This essay originally appeared on the Art21 Blog
I am not sure I would call artists like Jeff Koons, Vanessa Beecroft, Santiago Sierra, or even Kara Walker all that "controversial." These artists are actually quite popular with curators. How controversial could a work of art be, really, when reproductions of it grace the covers of art magazines and when it is embraced by museums?
If that work marks the outer limits of our conversation about challenging art, then what do we do with work that is so controversial that it receives little or no institutional support—work that in most contexts is stubbornly unfundable, uncollectable, and invisible? With artists totally indifferent to galleries and their cultures, and to mainstream taste and values?
These questions are on my mind because I am programming a series of events centered on a performance by the artist Ron Athey. His work can provoke intense anxiety in people who have heard about it and, sadly, a lot of what people have heard is based in rumor, if not outright lies. In 1994, he was the subject of one of the biggest controversies in contemporary art. Kateri Butler describes the whole event economically in her LA Times profile of the artist:
A poster boy for bullshit. That's how Ron describes his part in the aftermath of a 1994 performance of Four Scenes In a Harsh Life at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Catapulted into the heart of the culture wars. Denounced from the floor of the U.S. Senate. Blacklisted by the art world. All over the Human Printing Press scene–in which Ron cut the back of Darryl Carlton (a.k.a. Divinity Fudge) and made impressions of the wound on paper towels, which were then sent by a clothesline pulley out over the audience. It was erroneously reported, by a writer who had not attended the performance, that the audience had been exposed to HIV-positive blood (Ron has lived with HIV for the past 20 years; Carlton is not positive). And with that, the religious right was off and fulminating, and the media dutifully fanning the flames. Because $150 from the National Endowment for the Arts had been used in support of the performance via the Walker Art Center, Ron found himself defending a concept–public funding–that he didn't really even understand, never having then or to this day applied for a public grant in the United States.
(The Catherine Opie photograph of this scene from Four Scenes from a Harsh Life, pictured here, now hangs in the Guggenheim Museum.)
People are very nervous about performances involving blood. Anytime someone bleeds in the presence of others, there are of course protocols one must take to minimize risk of exposure to blood-born agents. These protocols are in fact a part of his performances. Athey is HIV-positive, and developed his "signature" work in the midst of the AIDS crisis. So the fact that his work confronts us with our limits regarding things like blood and fear of contamination is not incidental to either its poetics or its meaning.
There are other contexts in which people risk contact with each other's blood within the context of public performance: in sports, for example. Athletes will tell you that when they are cut in a game, they have to step out and be bandaged up before they can take the field again - and that the risk of injury is a part of the game. If fear of injury or contact with blood were the main issue in the institutional anxiety about performance art, lacrosse teams would play in full body armor. Blood is the subject of the controversy around Athey's work, but it is not really the issue. People are anxious about what is going to "happen" at an Athey performance - not to him, but to them.
I don't mean to suggest that watching someone bleed isn't hard for a lot of people, including me. But the demands that are actually made on us by Athey's work, the challenges posed to programmers and to the audience members are not as extreme or as unusual as we tend to think.
I suspect the enduring difficulty of Athey's work is tied to the way that it mixes pleasure and pain—and does so in complex spectacles that speak to larger social experiences of belonging and alienation, care and abandonment, hope and despair. In Resonate/Obliterate, the piece we are staging in February, we see Athey resting naked, on all fours on a metal table. There are large sheets of glass standing vertically at either end, forming a kind of box around him. He wears a long blond wig which he brushes, and brushes. The intensity of the action increases until he is furiously pulling on the hair with his brush. (This aspect of the performance cites Abramovic's 1975 performance video Art Must Be Beautiful.) He then sits up and leans back on his heels, and pulls out the pins holding the wig to his head. Only then do we realize that the wig has been pinned into his skin. It's a frightful realization. The performance doesn't stop here. He pulls the glass sheets over himself, and slides them across his body over and over again. By the end of the performance, there is blood all over the glass and his body. Recently, he has performed this work as a duet with dancer/choreographer Julie Tolentino who mirrors the exact sequence of action.
The two artists, one male, one female, stage a conversation about being ill-at-ease in your own skin, about being a beautiful monster. It speaks to the desire to make your body, your self, into something else; to the links between desire and pain, in which one seems to bring the other. It is moving like a punk rock anthem is moving; it is an act of defiance, and it's hard. But beautiful, too. It isn't everyone's cup of tea...but then neither is minimalist sculpture.
You won't be hurt at one of these performances. But you might feel upset, sad, disturbed, or agitated. You are more likely to feel like a witness than a spectator. This is no small thing.
In his essay, "In Defense of Performance Artists," Guillermo Gómez-Peña quite rightly calls the people who make this kind of difficult work "art criminals." Their work is, at the very least, extremely inconvenient. It produces no objects with value on which galleries and museums can trade. It often involves actions that make people uncomfortable. It makes a mess. It often has a visibly political edge and/or is produced by people who work from "borders and social margins." It is often about painful subjects.
Art criminals include people like Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Coco Fusco, Valie Export, William Pope L, Orlan, Annie Sprinkle, Franko B, Vaginal Davis, or Carolee Schneemann. The work of these artists has not been nurtured by art world institutions, but by gay, feminist, and punk underground environments. Their work was never about making a career, but rather about how one can use art to make life possible, to expand our notions of the self, and make the unbearable bearable. Their work is challenging or difficult in the ways that life is challenging and difficult. But their work is also playful, joy-filled, and ecstatic. It's the kind of work that can change your life.
Interestingly, the art criminals I mention here are far, far less cynical in their work than the controversial artists that circulate within the art world's inner chambers. Their work is made not in an attempt to mirror our worst impulses (as is the case with Sierra's exploitation of day laborers in his installations, for example), but with a belief that art can change your life and, indeed, the world. Amazing that such an idea would be so controversial.