered, mapped the paths of their improvisational discoveries. Ornette Coleman coined the term “free Jazz” with his album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960). (This should not to be confused with the Free Jazz of the late sixties through the early eighties and beyond.) His writing and playing clearly showed that “melody” was sufficient (once again) to inspire an improvisation. Coleman’s first American publisher was MJQ Music that was officiated by John Lewis, the pianist, composer – arranger of the Modern Jazz Quartet. (The MJQ was one of the principal groups of the sixties with precise arrangements and spare improvisations. John Lewis had much respect for more “adventuresome” music – though quite honestly, the mixing of classical music forms and musicians are evidence that Lewis was a precursor in the Third Stream school of thought. But I’m getting ahead of myself....)

My informal studies were largely around Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic principles and George Russell’s “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” Many of my initial compositions were influenced by these ideas either in writing or in improvisations. Now, whether my work reflected these influences in a clear and orthodox manner is open to debate, but they were certainly vehicles that directed my thinking and playing at the time – and remain reference points even today.

The common thread of these rather different ideologies is that they very naturally underscored the elements of research and gravity in what was called “Jazz.” For years, the violin and acoustic bass were included in compositions and ensembles. But the inclusion of other “orchestral” instruments was minimal and their importance in the composition marginal or decorative. (This is in no way an insinuation of a lack of richness and audacity in writing. There are a host of spectacular composers and arrangers in the Jazz idiom, strictly speaking. But frankly, Duke Ellington’s sacred music had already left the constraints of what is categorized as Jazz. And Mary Lou Williams, in both her compositions and improvisations, was – and is  - incredibly contemporary, to name just two gigantic figures closely associated with the Jazz idiom.) For a time in 20th century music, Jazz and classical music were considered the antitheses of one another. But more and more, the two genres overlapped in writing and timbres. In the 1960s, Gunther Schuller referred to this overlapping or removal of boundaries as “Third Stream.” John Lewis co-founded, with Gunther Schuller, Orchestra USA, dedicated primarily to it.

Aldridge Hansberry's Trio,  Avé des conquerants/Improvisation, at the BAB-ILO, Paris, August, 2009.  

I had a very natural affinity for this music - the flute finding a place where it was not asked to imitate saxophone bop solos. Apart from Brazilian music and Afro-Cuban music, the role of the flute was reduced to ‘pretty’ interludes in Jazz when not trying to be an alto saxophone. One of its great interpreters was Eric Dolphy who, though he was a hard bopper, added another dimension for this instrument as well as introducing the bass clarinet to small Jazz ensembles. His writing was less formatted by what was considered Jazz in his day. His 1964 album Out to Lunch features the young Tony Williams playing the drums as a grouping of percussion instruments – which is, of course, what the trap set is.

For brevity, I’ll turn to the percussions that I play that are strongly influenced by the great heritage of New Orleans and sixties Jazz, as well as contemporary classical idioms using percussion for time as well as emphasizing timbre. Having started the snare drum at 4 with my grandfather, who had been the departmental head of the music at Mills College (Alabama) long before my birth, I was always a drummer at heart.

I studied in the Paris area at two conservatories, one being regional (this means little outside of France but is an important distinction here). I wanted to advance in technique and was plunged into contemporary percussion composition and skills. As we are all sponges of our environment, this affected my ears as well as my compositions.

All this is to say that my reasons for coming to Paris were not to teach, learn French fluently, discover distant non-French cultures, study contemporary percussion, etc. These were the unexpected gifts that came from locating the “Jazz” community, struggling through immigration procedures, finding housing, dealing with melancholy, and on and on….

So in my compositions, and indeed in my playing are all these elements. They are sometimes recognizable and sometimes so fused that one doesn’t see the connections.

Here I offer some compositions that reflect different aspects or problem solving (in a compositional way) of my French residency.

1 Culture Collision

This piece was written in 1985-6 and has as its motivation and rhythmic source a 5/4 rhythm from the Magreb culture. Harmonically, it follows more or less the harmonic suite of Francis Poulenc’s Sonate pour Flûte. The title was inspired by by the death of the student Malik Oussekine killed by the police after a demonstration. 

2 End Of A Season

I wrote using neo-classical technique on a basic blues progression in the Locrian mode. The death of the great American artist Georgia O’Keefe occurred just as I was naming the piece. 

3 Plaintive (& Ms Ann)

The first part of this recording was written for a theatre piece called Abolition non-stop in homage to the abolition of slavery in France, though it was restored (slavery, that is) two more times – hence the “non-stop.”

4 If ever time stood still.mp3

This composition was used in the same theatre piece, though it was written independently.

5 Liberty's Mama

This was written in the early 90’s but this is a very recent recording (January 2010).

6 Test One

The harmony theoretician, George Russell, calls the 1st exercise of one of his seminars “Test One.” Except for a minor change, this was my proposition.

7 Générique-Préhistoire

I conceptualized, played all the voices, and did the mix for this short theme (in French, “générique”) that was for the DVD of the National Museum Consortium in France (RMN). A volume on the instruments and “music” of pre-historic times was edited for their series on Art History and released in 2006.


Paris based composer, U. Aldridge Hansberry is a New Orleans native who performs as a drummer-percussionist, and flutist in Europe and North America. You can find out more about her work from these links:

Ed Ruscha Echo Park Studio Los Angeles, California, 1963 © Photo: Joe Goode.

Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting
At the Hayward Gallery

by Anna Leung

Ed Ruscha somehow seems to move easily within a “both/and” artistic sensibility in that he is able to integrate many seemingly disparate artistic tendencies into his own painting practice. This side of the Atlantic he is best known for his photographic work that anticipated the conceptual art of the 70’s such as Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (1963), a small format book that he published himself and which represented a move away from process and Abstract Expressionist gesture to concentrate on an objective documentation of the West Coast landscape characterised by urban sprawl’s manmade constructions: free flowing highways, gasoline stations, parking lots, street signage and billboards, with the car the sine qua non of mobility to explore a terrain that was relatively new, and therefore all the more exciting, to Ruscha. This exhibition, which concentrates on fifty years of his paintings - and there was only a relatively short period when he stopped painting - is therefore a revelation, and in more senses than one. For Ruscha is able to navigate between figuration and conceptualism, narrative and abstraction. He is one of the few artists of his generation who never really gave up on painting.

Ed Ruscha (possibly a derivation of Ruschitzka) was born in 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska into a family marked by a strong work ethic. He was brought up as a strict Catholic, an enduring element that was to mark, even if tangentially, much of his future work.  From a young age, much like the writer John Updike, his vision had been formed artistically by a passion for cartoons and comics, stamps and type faces and all things to do with graphic materials, inks and post marks etc. Like Warhol and Lichtenstein Ruscha was inspired by comic book heroes, but lettering and fonts were equal sources of fascination for him Subsequently, when studying at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, later to become part of Cal-Arts, he studied graphics, graduating in 1960. Perhaps as a result of this background, he was able to escape the seemingly intractable dilemma of pictorial illusionism, originally posed by strict Greenbergian doctrine, and the “you see what you see” impasse that navigated several painters into Minimalism, by making letters the main protagonists of his paintings. For Ruscha these letters were by no means merely passive signs or ciphers but created an opportunity for him to bring out their intrinsic aural characteristics as well as their narrative potential. His early paintings are literally loud paintings that spell out onomatopoeic exclamations. OOF is painted bright yellow against a Prussian blue background and in Boss, black lettering appears against a painterly chocolate brown background reminiscent of Jasper Johns. What is arresting about these early paintings is their continued engagement with the stuff of painting, the abstract expressionist immersion in the materiality of the paint’s surface, and with its literal application as expressive gesture. At the same time, they demonstrate an early Pop sensibility.

Pop is more often categorised as an East Coast than a West Coast phenomenon with Oldenburg opening his Store on the Lower East Side of New York and Lichtenstein appropriating imagery for high art from the world of advertising and comics in 1961. The West coast tended to be marginalised despite the fact that it was the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles that was responsible for Warhol’s move from commercial to high art with his ground breaking exhibition of Campell’s Soup Cans canvases. Ferus was likewise responsible for resurrecting Duchamp and revealing him as the eminence grise behind the most significant contemporary art developments. Duchamp had a determining influence on Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns whose use of vernacular motifs and 3D objects had a catalytic effect on Ruscha – he describes John’s Target with Four Faces as having had “the effect of an atomic bomb in my training.” Ruscha’s Box Smashed FlatI, with squashed raisins emerging from the flattened packet that celebrates sun-rich California, anticipates both his engagement with icons of consumerism and his fascination with actual materials. Later, letters would be strung out horizontally against totally neutral backgrounds as if they constituted a landscape in their own right as in Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1962) and Standard Station (1966) with their characteristic steep diagonal perspectives, all action taking place in the left hand side of the picture. The letters figure as three-dimensional objects in space while the diagonals suggests the dynamic movement of objects and buildings glimpsed while speeding past them on the highway. Later, the gasoline stations were pictured on fire, as was Ruscha’s painting of Los Angeles County Museum on Fire (1965). Though the very painterly flames do not look too dangerous, this has of course been interpreted as a transgressive anti-establishment gesture. But whatever the initial motive, the theme of buildings going up in flames anticipate a certain taste for the apocalyptic that characterises Ruscha’s work though it never descends into total nihilism.


Ed Ruscha, The End, 1991.

Word Works

For Ruscha, who sounds as if he has a neurological condition known as synaesthesia, letters and words seem to exist independently and have a distinct tactile, olfactory and auditory presence. He explains, “Words have temperature for me. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me.…” This basic objectness of words and lettering is conveyed in another series in which letters are done violence to and pictured distorted by metal clamps. Then in the mid-sixties came a series in which words figured in what Ruscha termed his “romance with liquids,”  hyper-realist paintings that featured liquid words painted in a meticulous  trompe-l’oeil manner so that water, oil, or syrup, among other substances, appeared to have been spilled onto the surface of the canvas, but not absorbed.  There is a cool Surrealist edge to these paintings that will resurface in the next series of paintings that forego words altogether. In similar fashion, there is a series of paintings in which the words, strung out across the canvas, begin to lose their link with meaning. What characterises all these paintings is the meticulousness of their rendition and the fact that they are totally premeditated. There is no more room here for spontaneity or gestures of self expression than there is in the work of other artists such as Bruce Nauman and Denis Oppenheimer whose art practices, categorised as conceptual in the late 60’s and 70’s, tended to be limited to the simple photographic documentation of everyday aspects of life. Ruscha, as we shall see, takes as his subject matter ordinary and quite banal objects, but by isolating them within the deep space of the canvas invests them with a sense of comic mystery.

Objects in Space

One of the salient characteristics of Modernist painting since Manet is its tendency to integrate figure and ground and thereby minimise the effect of perspective and chiaroscuro. With Pop, and prior to Pop with the Precisionists in the 1930’s, the sharp distinction between figure and ground was reasserted and illusionistic artifice acknowledged, but in a neutral mode. Ruscha’s backgrounds are just that; they are foils for the depiction of his isolated, trompe-l’oeil, life-sized objects. The backgrounds to his series of objects in space are rendered as subtly gradated layers of colour that often darken as they approach the upper edge of the canvas, which further undermines their mimetic qualities. These objects inhabit their own spaces much as Magritte’s apples, windows, or gentlemen wearing bowler hats inhabit a dream world, and share with them a certain static fixity of being. These wordless paintings also look back to the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy, but whereas Tanguy populated his space with mysterious organic creatures Ruscha peoples his with ordinary domestic objects subjected to small disaster. Milk and milk bottles, water, pencils, ball bearings and olives are all pictured in some sort of transformative process: breaking, bouncing, floating, falling, shattering or spilling in a deep, echoing space. The paintings that depict liquid phrases and food stuffs prepared the way for still further inventive explorations of new artistic materials.


In the early 70’s Ruscha went through a temporary phase in which he felt unable to continue painting with oil on canvas. He began to search for alternatives by experimenting with substances such as gunpowder, grass, spinach, egg yolk, beer, chocolate syrup, salad dressing, olive oil, and motor oil, among others, using brand names as well as making up his own substances and exploring their properties as stains on canvas or paper. It was around this period that he started to place words or phrases against backgrounds made up of silk, satin, rayon or moiré all of which delighted him with the various ways they modified the support he was using. Since the nature of the materials did not allow trompe-l’oeil effects he began to use texts so that the paintings read more like public signs, but often with a covert linguistic or poetic twist. Within a year he had returned to painting and began to work on a series of paintings that he referred to as landscapes but which feature words set against panoramic backdrops.

An American Sublime

In these grand horizontal pieces, ranks of words seem to hover against evocations of a sunrise or sunset, liminal worlds which Ruscha has described as “anonymous backdrops for the drama of words” that almost surreptitiously suggest another dimension of being. In A Particular Kind of Heaven the letters themselves take on a spectral and almost hypnotic quality. Yet this evident metaphysical strain is at the same belied by a certain laconic humour. Other notably existential murmurings echo in the mountain painting Me (1999) and It’s a Small World which pictures our planet earth floating inconsequentially in the vast blueness of the heavens as if it was of no greater significance than one of Ruscha’s gravity bound olives. In some cases, landscape and text seem to have very little to do with one another, and the phrase or text seems abandoned, suspended in the air hovering over a stretch of landscape.

Much of Ruscha’s inspiration has always come from his love of cars and the sequence of images grasped whilst speeding down the highway. By the 1980’s other images were prompted by plane journeys regularly taken between Los Angeles and Miami. Talk Radio, with its crisscrossing of night lights, suggests looking down on a nocturnal city whose inhabitants are tuned into the radio waves. By this time, there was another innovation in Ruscha’s practice. He had begun to use an air brush, spraying on the layers of acrylic paint to make up his backdrops, where previously they had been slowly built up in a much more laborious way using oils. Out of this new technique came a series of soft-focused, monochrome silhouette paintings and a new direction, again a series of paintings without words. The images he used, often taken from childhood books, are archetypal motifs of American history: in Homeward Bound the schooner may be taking emigrants to the New World, while in The Uncertain Trail (1986), convoys of horse-drawn wagons follow their “Manifest Destiny” by going west, images that instantly convey a history and an identity. On the other hand, the presence of censorship bars that render these paintings wordless could suggest an alternative history, or at least another narrative, and therefore introduce a degree of ambivalence toward aspects of American history that have become almost doctrinal. This ambiguity was of prime importance to Ruscha. 

Ed Ruscha, Baby Jet, 1998.


Ruscha is fascinated by all means of image-making, especially the movies, and during the 90’s produced black-and-white paintings that take as their inspiration the actual material of celluloid, showing all the scratches and damage it would have suffered through multiple replays over the passage of time. Pictures such as Exit and The End (again significantly written in Gothic script) spell out the temporality and mortality of all things but also have a mysteriously static quality. It is curious that Ruscha, who seems so interested in moving images, should emphasise the static quality of things, investing them with a mystery and magic that is difficult to analyse. The exit sign overshadowed by the glowing whiteness of the empty screen has something spectral about it, or even purgatorial, signifying portals to another world or another existence. At the same time, we cannot help wondering “What end?” and “For whom?” Sin-Without (1991), like the earlier Hell Heaven (1988), seems to suggest a questioning of religious doctrine that underpins Ruscha’s scheme of things.

In our technology-driven age, Ruscha’s fascination with celluloid, a medium quickly being rendered obsolete by digitalisation, carries with it the bittersweet pungency of nostalgia. This emphasis on change and decay, which denote intimations of mortality, is again picked up in a series called The Course of Empires, its title taken from the nineteenth century American landscape painter Thomas Cole who drew on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to paint the life cycle of a city state from savage state back to savage state, with obvious premonitory allusions to America’s possible fate. Ruscha’s series, originally painted for the 2004 Venice Biennale, was based on an earlier series of urban paintings of industrial buildings which he contrasted with what had replaced them.  The first series was in black-and-white, the updates in colour. The old windowless academic or manufacturing Tech-Chem building is replaced by Fat Boy, some sort of burger eatery, plus possibly a reference to the first atomic bomb to fall on Hiroshima, and where there was a Blue Collar Trade School there’s a deserted building surrounded by barbed wire. A similar sense of the inevitable cycle of change characterises the diptych Azteca/ Azteca in Decline (2007). It is based on a motif glimpsed on a wall when Ruscha was touring the ancient ruins outside of Mexico City. The motif reiterates the diagonal composition that characterises one of Ruscha’s earliest paintings, Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights. The colourful motifs painted with trompe-l’oeil accuracy suggest a graffitied billboard which appears in the second painting to have crumbled and seems to be peeling off the canvas. Significantly, the graffiti is the sole element left unchanged.


Ruscha’s Mountains are not representations of actual landscapes but invented images, and while they too figure as anonymous backdrops for his drama of words, this archetypal image is so strong that a conflict can arise between image and text. Ruscha explains that they are “ideas of mountains picturing some kind of unobtainable bliss or glory…tall, dangerous and beautiful.”  Yet again Ruscha has taken hold of a visual cliché and endowed it with qualities that span the poetic, the playful, and the profound. As in all of Ruscha’s landscapes, concepts encompassing macrocosm and microcosm, space and temporality, are almost unwittingly evoked by the interaction between image and text. Yet, also as in his other paintings, there is no one relationship spelt out and should the existential element seem too assertive, a corresponding echo of wry laughter can usually be inferred in the immeasurable spaces between image and text and thought and language.

©  Anna Leung 2010 


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 

Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting was at the Hayward Gallery, London, from 14 October 2009 - 10 January 2010. It is now at the Haus der Kunst in Munich from 12 February - 2 May 2010. After that, it will be at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm from 29 May - 5 September 2010.

Josiah McElheny, Yard (Junkyard), 2009. Courtesy: Hasuer and Wirth Gallery, New York

Reduce, Reuse, Re-perform

by Harry J. Weil

Why are we so afraid of ghosts? Is it because, like the characters in a Charles Dickens novel, we are scared by them under the cover of night? Do they remind us someone who was once living or remind us of our own mortality?  Ultimately this primal fear of ghosts is a fear of not being able to understand what once was. We are afraid of having the past elude us only to come back and haunt us. While it may seem like a stretch, the image of a haunting ghost is an apt metaphor for performance art. Conventional theories of performance dictate that unlike paintings or sculptures, performances die, relegated to a singular moment in time, then made to collect dust in the form of films and photo-documentation in the mausoleum of the museum archive. Each static black and white photograph – whether of Chris Burden nailed to a Volkswagen or Gina Pane breaking a mirror with her bare hands  - depicts only a split second of the actual performance and attempts to confirm the who, what, where, when and how of early performance. This documentation can never evoke the corporeal and tactile nature of the original live performance. However, some recent scholarship has salvaged performance documentation from its limiting qualities and champions its role in reactivating the experience of the performance for new audiences. Documentation is not merely a stand-in but itself constitutes the work of performance, thereby allowing the performances of the past to be actively engaging as they were in the present. Internet file sharing sites have further legitimated this new experiencing of performances through mediation, where sites like You Tube  allow video recordings of performances to be limitlessly accessed, watched and turned off. This discussion of documentation goes beyond the limits of this essay which focuses on another phenomenon that has received  a lot of attention recently: re-performance.

Re-performance is the ghost of performance art past that returns historical performances to a living state. The concept of re-performance is not wholly new. Fluxus artists have re-performed their work countless times without documentation and even encouraged the audience to re-perform their works from event scores. However, in the past decade, re-performance has generally taken the form of either historical recreation or reinterpretation of seminal performances from the 1960s and 1970s.  While the original performances can never be completely recreated, they can, as art critic Roberta Smith writes, "be pulled into the present, stripped of some of their mysteries and returned to living art." Yet, many remain skeptical as some insist that re-performance reduces performance art to mere mimicry. Such sentiment has played out in harsh criticism from a generation of artists who demand performance art take an oppositional stance against commercialization and, by extent, institutional pressures to conform.

In our contemporary culture information is easily accessible through digital and Internet technologies and, as a result, we fear forgetting.  We fear that we won’t get our forgetting right and we must bear the burden as creatures who could actually forget such things. Re-performance guarantees that we can experience things from the past. Performance artist Marina Abramovic (the self-proclaimed grandmother of performance art) has stressed that “re-performance is the new concept, the new idea,” otherwise performance would be dead as an art form. In an attempt to stop this untimely death Abramovic created Seven Easy Pieces. The performance took place at the Guggenheim Museum in November of 2005 for seven hours on seven consecutive nights. The re-performanes included: Bruce Nauman, Body Pressure (1974); Vito Acconci, Seedbed (1972); Valie Export, Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969); Gina Pane, The Conditioning, first action of Self-Portrait(s) (1973); and Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). Abramovic explored the possibility of representing and preserving performance by engaging audience members beyond the ontological limits of photographic documentation with performing, living bodies. The original performances are revived so that the audience’s gaze is directed back upon the body of a performer instead of on a static document.

These re-performances attempt to dispel any myth and uncertainty surrounding the original performances. However, each re-performance, because of its temporal distance, will never evoke the same experience as the original. These are wholly new experiences, as faithful re-performances are not possible. The original incarnations of the performance inevitably need to be altered to accommodate differences in location and audience experience. The most evident difference was that Abramovic performed in an established art institutionon a stage some four feet in height and was protected by dozens of security personnel. Most of the performances from the 1960s and 1970s were either in galleries or artists' studio where audience interaction and participation was necessary. The archive for Seven Easy Pieces is filled with emails and notes from the artist and Guggenheim curators discussing how to make the re-performance feel like the originals - a task they admit is not possible.

It seems that Abramovic’s commitment to re-performance will determine her legacy: “You have to have a vision. [. . .] Performance is fleeting. But this, this place, this is for time. This is what I will leave behind.” As such she devised a model for artists to follow in ethically re-performing the works of other artists. Her proposal for Seven Easy Pieces established a series of guidelines: “It is important that we: (1) Ask the [original] artists for permission (2) Pay the artists a fee (3) Perform a new interpretation of the original work (4) Exhibit the original material: photographs, video, relic, and etc. and (5) Exhibit materials documenting the new interpretation of the work.” Thus, re-performances did not take place if not agreed upon by the original artist or their estate - Chris Burden, for example, refused multiple times to have his performance Transfixed reenacted. Abramovic states quite clearly that this standard will morally guide the future of other re-performance practices both within and outside the art establishment: “But to me the idea is that performance has to live. If it doesn‘t live, it dies. And then it has to have the conditions on how to live.” In furthering this commitment to preserving art, she is slated to open in 2012 the Marina Abramovic Foundation for Preservation of Performance Art in Hudson, New York, where she lives.  This nonprofit foundation will be dedicated to the teaching and preservation of performance art, with artist workshops, public courses, a library, and a grants program. Audiences will be offered a timeless space where 20th century performances and re-performances of them will be in continuous dialogue. Abramovic's resurrection of performances of the past allows audiences to have tangible experiences of a past that otherwise would elude them.

Re-performance can also be understood as reinterpretation. Fluxus artists were, and those who are still living are, not interested in recreating earlier interpretations of their event scores. There have been dozens of re-performances of Alison Knowles's Proposition #2 (Make a Salad), however the salad ingredients vary at each performance and re-performances without the artist can be found on You Tube. Joan Jonas, while not affiliated with Fluxus, stresses that faithful re-performances are not possible; rather, performance should be revisited and translated at some point into another medium (be it video or installation). “There’s never a way that you could repeat the original thing; it just can’t be done,” she states, “so you have to think, ‘How am I going to deal with it if I’m going to show something of that moment?'” 

Reinterpretation was what Hauser and Wirth had in mind for their commissioned re-performances of Alan Kaprow's Yard for their gallery in 2009. William Pope.L, Sharon Hayes, and Josiah McElheny’s re-performances were part of the recent wave of attention given to Kaprow’s work following his MoCA Los Angeles retrospective in 2008. The original performance of Yard entailed hundreds of tires cluttering the gallery space. Participants were encouraged to rearrange the tires, making movement both complicated and playful. The artists at Hauser and Wirth Gallery were given full artistic liberty not only to re-perform but also to reinterpret Kaprow’s work. Pope.L altered the playful atmosphere with a deafening soundtrack that blustered inaudible commands to move the tires, interrupted by the sounds of foghorns and train whistles. The tires were accompanied by body bags filled with Vaseline-covered mannequins, wall to wall mirrors, and strobe lighting. His re-performance – titled Yard (To Harrow) – took a dark turn with political and social commentary more akin to his own oeuvre than to Kaprow’s more subtle social critique.

Sharon Hayes, Yard (Signs), 2009. Courtesy: Hauser and Wirth Gallery, New York.

Sharon Hayes’s Yard (Sign) involved littering a grassy patch of Queens’s historic New York Marble Cemetery with yard signs, some mundane and others comical. One proclaimed, “If I catch you dumping you are dead.” Hayes attempted to summon the ghost of Kaprow without at the same time giving him free run of the yard. At the Queens Museum of Art, Josiah McElheny’s Yard (Junkyard) projection showed a 90-by-30-foot aerial photograph of the “Iron Triangle,” a nearby, seven-block-long area of wrecking and tire yards currently slated for redevelopment. Like the other re-performances, interaction was limited since the wall projection occurred in a room containing the museum’s famous “Panorama of the City of New York,” the world’s largest architectural model commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair. The juxtaposition was intriguing, but a far cry from resembling anything Kaprow may have had a hand in. As unengaging as this re-performance was, Michael Wilson (in a Time Out New York review) correctly suggests that re-performance offers a challenge to artists and institutions to never quite be the same, “yet always recognizable.”

These re-performances are not recreations of Kaprow’s Yard; rather, they are reinterpretations of Yard. This brings to light an issue that is at the heart of re-performance: how faithful do re-performances need to be? While the answer to this question is open to much debate, I offer a simple rationale. Performance art is conceptually based; the performing body of the artist (or the re-performer) gives form to a concept. Thus, one incarnation of a performance does not have more value than another. The best examples of this are Fluxus event scores that allow participants to perform the indicated actions in their own way, wherever they choose. In fact, it is hard to conclude that there is such thing as an original performance on which to base a faithful recreation. Walter Benjamin's discussion of the futile attempt to locate an authentic photographic print gives form to my rationale: "From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the 'authentic' print makes no sense." This semantic conundrum begs the question of what constitutes an “original” in performance art and imposes on performance art a value system, an endless search for a lost original masterpiece. Re-performance, as it continues to evolve as a concept and practice in performance art, denies such a value system by allowing artists the opportunity to re-imagine, reinterpret and, more importantly, re-conceptualize performances from the past.

Re-performance is not confined to the white walls of the museum or gallery.  Eva and Franco Mattes (also known as 0100101110101101.ORG) used the online community Second Life as the venue for their re-performance project Synthetic Performances. The recreated performances include Gilbert and George’s The Singing Sculpture, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, Chris Burden’s Shoot, Valie Export’s Tapp und Tastkino, Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks and Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Imponderabilia. Second Life is a whole synthetic world in which representation and existence are one and the same. In Second Life, users can create avatars, called residents, who interact, socialize, form communities, and create and trade virtual property and services. They carry out mundane activities such as eating, watching movies and having sex. Avatars can take any form users choose, allowing them the choice to mimic their real-life appearance or conceive of a resident who is any combination of human, animal, or vegetable. Cultural theorist Domenico Quaranta suggests an intimate relationship between participants and their avatars: “I am my avatar, and the fact that my avatar is an artifact, a puppet made of polygons and textures, certainly doesn’t stop me from identifying with it.” Over time, operators of avatars cannot help but acknowledge that the world of Second Life is indeed a world, with its own complex society, rules to obey, and trends to follow.

The performances the Matteses choose to re-perform are focused on bodies - be it bodies in space or bodies in interaction with an audience. In the original performance of Imponderabilia Abramovic and Ulay stood naked at the entrance to a group exhibition in Bologna. The blocking of the door required visitors to pass sideways through a narrow gap between the artists’ naked bodies. In film documentation of the performance the reaction of visitors varied from comical to dismay, fulfilling the artists’ intention to question the larger social constructions of physical interaction. While the original audience was susceptible to feeling the flesh of the performers, audience members experience the online re-performance quite differently. In fact, two audiences were created when Synthetic Performances premiered at Artist Space in New York as part of Performa 2007. First there was the audience of people at home using avatars that interact with the avatars of Eva and Franco Mattes who took on the roles of Abramovic and Ulay. This virtual audience could either left click their computer mouse to cross the threshold facing Franco or right click to face Eva. Thus, the physical element of contact between artist and viewer is replaced by physical contact of avatar to avatar. 

As Quaranta suggests, because participants in Second Life closely identify with their avatars, the avatar pressing against another avatar is indeed, like a living body pressing against another living body.  This online audience performed for a gallery audience who witnessed their actions through live-feed projections at Artist Space. A good analogy would equate the avatars, who get to have all the fun, to football players, while the gallery audience are the fans watching the game on Jumbo-tron screens from the nose-bleed seats. This proliferation of audience positions raises many questions concerning how re-performance can and will be experienced through virtual technologies when the physical element of a performing body is replaced by a virtual one. As we go forth as a society that relies more on email than handwritten letters and Netflix instead of the movie theater, the changes in social interaction will undoubtedly affect how we experience art.

"Synthetic Performance defines the virtual destiny of performance art in an age where life itself can be easily reproduced" (Quaranta). Re-performance shows the limitations of the ephemeral nature of performance while suggesting a path for the possible continued existence of performance. However, this destiny is not fully assured.  As illustrated by this brief survey, re-performances can completely alter the context and content of the original performance. Just barely 100 years old, performance art already has a contentious and complicated history. Studying re-performance will allow us to better understand the inherit complexity of performance art. More important, looking at the future of re-performance will enable us to see better how performance art can and will adapt to social and cultural trends.      



Harry J. Weil is a PhD candidate at Stony Brook University in the Department of Art.