Performa 09, the biennial of performance art, is two weeks into its chockablock run. There’s one week to go, with events by artists Mike Kelley, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Terence Koh, and Marina Rosenfeld on the lineup, and I’m nearly overwhelmed already. In the first ten days, I attended twenty events. I rued the jam-packed schedule, got at least one venue and time completely wrong, and drifted off during Tacita Dean’s languid 100-minute film of Merce Cunningham’s dance company. I witnessed Ylva Ogland trying to distill vodka and ground rubies alchemically; was transported as Ruth Sacks channeled the legendary Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, in a brief outdoor concert at Castle Clinton; happily followed Guy Ben-Ner’s daffy film about a long-distance affair; and was deeply disturbed yet delighted by the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s a cappella rendition of George Michael’s “Father Figure.” Some performances were duds; a couple were sensational; crowds packed every one.
Since the advocate–Energizer bunny–art historian RoseLee Goldberg got Performa started in 2005, it’s grown like crazy. This year, it includes more than 100 events and 150 artists, spread out over at least 80 locations. That makes Performa 09 less focused, more frantic, and too big for one person to really experience. But no matter. Performa is a gift to New York that only an ogre would bemoan. Goldberg’s sometimes capricious choices are more than balanced by moments of mystic revelation. Consider, for example, the mad, deconstructive kickoff benefit for 500. The handiwork of self-described “Eventist” Jennifer Rubell, the dinner was a cuisinary Paradise Lost, involving one-ton piles of ice and barbecued ribs on pedestals, a ton of roasted nuts on the floor, three felled apple trees with apples still on the branches, and seven chocolate replicas of Jeff Koons’s Rabbit that guests smashed with hammers and ate. It was dinner by way of exorcism, ancient rite, orgy, and libidinous energy. It turned what could’ve been a boring gala into an innovatively participatory event—maybe the best one of the festival’s first week, in fact. (And it way outdid the empty spectacle put on by the electroclash performers Fischerspooner a couple of nights later. The sight of this once electrifying duo trying to revive their edgy pop irony in MoMA’s oversize atrium proved that artifice is a temperamental muse that must be tended carefully.)
There were other highlights: Symphony n. 1 at P.S. 122, a Fluxus-inspired collaboration between Ragnar Kjatansson and the Italian collective Alterazioni Video, and Empty Is Also, by sculptor Tamar Ettun and dancer Emily Coates. But the transformative moment, when I really saw into the dark nights of the artistic soul of it all, was during William Kentridge’s one-man masterpiece rendition of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Nose.” As Kentridge read from a script, threw paper around, ambled about, and discussed Cervantes and Lenin, he interacted with projected images of himself and his drawings. Everything began to flow into everything else and also to fall apart. At one point Kentridge looked at the audience and plaintively said, “I am an artist. I only have to make drawings. I don’t have to make sense.”
And that’s when the chaos of the week started to make sense. The artists at this year’s Performa weren’t trying to play the system or outwit the audience. History, myth, fiction, and culture are their subjects of choice, and artists are trying to go further outside themselves to find ideas while also delving deeper within to find emotional power. The festival might be getting more sprawling, but ambition this year was smaller—which I don’t mean negatively. Hectic and hit-and-miss as Performa 09 is, trading avidity for smaller, personal work allows for something more thrilling: risk.