Art Baseling is more than just art eye candy, making new friends, and über-cool parties. ’Tis the season for performance art, and that’s my favorite part of art fairs. Although the traditional objects shown in Miami are often beautifully made, most are less than gut-punching, but there’s always a banquet of performance art to fill that gap.
Before I experienced it for myself, performance art seemed like the most intimidating of the visual arts to me. When I imagined it, I conjured up a pretentious hybrid of Beatnik poetry and self-referential silence that would be hopelessly incomprehensible to the art novice I was then, but my assumptions were all wrong. Performance is often the most accessible of all visual art because it’s the most experiential, and experience is what we’re all after, right?
Performance art is as diverse as art itself. It can make you wildly uncomfortable or double over with laughter. If the genre has made you want to swipe, gag, and keep moving—give it another go.
I did at my first Miami Art Week in 2011, and it turned me into a performance art lover. It’s the only work I remember from that year. Unfortunately, I was too shell-shocked when it was over to snap a photo of the artist’s name—so I don’t know what it was called or who made it, but I’ll never forget how that work made me feel.
Only about 20 people were allowed into the booth for each performance of it. The artist wasn’t present. Instead, her assistant lined us up on one wall across from four wooden booths with transparent, plexiglass fronts. The artist’s assistant then picked eight people (including me), matched each of us up with a stranger, told us that no one could hear what we said in the booth, and asked us to step in. Once we did, I was acutely aware of being in such close proximity with a college-aged young man—less than a body width between us. He was way more uncomfortable than I was.
The artist’s voice came over a speaker in our booth, asking us to talk and interact. Our discomfort was heightened by the fact that our body language was on display for the rest of the viewers through the clear front of the booth. Laughing nervously, we pressed on.
During what seemed like an eternity, the artist moved from intimate (“Describe your first kiss”) to actual (“Kiss your partner like a long lost lover”). That last command quickly displaced the distress of being on display with the moral dilemma of whether to follow her orders, regardless of my committed relationship at home. Part of me whispered, “It’s ok—it’s just art.” The other part of me knew my husband wouldn’t think it was ok at all. Worse, my partner in the booth had just confessed that he’d never kissed anyone…because he hadn’t come out yet. It made me sick to think of his first kiss being with a woman, instead of the man he really longed for.
We were both good sports. We wanted to do what the artist asked. But, of course, that’s what the piece was about—whether we would violate societal norms just because we were told to.
I don’t know what went on in the other booths. The experience might have been wildly liberating. If you never dreamed of hooking up with a stranger in broad daylight for others’ viewing pleasure, it would be an exercise in bravery. That’s what made the work brilliant. It was a revelation of each participant’s humanity.
But mere societal norms weren’t at issue in our booth, right and wrong were. Neither one of us wanted to violate what was right for the other person. We both went in for the kiss, but ended up in an awkward hug that morphed into a heartfelt connection of mutual gratitude and respect.
That artist taught me more about myself than I’ve ever learned from any other work of art. I’m eternally grateful to her.
Miami Art Week 2018 brought me similar moments of transcendence.
My “prescription” from Monica Seggos’ The Broken Heart Repair Shop at Satellite Art Show, a fair that always includes a rich offering of performance art. (Full disclosure, Curatious was proud to sponsor Satellite this year.)
Monica Seggos performed in the context of her immersive The Broken Heart Repair Shop installation. Riffing on Richard Prince’s kitsch paintings of nurse-themed pulp fiction, the work is meant to trigger the viewer’s own painful and healing memories. Trigger it did. A minute into a personal session with Nurse Monica had me mentally far from the fair and deep into heartbreaks that I thought were long buried. Although I’m currently anything but brokenhearted, the performance was divinely poignant.
Most performance artists offer photography or video of their performances to collectors as a tangible (and monetizable) memorial of it. Seggos, instead, offers an object reminiscent to me of the ephemera from Joseph Beuys’ works. She gifts her participatory viewers with a memento mori for the brokenheartedness she repairs. It comes in the ingenious form of a “prescription” written on the back of a vintage medical prescription.
One of many performances held within Original Mouth Salacious South, an installation by Kale Roberts and Kevin McFierson of Tailgate Projects. Photo courtesy of Satellite Art Show.
The biggest gut punch I got during this years’ fairs was delivered by Kale Roberts, the driving force behind Tailgate Projects. Tailgate hijacks southern rituals of fandom, sports, and truck culture to create a platform for inclusive visibility. Roberts also uses the age-old artistic tradition of evoking vulnerability through nakedness in order to approach bodily taboos of all kinds. As he introduced an especially pan-sexual work, he read the room and prefaced the performance with the recognition that some viewers might be uncomfortable. Then, he asked us to harness any momentary discomfort to experience a taste of the anxiety that many fringe communities live with all the time.
Although I’m radically inclusive myself, I’m still white, straight, and privileged. So I channeled the fear of the other that was, indeed, hanging in the air at that instant…and it leveled me.
As it so often does, this year’s performance art gave me instant and life-changing experiential knowledge. Go get yourself some of your own as soon as you can!
Holly Hager is an art collector and the founder of Curatious. Previously an author and a professor, she now dedicates herself full-time to help artists make a living from their art by making the joys of art more accessible to everyone.