Clifford Owens at CAMH: If performance art isn't live, is it still art?
You can take a picture of a symphony, but you won’t hear the music. If you take a picture of performance art, what do you get?
I found myself asking just this as I wandered into the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston for Perspectives 173: Clifford Owens, which runs through April 3. The exhibition takes place downstairs in the CAMH and consists of three videos, one set of drawings, a set of inkjet printed text, a set of drawings, and four sets of photographs. Each work documents different performance events.
The exhibition opened in early January with an appearance by Owens, a New York-based photographer and performance artist. At that opening, which sadly I missed, Owens engaged Houston viewers in an ongoing project called Photographs with an Audience. Questions to the audience elicit instructions that Owens then acts out. The process is documented, making both performance and record constitutive acts of creation.
Perspectives 173 included images from two previous instances of Photographs with an Audience, the first shot in New York City (2008-9). One photo presented two audience members kissing while another featured a separate couple hugging. In a third, three couples hugged, but a slight tenseness and formality in the bodies suggested they were strangers.
In two of the photos, Owens appeared naked, and in one of these nudes he was curled on the floor in a fetal position. Nudity was a theme in the second Photographs with an Audience, which was documented in a set of 10 polaroids taken at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (2009). The viewer of both sets of photos is left to imagine from a cool distance the many emotions that the viewers of the performances might have felt: embarrassment, discomfort, arousal, titillation, boredom, sympathy, or rage.
But what is the quality of this voyeurism? Two video installations suggest two different answers. Belt Piece (2004) features a video loop capturing a series of gallery viewers wielding a belt. Each participant cracks the belt against the floor behind Owens who stands in black facing a white wall and with his back to the audience. At each clap of sound he twitches as if in pain or anticipation of pain. Interesting, I thought, but also heavy handed.
The desire for provocation also was a driving force in Politics and Emotion (2006), which offered footage of the well-known artist, critic, and AIDS activist Gregg Bordowitz. Bordowitz spent over three minutes recollecting and commenting some details of a “threatening” performance Owens once gave and which Bordowitz hazily remembers.
He wasn’t the only one hazy in this performance. Apparently, Owens drank beer, offered beer to the audience, smoked a joint, and “demanded” that the audience deal with his anger and sadness. Reactions to the event were mixed. While Bordowitz found the whole affair wonderfully vulnerable and frightening, one woman reportedly had a different take, saying “Why do men always get drunk and high in front of me and demand things of me?”
Unknown viewer, I hear your pain. I find myself rather skeptical about Owens.
To me there’s something agressively non-chalant yet also clearly self-aggrandizing about inserting into a gallery a praise-filled recollection of one’s own performance by a prominent critic. And Owens involved Borodwitz himself in the piece by engaging him in a disturbingly long and tight embrace. Breaking down the barrier between viewer and artist is by now a familiar, and for some ethical, gesture. The attempt to break down the barrier between critic and artist does not always imply the same kind of ethics.
To be fair, Owens clearly intends his viewers to be uncomfortable, and he’s committed to using his body, his brain, and a kind of emotional blackmail to get a response. Also, Owens is quite laudably committed to remembering and engaging with the past. Thus he creates Four Fluxus Scores by Benjamin Patterson to recreate Patterson’s Lick Piece, instructions for which were a part of CAMH’s fantastic and recently closed Benjamin Patterson: Born in a State of Fluxus. Owens's choice of Patterson is a good sign, though I found his photograph oddly flat considering it offered up naked flesh and whipped cream.
Provocation and discomfort have been the watchwords of performance art for decades. One might argue they've become such clichés that viewers who had never seen performance art might be quite shocked to attend a performance and not be shocked. Given how familiar gestures of transgression have become, what is truly transgressive now? Nudity? Invading another person's physical and emotional space? I'm not sure Owens has the answer but I'm fairly sure he wants to transgress.
Or I should say this: I feel confident in my response to the work as I was able to experience it. In ideal circumstances, I would have been able to see Owens live. I’m guessing I’m not the only one who couldn’t. Owens appeared once and the show at the CAMH runs for another two months. What’s left for the rest of us?
If there is interest in Owens it lies in process. I’m deeply skeptical about Politics and Emotion and Belt Piece, both of which backfire by being simultaneously manipulative and predictable. I wonder if the idea of Photographs with an Audience matches up with its reality. Those photos, and all the other ways of documenting Owens’s process, are briefly intriguing but don’t leave much behind. And Text Piece (Video Stills) from 2004 offers sentiments and aphorisms that hardly startle decades since Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and others pioneered textual art.
I appreciate the CAMH’s consistent engagement with what a problem it is to document the performative dimensions of art, a subject beautifully addressed by Dance with Camera and Hand + Made. And there’s an understandable interest in the overlap between Owens and Patterson. For a few weeks, Owens and Patterson literally overlapped in the CAMH, but that too has passed.
Indeed, as I ascended from the basement gallery, I noticed the upstairs gallery empty and under construction. I felt a sharp pang of longing for what wasn’t yet there.