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. Thats
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 Furnaces 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 Wheelers history,
the show doesnt 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. Theyre impossible to read, so youre
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 its 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 Laffins 1994 project, Various States
of D(u)ress. Its 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 Changs Fountain is a powerful image of the artist
consuming her own reflection, carefully composed within the cameras
frame. In Time Piece, the camera is complicit in Tehching Hsiehs
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