History of Disappearance
Until September 4; Baltic, Gateshead

The mission of the New York-based organisation, Franklin Furnace, is “to make the world safe for avant-garde art”. That’s an oxymoron if ever there was one; by definition, the avant-garde explores new territories, taking risks by going where no-one has been before. No one, least of all an institution, gets there beforehand to conduct a safety audit.

For the past 29 years, Franklin Furnace has done its best to provide a platform for time-based art, and to find ways of preserving it for posterity. Now that posterity has arrived, we can reap the benefits in a new show at Baltic, focussing on the unique New York live art scene. It takes the form of artists’ books, web-based art, and videos of performance art.

All of these art forms were made for circulation. They were happenings, more than objects. They, or their reputations, travelled the globe, and were gradually digested, disappearing without a trace. Except when Franklin Furnace got hold of the evidence.

Here arises another paradox. An artist makes something which is deliberately ephemeral, designed to do its thing and disappear. An institution traps it behind glass, like a butterfly on a pin, and presents it to future generations as an important object.

Franklin Furnace’s mission is riddled with paradoxes, but so is performance art. These contradictions are encapsulated in a new commission by New York artist Britta Wheeler. In her wall-drawing, she analyses the institutionalisation of live art, and its constant struggle to differentiate itself from the status quo.

The wall-drawing kicks off a show which promises to chronicle “the transformation of live art from a form that disappears, into one that is preserved”. With the exception of Wheeler’s history, the show doesn’t do that; instead it presents us with a straight selection from the archives.

What once was intangible, has been returned to the status of object. Artists’ books are displayed in vitrines and sandwiched between suspended plates of glass. They’re impossible to read, so you’re supposed to stand there and admire them as artefacts. The display cases give off a distinct whiff of corporate PR, doing little to serve the artists, their books, or the audience.

Then there are the videos: whether these constitute art in themselves, or are there only as secondary documentation, is not mentioned. If this is a show of video art, then the performative nature of the work was only a means to a carefully crafted end. If it’s live art, then the videos are merely by-products. An exhibition such as this is the obvious place to discuss this crucial difference, but we are left in the dark.

Take, for example, Julie Laffin’s 1994 project, Various States of D(u)ress. It’s a shaky, grainy video of the artist struggling through the streets of New York in a dress with a 60-foot train. She is engaged in an intensely physical struggle with her elegant gown, creating a strong visual metaphor for emotional and social baggage. The video is amateurish and we can guess that its status was simply that of an interested witness.

Then there are other videos which are far more integral to the artists’ projects. Patty Chang’s Fountain is a powerful image of the artist consuming her own reflection, carefully composed within the camera’s frame. In Time Piece, the camera is complicit in Tehching Hsieh’s suffering. The increasingly haggard artist clocked in on the hour, every hour for a whole year, taking one frame of himself each time. The resulting six-minute video is gruelling, as are many of the other videos here, and indeed the exhibition as a whole.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 24.07.05