Third Mind Live

Review in Issue 21-2 | Summer 2009

Robert Ayers reports from the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

The Guggenheim Museum really put the cat among the pigeons when – before January had even ended – they opened what may well turn out to be New York’s museum exhibition of the year. The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 really is a splendid show. Although it starts its survey of American artists’ fascination with oriental art and ways of thinking in the mid nineteenth century, it doesn’t waste much time getting on to the really interesting stuff and, amazingly for a museum exhibition, it pays proper regard to the significance of performance to the history. John Cage, the Fluxus artists, Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Allan Kaprow, Linda Montano and others are all given proper attention. A whole gallery at the top of the building is dedicated to the documentation of Tehching Hsieh’s legendary Punching the Time Clock on the Hour, One Year Performance (1980–81) and Ann Hamilton has made a remarkable performance installation sculpture, human carriage (2009).

When the Guggenheim announced the performance season that would accompany the exhibition, it was as though they’d just written out a wishlist of the biggest names in American performance art, and gone out and signed them up – Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, LaMonte Young, Merce Cunningham, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, and Robert Wilson.

Different artists are offering different degrees of performance, however: Merce Cunningham and Yoko Ono will only be talking chat-show style with an interviewer, Marina Abramovic is offering a ‘lecture’ on her Night Sea Crossing performances (though the lecture has been one of her preferred performance formats for as long as I can remember) and, in the two pieces that I have attended at the time of writing, things were different again.

Sadly, Laurie Anderson seems to have entered an early retirement phase, and her Transitory Life was little more than a gently nostalgic run through some of her favorite routines. The less said about that the better, to be honest. On the other hand, Meredith Monk attempted something quite ambitious. Monk is one of the key figures in the emergence of cross-disciplinary performance in New York City in the 1960s. In 1969, and at the Guggenheim Museum itself, she created Juice: A Theatre Cantata in 3 Installments, which was one of the iconic works of that entire period. The Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright building was only ten years old at the time, and its spiral-ramped rotunda must have seemed an appropriately groovy place for what was thought of as a radically experimental piece of theatre. So, for her 2009 audience, Monk decided to interweave fragments of Juice with musical elements from her latest work, Songs of Ascension. The combination is a bit of a parson’s egg, truth be told. The music – occasionally dissonant and enlivened by moments of Monk’s ‘expanded vocal techniques’ – sounded stunning in the Guggenheim’s rotunda, which has a wonderful acoustic as it turns out. But the performance elements are rather showing their age. It is easy to forget nowadays what an iconoclastic leap was required for Monk and some of her contemporaries to abandon the habits of representational acting and embrace abstract performance. Clearly Monk was finding it problematic even as late as 1969 because the little glimpsed vignettes that the audience were treated to as we slowly climbed the Guggenheim’s ramp ran the full gamut between the sublime and the ridiculous.

There were moments of genuine beauty, but a performance nadir of sorts was plumbed for me when, contemplating a scene that seemed quite in keeping with the rest of the show – a couple of guys slowly and rather elegantly mopping a gallery floor – the Guggenheim’s in-house photographer pointed out to me that actually this wasn’t part of the performance at all, but just a pair of maintenance men.

This article in the magazine

Issue 21-2
p. 33