Performers on View
After the remarks—in which everyone expresses their admiration for everyone else who has contributed to this admirable group effort, emphasizing how monumental that effort has been and the greatness of each and every person involved (but especially the curators)—I take the elevator to the fourth floor, the floor that has been designated for performance. The doors part to reveal bright white everywhere. “No photographs,” reads the sign in front of the white, wrought-iron fence, which siphons off most of the flat white space, separating it from the white chairs and white risers lining one long, white wall. In the absence of pictures, my list of free-associative images will have to suffice: stadium, insane asylum, skating rink, desert, pasture, heaven.
Well, maybe not heaven. Heaven carries connotations of a resting place, and this space makes me feel on edge, the way I felt inside the suburban home of the childhood friend whose mother would go around with a cotton cloth eliminating smudges from the glass coffee table and other reflective surfaces: afraid. Afraid to disturb the pristine peace. Afraid to touch anything, step anywhere. Should I take off my shoes?
Perhaps that’s because there actually is a woman scrubbing the ground with a kitchen sponge (how can she possibly make any progress with that tiny thing?) And because the endless ivory floor is stenciled, in barely perceptible grey, with the blueprint of a house, a house which, if it were to be built, would have many rooms. And because, like that mother’s looming presence, which hovered over you even when she was nowhere in sight, an abstraction of the artist herself presides over this palatial emptiness: a silhouette of her head, with its halo of shoulder-length hair, mounted on the wall, rendered in neon blue lights. “I’m not here, but I am,” it seems to say.
She isn’t far away, though. If you venture “backstage” (past several unrelated installations that make me wonder how, in the course of that valiant group effort, decisions got made about what should go where), you will find her, Sarah Michelson, helping her performers primp and groom, in a small gated corner. It is a vivid, cinematic scene with shag rugs and gleaming makeup mirrors and preparatory rituals. They seem to have no idea you’re watching them.
What are they getting ready for? Maybe I missed the “real” performance, but this strikes me as primping for primping’s sake, or for the sake of an absurd juxtaposition with what’s happening out on the vast blueprint—or rather, what’s not happening. There, all remains quiet, except for that dutiful scrubber and a second, more curious figure: a listless horse (woman in brown unitard, sneakers, horse mask), skulking about. The absence of activity feels a little bit ornery, a little bit we’re-too-good-for-the-press-preview. Maybe it’s an admission that even Whitney Biennial commissions start from scratch. But the blankness of the slate is also exciting: What will happen here in the coming days?
As for the sense of voyeurism being imposed upon me—my heightened awareness of my place as a spectator, facilitated by the literal fencing-off of performers from museum-goers— well, it doesn’t really bother me. I actually prefer this kind of cold, impersonal distance to what’s happening down on the third floor, where the Los Angeles-based performance artist Dawn Kasper has moved her entire studio/bedroom across the country and into one of the galleries, complete with piles of sneakers, stacks of CDs, and clusters of spray-paint cans. She calls it “This Could Be Something If I Let It,” and she’ll be living and making work there for the next three months.
I’ve just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Imperial Bedroom,” and as I inch my way into Kasper’s den (it’s a popular attraction), Franzen’s critique of the erosion between public and private spheres comes to mind. Writing in 1998 (pre-explosion of social networking; what would he write now?), he argued that despite widespread fear about the violation of personal privacy in America, what was really at stake was the sanctity of public space, as it increasingly became a forum, a showroom, for the flaunting of traditionally private matters. “What’s threatened . . . isn’t the private sphere. It’s the public sphere,” he writes. And a couple of pages later: “A genuine public space is a place where every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted. One reason that attendance at art museums has soared in recent years is that museums still feel public in this way. . . [H]ow delicious the enforced decorum and the hush, the absence of in-your-face consumerism.”
As I watch Kasper, surrounded by her own clutter, giving an anxious interview to notebook- and camera-toting reporters, I find myself recoiling, Franzen-style, against this merging of private and public realms—this transformation of personal space into public display. It seems somehow related to the over-sharing of information on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and now, Pinterest; the relentless exhibitionism of reality TV; the increasingly unabashed opening up of our lives for all to see. Wouldn’t this be the ultimate dream of an avid Facebooker? To put one’s life, work, thoughts, feelings, belongings, impulses, practices, preferences on view for people to observe, day in and day out, and have it deemed art? We peer into strangers’ lives all the time, to the extent that it has become almost mundane. It is too easy to know too much about too many people. Art is one of the few things we can still rely on for mystery, mystique. I go to the museum (or the theater) not for “the enforced decorum and the hush,” necessarily, but at least for some sort of quiet rejoinder to the everyday onslaught of private-made-public life, rather than a replica of it.
I decide to take the stairs back up to the fourth floor, to see if anything has happened with that forlorn horse. The music from the big white room—a repetitive, celestial, Phillip Glass-ian undulation of synth- and bell-like sounds—filters through the stairwell, growing louder, more enveloping, as I approach. It’s the warmest thing about this frigid space. But I don’t mind being pushed away. It creates the possibility of being drawn in when you least expect it.
Siobhan Burke writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times dance listings, and Dance Magazine, where she is an associate editor. Her writing has also been published in The Columbia Journal of American Studies. She has a blog, phaseshifting.tumblr.com.