While I know this will certainly get me in trouble but try as I might, I can’t say it any other way: I hated the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance and The New Psychodrama–Manhattan, 1970-1980. Even Smith’s penguin prop Yolanda couldn’t save the exhibition for me.
Although the roster of artists features some of my all-time favorite artists and performers including underground filmmaker Jack Smith, whose loft performances, which he would perform even if nobody showed up, have always been a personal aesthetic inspiration, stuffed animal auteur and John Waters’ favorite artist Mike Kelley and the always influential Laurie Anderson, I cannot get past the short-sighted curation of the exhibition.
Curated by the Whitney’s Curator of Performance Jay Sanders, Rituals of Rented Island, named after Jack Smith’s wry comment about Lower Manhattan, celebrates a decade of experimental performance art, presented outside mainstream art institutions in lofts, studio spaces, alternative spaces and even, apartments. Taking advantage of low rents, available public funds for art (can you imagine?) and an everything-goes sense of opportunity in the urban blight of 1970s Lower Manhattan, these artists and performers created their own thoroughly independent, anti-institutional art scene.
Questioning the boundaries of sexuality, the body, linear narratives, time, politics and heralding in postmodernism, these artists and performers rejected the object-based gallery and museum system, which ironically is where these artists now find themselves with this exhibition. With an enormous range of artists, artistic concerns and voices, curating an exhibition on this period of Downtown New York art history is certainly not the easiest venture.
Rabidly anti-institutional, these loft performances and artists have often been overlooked by art historians, daunted by the complexity, contradictions and clashing voices inherent in this period. Displaying these performers works through posters, flyers, videos and occasionally stage sets and props, as well as other ephemera, Rituals of Rented Island should be commended for finally shining a major institutional light on this significant yet ignored period.
On one hand, the fact that the Whitney is having an exhibition on this period at all should be enough to make a 1970s art fan, like me, happy. I mean, these artists were never supposed to even make it into a museum, right?
However, for me, the Whitney’s Rituals of Rented Island reveals the danger when the underground gets into the hands of Uptown curators as the exhibition reinforces the exact same art historical narrative these artists were fighting against.
Selecting a group of about twenty artists, Sanders divided the exhibition space into smaller sections, each featuring one artist or theatrical collective. An unimaginative and, let’s be honest, lazy organization for the exhibition, this division only strengthens the dominant art historical narrative of a few “great” and “important” artists, which directly clashes with the pluralism of this artistic period.
Through this limited scope, Rituals of Rented Island overlooks other artists who had a similar impact on 1970s D-I-Y performances, particularly people of color. In the twenty or so artists highlighted in the exhibition, there were no people of color, which was certainly not due to any lack of diversity in loft performances.
For example, Sanders could have included New York-based performance artist Tehching Hsieh whose extremely physical, time-based performances ranged from locking himself inside of a cage for a year and punching a time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year.
Instead, Sanders chose to feature Mike Kelley, who despite being an influential artist, was not performing extensively in New York City. Slipping Kelley into the exhibition because he performed at The Kitchen, the choice to feature Kelley, presenting his work in one of the first rooms of the show, seemed to be an obviously calculated choice due to his concurrent major and critically acclaimed retrospective at MoMA PS1.
By separating the exhibition by artist rather than by theme or even loft space, which would have been both more interesting and educational, allowing viewers to make connections between the artists’ work, Rituals of Rented Island creates a museum-ready narrative, reducing the complexity and quite frankly, the importance of these performances.
Coming from an interdisciplinary background rather than a conservative art historical one, as well as writing my Master’s thesis essentially to rail against such reductive narratives, perhaps I take for granted the need to construct new narratives that allow for a greater number of voices and don’t limit the understanding of a particular period just for easier viewing.
As the show’s introduction describes, “Simultaneously deadpan and outrageous, cryptic and critical, frustrating and entertaining, the works in Rituals of Rented Island remain vital in part because they are so contradictory and open-ended. These works embody thinking and creating as ongoing processes, proposing many alternative ideas of what art can be.”
Since these artists represented an expansion of what art could be, why couldn’t the exhibition mirror this expansion rather than an oversimplification of these ideas?
And yes, Mr. Sanders, I’m the one in the leather jacket making snide remarks all through the press preview. Sorry, I’m not sorry.