“The women’s figures which I see here among the people give me a tremendous urge, much more to paint them than to possess them, though indeed I should like both.”
—Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, 1885
Today I went to an event featuring Clifford Owens, performance artist. I saw his name in a magazine, then watched a you tube clip in which he put kimchee in his boxer shorts and then ate it. This act, in itself, did not inspire me or make me think deep thoughts, but there is something intriguing about the way he moves around. So I hoofed it to MOMA Queens, where they have a geodesic dome set up in the courtyard (bonus).
I had the time of Owens’ performance wrong. So I watched other African American performance artists, all chosen by Owens, interact with objects and ideas and the audience in sometimes interesting ways. By the time I needed to leave, people were lining up in the hallway outside of the gallery space where Owens was going to perform.
He planned to follow a “score,” or script, provided by another artist, Kara Walker. A video of a previous performance of this same score was being shown in the gallery. Owens had his audience with him in a room; the people were leaning against the walls . . . pressed against them, really. Owens was moving around the room with physical power and complete control over the audience, which they had granted him. He selected different people, mostly women but at least one man, and engaged them in various stages of necking/kissing based on their willingness/resistance and other invisible, intuitive factors known only to him.
The video was hard to watch. Owens retreated and approached, making eye contact, perhaps trying to figure out if his “victim” would be interested or appalled or perhaps traumatized if he stuck his tongue in her mouth. Sometimes he would start by kissing her neck, then move to the lips. I didn’t watch all of it. Couldn’t.
Still, as I was leaving the museum, I felt very disappointed that I had messed up the time; a big crowd had gathered and it was buzzing with excitement. But I had somewhere else to be.
I checked into it just now on Twitter. Apparently Kara Walker showed up and stood sentry during the performance. Presumably she was worried that Owens was really going to follow her script, which called for him to force a member of the audience to have sex with him. She didn’t want to be responsible.
Just as well that I self-selected myself out of the game by screwing up the showtimes. Probably I could not have handled that kind of performance. I wonder if anyone walked out. Or maybe the door was locked? Maybe it was.
But how do you explain this to people who are not performance artists or schooled in conceptual conceptual conceptualisms? The whole interaction looks insane and strangely futile. There is this sad link between mental illness and art and maybe it’s the institutions that keep the glass from breaking.
More good stuff about Owens and Walker and the power dynamics of the event.