Collecting Smoke

Photos of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (1978–1979) are at MoMA starting January 21.Photo: Cheng Wei Kuong/Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art and (c) 1979 Tehching Hsieh, New York

You might think of Pipilotti Rist’s show—a multimedia installation with much of the room-dominating quality of performance art—as a teaser for MoMA’s huge new commitment to performance. MoMA will in late January launch a two-year series of live pieces, both new and re-created. It will all culminate in 2010 with a retrospective devoted to Marina Abramovic, the self-described “grandmother of performance art.” And last June, MoMA quietly bought its first pure performance work, Tino Sehgal’s Kiss.

Klaus Biesenbach, who curated the Rist show, is the man charged with acquiring this kind of art—and doing it soon. After all, the first generation of performance artists appeared 40 years ago, and MoMA wants to make sure their work outlives them. Which can be tricky. “How do you create, conserve, preserve a moment?” Biesenbach asks. In some cases there’s nothing to buy: no film, no props. MoMA was stumped, and so is nearly everyone else. (The Tate, in London, and the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, are also going down this road.) “There are no precedents here,” says MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry.

So the museum marshaled some troops—namely, 80 of the most influential forces in art—and, last March, started scheduling private workshops to figure out some rules for preserving ephemeral art. Biesenbach invited in artists (like Abramovic, Matthew Barney, and Francesco Vezzoli), curators (the Whitney’s Chrissie Iles and Shamim Momin), and performers of all kinds (Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, Laurie Anderson, Jason Sellards of the Scissor Sisters). “The sessions go on forever—like, hours,” Biesenbach says. “People just do not leave.” They addressed everything from the discrepancies between a performance and its remnants to legal quirks to the appropriateness of an institution’s owning work created to subvert institutions.

Purchasing Kiss was especially complex, because the hallmark of Sehgal’s work is that it’s undocumented. (In the piece, couples dance, touch, and make out for two choreographed hours.) There’s no script or manual. The how-to is passed on orally, like a folktale—which is how MoMA sealed the deal, with a spoken contract. The artist will explain its workings to a curator; he or she will pass it on, down the road; and MoMA will have the rights to reproduce the performance forever. (The work is an edition of four; two other museums have bought it so far. And it can be lent, like a painting.) Will that be the norm? “This may sound like a cop-out,” Momin says, “but you can’t answer these questions with a general rule. You have to be specific for each one.”

Collecting Smoke