Performa 17

Various venues, New York, USA

Loosely influenced by the legacy of dada, the 2017 Performa biennial – led by chief curator RoseLee Goldberg – sought to blur the boundary between art and daily life and, at its best, consider a new age of anxiety not so dissimilar to the Weimar era. Throughout the month of November, Performa seemed to be everywhere – in the tube, splashed across billboards and pulsing away in after-hours gatherings.

In this sense, the most emblematic work may have been Jimmy Robert’s Imitation of Lives (all works 2017), which situated viewers among several performers at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. A series of vignettes modeled on the Kammerspiel, or intimate stage drama, incorporated text by Audre Lorde and music by Brian Eno, with references to the security state, the policing of desire and the over-policing of black subjects. Bodies moved unnervingly across the staid and pristine modernist pilgrimage site. The leitmotif was a reminder of Johnson’s affair with Jimmie Daniels, ‘a cabaret singer from Harlem’, complicating the site’s white-bread 1950s idylls.

Barbara Kruger was perhaps the highest profile contributor this year, with projects that included limited-edition subway cards, a roving school bus and a Lower East Side skate park, all emblazoned with her signature white-on-red dicta. These, and a collaborative merchandizing pop-up with Volcom, were presented under the arch-heading of The Drop. And yet, for all of their bluntness of address and exculpatory affinities with earlier avant-gardes, Kruger’s contributions seemed like a particularly stale form of regress. Kruger once repurposed sans-serif sloganeering, then lifestyle brands like Supreme repurposed Kruger. In 2017, consumers queued up to purchase bespoke trophies of cultural proximity from each. Gilded youth culture, it seems, is as good a business as ever.


Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 2017, installation view, New York City. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 2017, installation view, New York City. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court

Such moments are another reminder that the boundary between art, commerce and spectacle is blurrier than it was 30 years ago, before Kruger’s rise, or indeed a century ago during the dada ‘fairs’ of the 1920s. This was certainly the case with critic Teju Cole’s first foray into performance, Black Paper, which was staged at City Point, a Brooklyn mall, food court and condominium. Cole’s recent book, Blind Spot, showcased his talent for wringing poignance from the concise juxtaposition of text and image, like his forerunner W.G. Sebald. At City Point, audiences watched Cole disrobe and climb into bed for an in-the-round experience meant to evoke anxious dreams, wherein his photographs played across six channels. 

Black Paper, however, ultimately read like a 4D version of the book, a forced scroll through the well-curated Instagram feed of a celebrity influencer. This stood in stark contrast to Julie Mehretu’s merging of image and sound, MASS (HOWL, eon), which set her eponymous, monumental abstract diptych to a subtle, expressionistic score by Jason Moran, which he composed while Mehretu painted in an abandoned gothic church. The result was a textured aural journey that built on Moran’s ongoing collaboration with abstract painters, and further erodes the illusory cordoning of the visual and the sonic. Their pairing echoed Performa curator Adrienne Edwards’s recent inquiries into blackness as a visual and cultural field, and also demonstrated the biennial’s capacity to foster powerful new collaborations. 


Kemang Wa Lehulere, I Cut My Skin to Liberate the Splinter, 2017, performance documentation. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court 

Kemang Wa Lehulere, I Cut My Skin to Liberate the Splinter, 2017, performance documentation. Courtesy: Performa; photograph: © Paula Court


Performa was animated by an envoy of artists from South Africa. The tightly blocked movements of Kemang Wa Lehulere’s I cut my skin to liberate the splinter – an array of playground set pieces and rude musical instruments, apparently built from refuse – conjured the innocence and terror of youth, adapted to the violent games of our modern age. The exhausted performers’ bodies and elegiac gestures linger in memory weeks later, from a mournful trumpet solo to the delay-pedal dirge of a fearsome, improvized harp and Wa Lehulere’s declaration of his own name, which hung in the air like an incantation.

Similarly, William Kentridge took the stage under a vaulted nave at Harlem Parish for a one-time rehearsal of Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 sound poem, ‘Ursonate’. Kentridge commanded the room with an earnest, percussive rendition set to his signature projected drawings. At certain points, the breakdown of language merged seamlessly with the palimpsest of images, which conjoined the trauerspiel (tragedy) of Kentridge’s Johannesburg with the mechanistic terror of WWI-era nationalism and our own grim present. By turns hypnotic and humorous, it nonetheless sounded the alarm.


Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016. Courtesy: Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York, © Zanele Muholi 

Zanele Muholi, Sebenzile, Parktown, 2016. Courtesy: Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York, © Zanele Muholi


Above all, though, this Performa belonged to photographer Zanele Muholi, whose rich self-portraits delighted straphangers on train platforms and hung strategically at commercial intersections as welcome icons of a better future. Muholi, in the midst of several major solo shows, used the occasion as an extension of her ‘visual activism’, by which image making and exhibition become zones of collaboration, conversation and advocacy. Her many events across the city elaborated the dadaist merging of politics and unmoored creativity, but without directly citing that past. (This included a jubilant showcase at a gaudy downtown hotel and a three-hour series of performances in the Bronx.) Her multi-platform residency delivered on the latent promise of art’s social function – so often invoked on the biennial circuit – and was a microcosm of an ambitious, rambunctious and timely Performa.

Main image: Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives, 2017, performance documentation. Courtesy: Performa and The Glass House; photograph: © Paula Court

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, USA.

Issue 193

First published in Issue 193

March 2018

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018