Madrid, 13-20 July 2014
By Amy Bell
Your body is a battleground, according to Barbara Kruger. It is marked and bloodied, fought over, claimed, lost and won by the marauding hordes of the patriarchal forces at large in society. (As a lesbian I might be more tempted to say my body is a no man’s land, but that’s another story…) Nowhere in Performing Gender did I feel Kruger’s point more keenly than in Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía. A colossal institution, boasting one of the world’s greatest collections of modern art and fiercely protecting its take on the canon, it has some of the most stringent bodily controls I have encountered in a museum. The visitor’s physical experience is highly yet quite subtly regulated. The artist’s even more so. My body may be a battleground on the street, but the Reina Sofía is in sole, sovereign control as soon as I pass through the thorough security checks, don my name badge and follow the course of her cool, clean corridors.
A skinny man wrapped a gaudy loin-loth and turban combo sits cross-legged in a corner of an open passageway. He rocks to and fro as he sings, hums and clicks into a microphone, recording and looping homespun mantras like a kitschy post-modern holy man. Against the glitches and bassy booms of his itchy-funky soundtrack his voice emerges with warm humanity, “My body, my territory. Your body, my territory. My body, her territory…” People begin to gather and listen. As he stands we see his peculiar get up is, in fact, made of flags. Face open but deadpan, he periodically draws random flags from a box and adds them to his outfit, fashioning now a billowing pair of shorts, now a skimpy crop-top, now a bandit’s face scarf. He begins to dance his song, carving clean angles then loping with mini-collapses through the space. He drapes himself, gestures and signals, his body becoming a vibrant rolling banderol of possible genders, desires and nationalities. Later he draws up chairs and speaks with people about what they just saw and felt. These discussions generate the material for the next song, the song generating material for the next dance, the dance for the next discussion as the work unpacks itself matryoshka-style.
This is PG artist Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld’s Gender Travel. The title is an obvious nod to Judith Butler, but it seems he has Kruger on the brain too. As a point of departure he asks, what if my gender was a country? Ideas of nationhood, border control, constitution, patriotism, xenophobia, nomadism, exile, tourism, trade and (inevitably) war suddenly provide fertile metaphors for understanding and problematizing our identities as men, women, trans, queers… And it is through, across and on the body that the tensions implicit in these discourses are felt. Your body, bound to enter the somato-political fray, bears the ravages. Skirmishes break out on the skin, the battle of the waist-bulge rages, booby traps lie in wait in the underhanded guerrilla tactics of love.
Likewise, these corpo-territorial hostilities are also manifested in the codes of movement and behavioural controls set out by the museum. During the weeks of research and performance at the Reina Sofía, PG artists found themselves appealing for and often refused permission to enter workspaces on a daily basis, not because any rules had been broken, but because the mechanisms of control were so unwieldy and so accustomed to accommodating performers working in situ. Photographs were not permitted, even for the purposes of research. Identity had to be proved and displayed in the form of a name badges. Sitting on the floor of gallery spaces was prohibited. Dancing forbidden. Performances could not occur near or in physical relation to artworks in the existing collection since, for the curatorial team, this would need the permission of the artist concerned or their estate. Picasso was absolutely out of the question. Corridors, stairwells, function rooms and lecture theatres were in reality the only remaining fair game. Nudity was tolerated solely in closed spaces with written warning so visitors could choose whether to expose themselves to it or not. This was apparently to protect the sensibilities of children (never mind that they might stumble on any number of nude paintings, photographs and sculptures elsewhere in the collection). The PG artists were invited to be inspired by the truly amazing collection but were effectively surveyed, restricted, ghettoised even by regulations that seemed not only draconian but based on some extremely problematic assumptions.
However, this is not to say that there weren’t positive attitudes towards the PG project from within the museum. Indeed, quite the reverse. Laura Kumin, Madrid’s PG partner pointed out that the museum had indeed taken a significant leap of faith in taking on the project in the first place since it was highly unusual for them to agree to show works by unknown artists before they had been finished, seen and approved. Individual staff members were very excited to support the project for this reason as well as for the potency of its overall premise and theme. It was also not assumed that because they were using the body, any of the PG artists would necessarily produce anything particularly more provocative than any of the other works in the museum’s collection. The stringency of the controls over movement and behaviour, it was explained, were simply standard security protocol. It just happened that this protocol implicitly hampered the free movement of bodies in the space, revealing a seemingly unassailable hierarchy when it came to visual art versus performance art. We suspected that exceptions might have been made for performance artists with household names but for now we were told clearly, rules are rules and apparently not even for a queer project could those rules be bent.
This was in stark contrast to other museums in the project. In none of the other museums did nudity raise an eyebrow let alone a problem. Indeed some of the artists were concerned that nudity was so unproblematic, wearily expected even, that it risked being cliché. Instead, the Reina Sofía’s restrictions on nudity actually gave it greater significance as it (amazingly) still represented the struggle for liberation of the body, a factor PG artists Silvia Gribaudi, Giorgia Nardin and Bruno Isaković all hoped to explore in their works.
The attitude towards interaction with the collection was also at odds with the other participating museums. Curators at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht, for instance, not only enabled but encouraged a sense of dialogue. As a result Jordi Cortés was able to make beautiful use of Brazilian artist Laura Lima’s modern design classic wheelchairs, opening up the possibility for a confounding, impromptu mid-stair wheelchair duet with PG guest, Remco Slop. Also at the Bonnefanten Alessandro Sciarroni was able to place his laughing teenagers in the aptly warped surreality suggested by Sol LeWitt’s mind-bending Spiral – Walldrawing #801. This attitude was also very much alive in Bologna where MAMbo curator Uliana Zanetti felt that the direct dialogue with works in the collection achieved by Juanjo Arques and Cristina Henríquez were amongst the strongest features of the entire project. In even greater contrast, Zagreb’s MSU let PG artists and visitors so much freedom to roam that there was in fact a sense of disorientation, with spatial coherence difficult to grab and potential for the intrusive visitors to invade performances with impunity. Back at the Reina Sofía I wondered if we weren’t suffering from a slight Goldilocks syndrome in relation to the conditioning powers of control, complaining one museum was ‘too much’, another was ‘too little’ and searching frustrated, for the elusive ‘just right’.
But perhaps by working in museums we were looking in the wrong places altogether. In a project aiming to challenge dominant discourses, why chose some of the most established and conventional art institutions in Europe? Why would one want to perform in a place where boobs (and other naked body parts) were trapped and limited to modes of representation while their presence in the actual flesh is still seemingly taboo or deemed offensive? It felt absurd that so many rooms were peopled with such a variety of (mainly female) nudes but yet a real person, in natural splendour, was not welcome. This spoke volumes of the invisibility of dance and performance, and the fear of real bodies and sexualities in mainstream culture. I was drawn to the irony that Jeff Wall’s Giant, was displayed in the museum. This photograph, for me, sums up the absurdity of the very collection of which it is a part. The enormous figure of a middle aged woman stands with beautiful simplicity, buck naked in the middle of a library. She goes totally unnoticed as readers studiously avoid her. Wall shows that even when totally blatant, a woman’s corporeality is still institutionally invisible, shunned in favour of her objectivity. Her actual presence is either restricted or, if in plain sight, she is ignored; either way she is negated. Heaped onto the irony mountain is the fact that the Guerilla Girls’ famous poster which asked, in 1989 no less, with still relevant exasperation, ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’. Drawing from art critic and novelist John Berger’s differentiation between nude (representational, objectified, acceptable) and naked (raw, subjective, taboo) I would ask ‘Do women have to be nude to get into the Reina Sofía?’. Real nakedness, it seems, is still too much.
So why would we go where we are not wanted? Why too, Pablo seemed to be questioning, would we perform under the flag and in the name of the actual Reina Sofía, a fixture of the Spanish royal family outspoken in her anti-abortion, ant-gay, ultra-conservative viewpoints. Why perform in a place policed by security guards with guns, armed to protect not simply the works, staff and visitors from, say, a terrorist attack but also, it sometimes appeared to us, to symbolically preserve the dominant cultural discourses? Is the museum then itself a giant artistic booby trap? In the war for bodily sovereignty and freedom to critique patriarchal controls over the gaze, the body, sex, gender and sexuality, does the bait of prestige such an institution offers only draw the PG artists in to spring on them a surprise attack of establishment values? Will the imaginative space suddenly snap shut around their ankles, leaving their works maimed as a result? The ever-increasing occurrence of dance in museums which attained a kind of apogee of trendiness with the opening of The Tanks in London’s Tate Modern in 2012, a dedicated performance space in another behemoth of contemporary art, suggests perhaps not. Choreographers seem to be understandably champing at the bit to explore the refreshing visual codes and attitudes towards proximity, duration and performativity offered by gallery spaces. Performance artists might be rightly perplexed at what perhaps seems to be a rather tardy jumping on of their band waggon without awareness of the necessary politics. So should dance and movement practitioners be weary of the trend? Is it best to avoid the bastions of artistic establishment?
Not necessarily. As I consider in my article on activism and the Zagreb Creation Week, there is certainly a case that infiltration of the mainstream is a valuable way to subvert it, rather than stamping one’s little feet from the side-lines. However, seeing the physical and spatial control and alienation of the PG artists I was reminded of a speech from Lois Kiddens of London’s Live Art Development Agency (LADA) given during PG Zagreb. She spoke about how a principle of LADA is that truly experimental, radical work necessarily needs to remain marginal to make its point. She explained that she avoids working with mainstream institutions because it “blunts the edge” of the work. She wouldn’t want the work contained, compromised or, worse still, approved by the institution. I wonder then what she would have made of the Guerilla Girls’ work having been subsumed by the Reina Sofía. Had even that been “blunted”? On the one hand including radical feminism into the museum’s canon goes some way to redefining what can be considered important art. Yet on the other, their rhetoric falls a little flat as the work assumes the reifying status of ‘iconic’ and gains well-meant but possibly misplaced institutional approval. Does this extinguish the fire of dissent? Guerilla tactics involve playing dirty to change the modes viewing and thinking about art so, as Banksy has noted, being hung alongside conventional masters where one is asked to Exit Through the Giftshop perhaps smacks of the patriarchy steamrollering dissenters by absorbing them into preexisting conservative and increasingly commercialized specular regimes.
The PG partners I’m sure gave this long, hard consideration when planning the project. They argue that, to some extent, challenges to dominant discourses can be achieved with a pincer action: infiltration of the mainstream is important for gaining visibility and accessing resources and it can be complemented by rather than at odds with critiques of the mainstream from the margins. Laura Kumin even pointed out that since the Reina Sofía was so large and the mechanisms of communication and curatorship so clunky, that once inside we could to some extent “fly under the radar”. Italian PG partner Roberto Casarotto is also a firm believer in this, having seen for himself huge art institutions such as the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London develop new strategies for audience engagement as a result of his Bosch Project which had similarly and extraordinarily introduced choreographers unknown to the wider public into their midst.
One idea kept coming back to me as I looked at the work of the PG artists in the peculiarly rich and complex context of the Reina Sofía. An elegant approach to any creative problematic or ambivalence is perhaps suggested by writer and theatre maker Tim Etchells whose strategy is often ‘to raise the problem to the level of subject’. In this way any performance in a museum setting is perhaps fruitfully thought of as being to some extent about the museum setting. This was certainly the case with Pablo’s Gender Travel which periodically uprooted audiences and transported them between the museum’s old Sabatini building and its newer Nouvel part by way of a bridge, where Pablo noted that visitors were effectively floating in a spatial, temporal, performative limbo. Bruno Isaković and Silvia Gribaudi also made use of the way the Reina Sofía had curtailed their original ideas concerning nudity and proximity with the collection. Bruno chose to rail against these controls in the aptly named ‘Sala de Protocolo’. His voice, reading subversive texts, and his naked body, covered in ink-like paint of those words struggled against marginalisation and obscurity, in a room so far from the beaten visitor track that he appeared to be in a perversely self-imposed exile. For part of her work Silvia made a short film that likewise made material from her conflicts. Exploiting the only time of day open nakedness was possible, she filmed a series of gloriously free dawn rampages around the museum, celebrating the everyday beauty and gleefulness of being in the buff. She neatly and humorously highlighted the absurdity of being able to show the film of herself openly naked without the possibility of actually being naked herself. She was stuck starkers in catch-22, a literal booby trap. But she wriggled free to tip toe stealthily around the patriarchy and spring an ambush in her own inimitable style, something I think each artist achieved with impressive personal sensitivity in each of the PG cities.