Rituals of Rented Island at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Rituals of Rented Island currently on view at The Whitney Museum is a groundbreaking reinvestigation of downtown New York art from 1970-1980. The exhibition returns to the beginnings of New York performance art in a time when the streets of SOHO were dirty and dark, making the neighborhood a hub of artistic life and production. The exhibition looks at the vibrant scene from which the discipline was born. Some of the artists of which have international fame while others remain outsiders of sorts.

Jack Smith, Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (a.k.a. Material Landlordism of Bagdad, a.k.a. The Secret of the Brassiere Factory), Cologne Art Fair, Germany, October 26–31, 1977. All images © Jack Smith Archive, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Jack Smith, Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (a.k.a. Material Landlordism of Bagdad, a.k.a. The Secret of the Brassiere Factory), Cologne Art Fair, Germany, October 26–31, 1977. All images © Jack Smith Archive, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

While performance may have come out of 1960s counter culture and Fluxus happenings, the decade the exhibition explores was one from which Punk emerged and much of the work on view takes on the dark starkness of the surroundings it was produced in. As the show’s curator Jay Sanders put it “it was not sugar coated”, but explored the interaction of life and art.

Julia Heyward’s Shake Daddy Shake, a video documentation of a performance where she used her background as source material. Heyward invokes the voice father, a palsy ridden North Carolina preacher, using various voices, speaking chaotically on her father’s struggles and trauma. Vito Accounci, whose work is often aggressive, worked with his voice as well in Claim. In which he violently speaks trying to work himself into a tizzy, simultaneously forming a threatening persona.

Michael Smith, Busman’s Holiday Retreat Revue, performance at The Performing Garage, May 1981. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Kevin Noble

Michael Smith, Busman’s Holiday Retreat Revue, performance at The Performing Garage, May 1981. Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Kevin Noble

Other artists, notably Jack Smith, worked with performance in a more fantastical but not necessarily less disturbed way. An instillation by Squat Theatre, which was originally, installed in a storefront, shows video through the cut our eyes of a mural image of a child. The piece, being both immersive and horrific shows an attempt to merge life and theater. Smith’s The Secret of Rented Island, from which the exhibition garners its name, is shown as a slide show. The piece, which references b-Movie aesthetic and uses dialogue spoken in varying, disrupted speeds and voices.

The exhibition contextualizes itself with by including performance ephemera. Kipper Kids’ the full set instillation is an immersive disheveled experience of the kind of spatial alterations that may have generally occurred. Studies and artist’s descriptions act as literal glimpses into the post studio working and thinking process. Costumes, most interesting being the light bulbs suits by Heyward and Jared Bark, are shown as performative sculpture. Promotional flyers act as works of art themselves. As well as acting as historical captions of sorts, placing the performances within the urban landscape informing us of important venues and or revealing how the work was conducted in non-institutional sites, pointing to its own outsider status. This outsider status as well as the immaterial nature of the work mark the exhibitions importance both for the otherness of its subject matter and its ability to translate and display art that is largely inexperianceable in its original way or at all. In a more overt attempt to show the original work a selection of performances will be held throughout the coarse of the exhibitions run, both on and off site in its original place of non-gallery spaces.

Ericka Beckman, still from We Imitate; We Break Up, 1978. Super 8 film, color, sound; 28 minutes. Courtesy the artist

Ericka Beckman, still from We Imitate; We Break Up, 1978. Super 8 film, color, sound; 28 minutes. Courtesy the artist

Rituals of Rented Island is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through February 2, 2014

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by Robin Newman
in Focus on the East Coast

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