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Notes on Odd Spaces

"Odd Spaces" was the inaugural event of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' new performance art program. Set across the museum in spaces often hidden, overlooked, or disregarded as loci of aesthetic value, the program's aim was multiple: both to introduce a live component to the museum, and to use that component as reactivating influence on the institution's architecture. Of course, this latter objective is also figuratively true.

Marilyn Arsem (whose performance at Near Death Performance Art Experience I reviewed here) was present once again, or semi-present: her enigmatic note in the program indicated that she would be "invisible". I saw Arsem’s performance first, early in the afternoon, when entering the dark persuasive hush of the Egyptian wing from spring daytime had a C. S. Lewis mode of frissons: sneaking into the professor's study, breathless with curiosity. The doors were heavy and the air both jasmine-scented (this Arsem had arranged) and somehow electric with a hidden human presence. To many people later in the day, the performer's body was actually invisible. But once seen, the eerie repetition in her choice of placement activated the room. The title of the piece was With the Others. A mummy, too, is a human body.

a display room
An odd space at the MFA. Photo courtesy of Allison Vanouse. 

This perhaps is what it ought always to feel like entering the Egyptian wing of a grand old museum like the MFA. Imagine: a place is filled with human mummies, and we are not accustomed to feeling thrilled! The politics of spectatorship is intimate with the childlike or romantic questions of what excites us. And as with children, as with romance, there is nothing like watching a person participating with something to activate its latent attraction.

A piece by Sandrine Schaefer and Phil Fryer, titled Untitled View participated in this realm of activity in a performance about (as much as aboutness is an available quality for work of such simplicity) the action of looking. From the afternoon until the evening, over hours rather than minutes, Schaefer and Fryer stood variously distant from each other, and looked at art. The piece created no feeling in the pit of the stomach in the way Arsem's did, no frissons: but then we weren't directed here to an elemental human experience, but to a politics of viewing and social space. "People would move around my gaze," Schaeffer related at the evening's panel, "sometimes people would come and look with me, which was nice". But this piece, for me, was ultimately not about activating the objects viewed. Watching the pair looking, I was struck by the way prolonged, premeditated activity contrasts and heightens the frenetic spectacle of "ordinary" human behavior, even when the action is ostensibly congruent with the objective of the crowd: the patrons, too, were probably there to look at art, but much is changed by a tempo and quality of attention less deliberate and less vast. In Untitled View this textural difference rose to the surface.


Certain conventions of practice, and the barriers they insist upon, lose their interest. The writing is in 'odd spaces', off the walls.


John C. Gonzalez’s Family Meal, an action in the dining areas of the museum, had the thrust of restoring to the museum workers the force of cooking the foods of their own heritage in a place of strange multi-purpose sterility. There were piles of arepas and pots of beans and rice, tucked next to the salad bar. This perhaps is work that needs to be done: it surely has its sense of intervention. What is disturbing, however, is the ease with which authentic cultural heritage in food becomes a commodity that a certain class of person has learned to seek as creature comfort without real consciousness. This is not the fault of the artist, but it is something that ought not to be ignored in staging an action like this one. Can’t you find an arepa at the MoMA restaurant these days, devoid of arranged sociopolitical meaning? Even if this is not explicitly true, this sense of things has a ring of truth, and means something for this kind of action. At some point, the intervention ceases to be about the worker and the consumer, and begins to be about the availability of the kind of goodies that art nerds like to eat. The inscription on the museum plays to a narrative that it seems to be unconscious of, without asking too much of the viewer, who must in this case must be quite literally a consumer. Participation in or notice of the performativity of the piece required prior knowledge and a special perspective functionally limited to the crowd who knew what to look for and thought of it in a particular way: without a program note, the food was an object available for purchase, even if its connotations were more rich. I wondered if Family Meal had its end in that objecthood and not performance.

But this draws perhaps too firm a distinction. Much can be made of the difference between performance and object as a way of talking about the problem that performance art constitutes for museums: if we wished to be neurotic, we could think of performance as an activity outside the sphere of the museum’s capability because of the stickiness of dealing with persons in time rather than objects that can be hung on the wall. As David Levine pointed in the evening’s discussion, however, performance does in fact produce a certain kind of object that can be preserved. “Sometimes it seems like a fake fight,” he said, “nobody has to do this together, therefore they were both a little infected by each other to begin with… I think the idea of ‘how can a museum deal with something as ephemeral as performance?’, is kind of a non-question, because performance wouldn’t have situated itself in relation to the museum if there wasn’t an element that did want to be frozen in time in the first place.” What we might call a “problem” is one of the mechanisms of the art that happens, not its obstacle.

Levine’s contribution to “Odd Spaces”, titled durance, played the obstacles of transverse definitions with some virtuosity. ”Why would you want to be a genre at this point?,” he asked at the panel discussion, “I’m much happier ping-ponging between these huge obelisks that were created years ago.” Levine started as a theater director who by his own admission “kind of never really got into going to theater.” His practice draws on a wealth of reference not only for particular allusion, but for the shape of spectatorship that he wishes to produce. In durance a woman dressed as Snow White (the inimitable Angie Jepson, in top form) is enclosed in a glass box—or the MFA’s Druker Classroom, depending on your frame of reference. Angie, or Snow White, spends five hours there, wearing a microphone, walking around, drawing on a chalk board, eating apples from a bowl, and reciting on a loop the entirety of Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”: you could hear the words and the apples crunched, echoing through the halls of the museum.

a woman sitting at a cafeteria table
A second odd space at the MFA.
Photo by Allison Vanouse

One of the things to notice about this piece is how little it demands of you as a spectator, in the way a good friend will require very little of you as a spectator. You are not expected to sit still, turn off your phone, or stay in the dark to watch the actress reciting a long essay from beginning to end, as in traditional theater. But you are also not expected to watch a minute interaction with space and read conceptual force into minimalism or “extreme” action: the piece presents itself as much as a play would, but without the unconsidered ostentation of blackout and the demand for responsibly undivided attention. The piece has clearly been considered in the relationship it builds with an observer, and was operative on multiple levels, with a positive wealth of experience available on each one. If you wished to appreciate spectacle, some kind of spectacle was available. There is a kind of comedy in the extreme juxtaposition of serious critical prose with the hilarious cartoonishness of setting and costume. If you were a five year old kid, you might have gotten a kick out of it, while actually catching part of the reference. If your taste were a little more finessed or jaded, your sensor for irony would have begun to wail immediately, and you might have found a different kind of pleasure. If you wished to appreciate the extraordinary feat of the actress, or the argument of the essay, those were available, too.

We should recognize as real achievement that none of these avenues to appreciation is closed by Levine’s approach, and that on any one of them one can watch the piece for entertainment or for conceptual interest without the sensation of having missed something. This sensation doesn’t arise, I think, because he is actually communicating, and the work has positive meaning as a wholly designed experience that presents itself instead of demanding attention or a certain tone of interpretive force. Drawing on conventions of theater and performance, Levine’s synthesis of their operations communicates without making issue of a distinction in form, except to the degree that it serves his purposes: and there is of course an elegant purpose to prodding the textures of theatricality and performance when talking about the avant-garde and kitsch.

“A lot of my stuff is trying to point out that performance is infected by theater, and theater should be more infected by performance”

Levine said at the panel discussion. Never really into theater, he has this year been awarded an Obie for his work on a piece called HABIT, also comfortable in a museum setting, also using conventions of looped action and performers’ endurance. One hopes that this is the kind of work that makes the artistic directors of academic university-affiliate theaters sit up and take pointed notice, as the forward-thinking curators of the Museum of Fine Arts have clearly done. Certain conventions of practice, and the barriers they insist upon, lose their interest. The writing is in “odd spaces”, off the walls.

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