You can never step in the same river twice, unless you’re a performance artist working today.
Artists who specialize in the most ephemeral, fleeting and hard-to-preserve visual art form are increasingly trying various ways to resurrect their earlier pieces and bring them to new audiences. And the 11-day Performance and Public Art Festival that starts Thursday in Los Angeles will be a big test of how effective their work can be when brought back to life in a different era.
Funded primarily by the Getty as part of Pacific Standard Time — the museum-wide celebration of Southern California art history that started in October and runs into spring — the festival will revisit several memorable works done in the L.A. area in the late 1960s and ‘70s. This was a time when performance art captured the imagination of many artists, including those who went on to make their name in other mediums like painting or sculpture.
Some artists are nearly exactly replicating early performances, as with James Turrell using road flares and metal reflectors to virtually set a Pomona College auditorium on fire, a repeat of a 1971 performance.
Other artists such as Suzanne Lacy are adapting performances — in her case a multi-faceted anti-rape campaign from 1977 — for a new time and place. Meanwhile, Lita Albuquerque is creating a substantially new work from the thread of an old one: a 1980 earthwork featuring a red spiral in the desert has given birth to a work involving hundreds of red-robed performers forming a human spiral that appears to unspool down the steps of Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook in Culver City.
Then there are younger artists paying homage to their predecessors. Vaginal Davis and Andrea Fraser each are doing a performance inspired by the Woman’s Building. A group of artists are meeting up at a shooting range in honor of Niki de Saint Phalle’s so-called “shooting paintings” from 1962, made by firing guns at bags or containers of paint. Yael Lipschutz, who has helped to organize the group, says they “are not re-creating the original — rather we are revisiting, paying homage and reinterpreting.” She adds that they will for the occasion be using a .22 caliber rifle owned by the late artist Ed Kienholz, who had helped De Saint Phalle reload her guns.
Glenn Phillips, the curator at the Getty Research Institute who co-directed the festival, says he tried to encourage a wide range of approaches. “There’s a great debate in the field of art history and performance studies right now about whether to do these re-dos or reinventions,” he says, citing recent retrospectives of performance art pioneer Marina Abramovic and the father of “happenings,” Allan Kaprow, that raised the issue of how to revisit short-lived, and often real-world, performances in a museum setting.
“Some people say you can’t redo a work because the social situation is so different. Others say you still get something of the original, like the cover of the song. Allan Kaprow said you can’t redo a work exactly but you can reinvent, and bring the idea into the present,” he says.
Phillips says the idea of a festival occurred to him during research for Pacific Standard Time, as he came across several “dream projects” that would not fit inside a regular museum exhibition. “I kept coming across things like Judy Chicago’s ‘atmospheres,’ these environmental, sculptural installations she started doing at the end of the ‘60s where she set off flares and smoke bombs in the landscapes,” he says.
The Getty issued grants totaling roughly $600,000 to the nonprofit gallery LAX Art to help produce the festival, and LAX gave much of that money to smaller institutions, who also found additional sources of funding. LAX Art director Lauri Firstenberg said 25 institutions received grants, out of about 75 applications.
Firstenberg says the L.A. festival will be more contained than one it could be compared to: Performa, the New York biennial that ran for three weeks in November. “It’s also an umbrella designed to bring different organizations together but it’s more focused — taking place over 11 days and responding to this time period associated with Pacific Standard Time. This is a one-time event.”
Still, the L.A. program has at least 30 performances as well as a few longer-running public art pieces, such as the Artists’ Tower of Protest. Designed by Mark di Suvero in 1966 as a sort of scaffolding for displaying anti-Vietnam War artwork, the tower is now being re-created with an open invitation from LAX Art to artists to make new works in protest of other issues.
The festival’s first performance, taking place outside the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica Airport starting Thursday, is Judy Chicago’s “Sublime Environment,” made in collaboration with the Silver Lake nonprofit architecture group Materials & Applications. A piece about the permanence of culture, it consists of 25 tons of dry ice in nine pyramid forms that will go up in smoke over the course of a day or two.
On Saturday Chicago will do a new “atmosphere” at Pomona College, a fireworks-based piece that her husband has described as an attempt to “blow up” the school’s football field. That will be followed by Turrell’s 1971 flare piece nearby. Although Turrell is known today for light-based installations and earthworks, he says that his work from the time often crossed over into performance.
“Because of my interest in light, I was involved in a lot of performances,” he says, adding, “I think we were all interested in seeing how our ideas would extend into different types of art.”
The festival also ends with some colorful works, including an “artists’ ball” — for artists and by artists and not open to the public. A couple dozen artists are planting site-specific works in and around Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, including Mungo Thomson creating an orchestral performance in the gardens based on recordings of crickets and Drew Heitzler arranging an installation based on the mysterious 1929 murder (or suicide) of Ned Doheny that took place in the Tudor-style mansion.
The closing weekend of the festival also features a revival of Eleanor Antin’s “Before the Revolution” at the Hammer Museum, a 1979 “piece of absurdist theater,” says the artist. This version differs from the original because Antin herself does not appear on stage operating large painted Masonite cut-out characters. Instead she has a cast of five, including an African American actress in the lead role of Eleanor Antinova, a fictional creation said to be the first black dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
A few artists central to performance art are notably absent from the lineup. There are no interpretations of “happenings,” probably because so many local institutions already staged them in 2008 in association with Kaprow’s MOCA retrospective.
And L.A. artist Chris Burden, who made the annals of performance art in the 1970s by having himself shot in the arm and living in a locker for five days among other works, is not participating in the festival.
Phillips says he didn’t even approach Burden, knowing his aversion to restaging works. But Phillips notes that there will be a series of surprise performances taking place every night of the festival at 830 N. Highland Ave., a program developed by artist Liz Glynn.
“She is creating a sort of counter-festival — a place that is part social space, part bar, where you can go every night to see L.A. artists of all generations presenting work.”
Will there be appearances by local legends like Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley and Barbara T. Smith? Phillips is not talking. Glynn’s festival/bar is called Black Box, and he wants to keep the mystery alive.
For a full schedule of events, visit pacificstandardtimefestival.org or pick up a guide at LAX Art, the Getty Museum, the Hammer Museum, MOCA or the Pomona College Museum of Art.