The re-enactment of key historical performances seems to be a growing phenomenon. I found reference to a season at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, called “A Short History of Performance”, which included Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy (1964).
of the original Meat Joy, Schneeman has written:
Meat Joy is an erotic rite — excessive, indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish, chicken, sausages, wet paint, transparent plastic, ropes, brushes, paper scrap. Its propulsion is towards the ecstatic — shifting and turning among tenderness, wildness, precision, abandon; qualities that could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent. Physical equivalences are enacted as a psychic imagistic stream, in which the layered elements mesh and gain intensity by the energy complement of the audience. The original performances became notorious and introduced a vision of the “sacred erotic.” [quote found here at http://www.eai.org/eai/tape.jsp?itemID=6892]
Below is a reprinted excerpt from an article by Alex Farquharson called “Action Replay”, from Frieze magazine, [Issue 77, Sept 2003, p 52], about the Whitechapel gallery re-enactment:
Over the course of a week the gallery hosted re-enactments of seminal performances from the 1960s, each for one night only. Together they brought into focus a set of philosophical questions more or less particular to our relationship with a historicized, ephemeral medium. With most art the notion of the original is tied up with an object that usually undergoes little physical transformation over time. But where does the original reside in performance? Is it gone once the performance, in its original location, overseen by the artist, is over? Are film and photographic documentation, relics and physical residue â€“ of the kind Paul Schimmel assembled for “Out of Actions” at MOCA in LA (1998) â€“ the most authentic connection we now have with the original event, or do thse fragments pale next to a faithful re-enactment? Is the reconstruction still a copy or appropriation even if the artist performs or directs it, or should performance be regarded as a reproducible medium, like a play or musical score? If the latter, then the work probably wonâ€™t have undergone any immanent change. Instead, differences in the ways it is now interpreted would ve attributable to changes in historical circumstances. Then again, wouldnâ€™t these changes equallay affect readings of a Roy Lichtenstein painting or an Ed Kienholz tableau, say, of the same period?
Meat Joy, for example, answered all these questions with an ambivalent “yes” and “no”. On one hand, seeing the full performace made you realise that your understanding of the work, based on black and white images of the climactic scene, was extremely slanted. Its slow, mesmeric quality, its long narrative arc, its references to gestural painting and Jungian archetypes, and its olfactory intensity are absent from the photographs, whose static iconography and documentary edge have transplanted the work form the context of the late 1950s and early 1960s happenings to feminist action-based works of the 1970s. On the other hand, the artist had made slight but significant alterations to the content of the piece for its re-enactment. Her own role changed from main orgy protagonist to party hostess or cult leader, reflecting her maturity, while the young men and women were no longer naked, because the nude body, according to Schneeman, has been drained of its emancipatory significance since the original event, and now operates as little more than prurient spectacle.
A more radical transformation had taken place on the level of audience reaction. The return of Meat Joy felt triumphant, a cause for celebration, like the reunion of a legendary rock group. The entrance of the meat and fish to the music felt as if it should have been greeted with applause, like the apprearance of a special guest during an encore. Meat Joy, this time around, functioned as entertainment, albeit for a relatively rarefied audience.
Jonathan Jones agreed. He wrote (in British Newspaper The Guardian):
Meat Joy was a spectacle, but I’m not sure it was anything more. We did not get involved. A few people were enticed to dance at the end, but only a handful out of hundreds. We sat upright and uptight. And there was more than repression rooting us to our seats. There was a gulf between audience and performance that could not be bridged, as if the action we witnessed were elsewhere. Time stood between. This was repetition, and while on its own terms it was a triumph, it was also as pointless as restaging Gettysburg. It could only be a breathing waxwork.
*it seems another “re-enactment” (or performance) of Meat Joy took place in 2003… see http://www.amherst.edu/~pubaff/news/news_releases/02/meatjoy02.html
A hard-hitting review of the Whitechapel re-enactment, by critic Jonathan Jones, is at http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/story/0,3604,686046,00.html
[UPDATE: IN NOV 2003, I ATTENDED THE SECOND PART OF THE SHORT HISTORY OF PERFORMANCE AT THE WHITECHAPEL GALLERY IN LONDON – SEE MY REPORTS FROM WORKS BY MARTHA ROSLER AND CAREY YOUNG, ROBERT MORRIS, ANDREA FRASER, JOSEPH BEUYS, THE ATLAS GROUP AND MARK DION, AND INVENTORY. ]
[for related posts, visit the re-enactment category in this blog…]