Clifford Owens: Anthology at MoMA PS1

by Danny Kopel, January 2012

With a name like Anthology, Clifford Owens’s show at MoMA PS1 portends something of a retrospective look at his work, an authoritative statement about his oeuvre but the pieces collected here pose more questions than they provide definitive answers.

The basic premise driving the open-ended and unfinished project is Owens’s attempt to substantiate a history of African-American performance art, one that is in his eyes very much at large. The artist’s follow-through on this is methodical. He has asked twenty-six African-American artists to submit performance scores that he will then enact. The performance scores, presented on Owens-branded beaurocratic form-questionnaires, are displayed beside documentation of the performances, mostly video and photography in this case.

In some cases, Owens has strayed significantly from the prescriptions of the score—seduced perhaps by the heat of the moment as he carried out these tasks, or guided by some overwriting artistic instinct. This admission (on gallery labels) serves to remind the viewer of the mercurial essence of performance: its unexpectedness, its potential to veer off in wild directions. This aspect of the form of performance art is what has constituted an on-going discussion as how to best preserve it, a conversation re-ignited by Abramovic’s turn at MoMA in the spring of 2010.

With Owens’s professed mission of writing and archiving black performance art, the question of capturing and preserving the goods burns bright and the way the artist has exhibited his work here forwardly acknowledges the unresolved nature of documenting live performance. Owens’s photographs, for example, do not attempt a snapshot-like, archival quality—an aesthetic long-practiced in these matters for its connotation of veracity. Instead, the prints are lush, well-composed, stylized. Even in the grittiness of some of the scenarios, Owens turns peeing on a Richard Serra into an aesthetic act.

For all the ability and near-instantaneity of digital photography to reproduce life, its scope is two-dimensional and fragmentary, privileging the moment captured by the shutter over all others that came before or after. Video, however, captures moments in succession, building each on top of another. The ones Owens has presented here, as in the Kara Walker-“commissioned” performance to kiss and perhaps demand sex from the attendees lining the room, do no attempt anything very different from the simple recording of the event. For all its documentary merit, video can maybe incite emotion but never the frisson of a brush (and maybe a kiss) with the artist.

In a total review, the different media dexterously used by Owens here suggests a compendium of possible ways to document and capture, and the inclusion of the score, the hard original document, admits that the potential of these media is allusive at best, that there is an ineffable you-had-to-be-there quality surrounding the live act. But the very impossibility of capturing creates a mystique that is enticing to look back on and revisit. Artists like Joan Jonas, in pairing artifact with document, have exploited the ritualistic, spiritual aspect of performance, and in so doing has not only edified an aesthetic but compounded a mysteriousness which makes her work constantly re-appear. If making a substantial contribution to the history of African-American performance art is the ultimate aim, this imprecision is in fact advantageous.

Owens’s penchant for slicker presentation, while recognizing the aforementioned shortcomings, tacitly argues that these attempts at facsimile constitute works in their own right. The videos and photographs are conceptually integral to the whole, not practical afterthoughts, as-faithful-as-possible recordings of their interventions in time and space.

Forthcoming performances by Owens at MoMA PS1 will take place on February 11 and March 11 at 3pm.

Clifford Owens: Anthology
13 November 2011—12 March 2012
New York