RoseLee Goldberg, world's leading authority on performance art, on why Subodh Gupta's work at KHOJLIVE 12 is a perfect example of performance art and much more
Fringe works well in RoseLee Goldberg's scheme of things. While to her face, the fringe hairstyle brings this element of playfulness, her commitment to a fringe medium like performance art has elevated RoseLee to a different level. The hugely popular Performa Biennale, founded by her in 2004, features commissioned pieces that have artists push the boundaries to present highly critical works. With significant developments taking place across the globe in the genre, it is on its way to become a powerful medium able to hold its own in the art world. At the fourth edition of India Art Fair, Khoj International Artists Association, in collaboration with Outset India, had strung together an evening of 12 live performances, KHOJLIVE 12, and had invited RoseLee for the same. On the second last day of her first ever visit to India, the art historian and author took some time out to chat with us on the subject. Excerpts:
What's the sense you got from the pieces performed at KHOJLIVE 12?
I loved Subodh Gupta's piece. Beginning with physical objects, he brings in the references of rituals, history of class and politics in his work. The piece is about a ritual in Bihar where professional eaters are called on the 13th day of mourning after a death in the family. The eaters are eating and suddenly their head asks everybody to stop. From whatever I could make out, I figured that he is not happy with the remuneration. Once that is settled, they go back to eating and then they stop again. The work was funny and beautiful. There were elements of history, theatre and culture. The professional eaters were from Bihar, where I think Subodh's come from. This is what is performance art. Here is a visual artist who is working in time and space but with such beautiful objects. And whatever he set up for the viewers to see was exquisite — the three eaters, vessels and six screens placed at different places on the terrace for people to watch it comfortably. The angles and the frames showing the hands of the eaters, the lighting… it was all really nice. I learnt so much about a place and its culture in just 20 minutes. So, I feel there's enormous energy in the scene of performance art here.
Why is there is so much excitement about the genre now?
A lot of people ask me if performance art is back and I tell them it never went away. It has been happening for ever and even Michelangelo did it. People are travelling much more, they are moving around, which is making people more inquisitive about each other's cultures and lives. The form also allows an artist to put so much into a work. One can learn so much about a culture by seeing it, which is not the case of a painting or a sculpture. So, the accessibility of the form has helped. Then the artist can incorporate so much media, like digital, sound and photographs. Another reason is that it is watched in a group, it's not a solitary exercise and you can have conversations about it without having to know the history of art.
How has it evolved over the years? A lot of performance art had to do with bodies. Has that and has it changed now?
Yes, the focus has shifted and it will keep changing. In the '70s it had a lot to do with body, politics and feminism because the times were like that. Anti-Vietnam war protests had ignited lot of minds and emotions. Now, it is more like storytelling. People are telling different stories through it. It's theatrical and autobiographical but I can never separate a performance piece from the context. My feeling is that the history of a performance piece relates to the history of place.
How is 's Performa Biennale 2013 shaping up? Are you looking at any Indian artists to perform there?
This is the time when I travel looking around at work and commissioning pieces. We have had Nikhil Chopra perform at Performa but for its next edition I can't say anything just as yet. Performa was born out of complete necessity and desire. New York in the '80s was a very different place, less market-driven than today, and I wanted to make it a vibrant place again. I wanted to know what the city is thinking now. It needed a Biennale and now it happens all over the city, at 80 venues and with 120 artists. We have an education programme and this year we have had nine million hits. I am trying to understand the reason behind it and so we are doing surveys.