Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Last Week and Performance Art, Gerry Pryor & Zhu Yu; A Criticism

During last week's class, Gerry Pryor, a professor at NYU and an artist himself, came in to talk with us as well as show us a clip form a recent performance he put on entitled Chance Running. The visit, as well as our further discussions on some examples of contemporary art from the Fuck Off exhibit, got me thinking about the meaning behind these often seemingly inaccessible "shock" works. 

To begin with, I have no qualms with - what I believe to be - the main focus of these works: that of confronting taboos and absolutes in our society; things that, no matter our stated beliefs or how open we may say we are, still make us feel uncomfortable for reasons we can't fully explain - in fact, I wholly support it. The male nude is one example, as Mr. Pryor pointed out (though his assertion that no male nudes appear in western art (with the exclusion of Jesus and Greek pottery) is not true); why is it that, on a purely reactional/instinctual feeling, we accept female nudity as acceptable/beautiful/normal, but the male form (especially the genitals - as opposed to the female "equivalent") is much more taboo/disgusting/unsettling. Moreover, what does this say about the subjugation of both genders to certain roles.
And so, with this grounding, art would seem to be an appropriate means of addressing these issues. However, I feel the execution is often times (and this applies fully to Mr. Pryor's work Chance Running) deeply flawed, often times too caught up in a desire to be something esoteric and consequently, not quite sure itself what it is trying to say. First off, if Mr. Pryor were using his art to address the points I brought up above, he would have used full nudity as opposed to simple stripping to his underwear. By remaining in his underwear, I fail to see how he is doing anything more than merely re-enforcing the same strict gender conforming roles and taboos he claims to confront: still the male is not allowed to be unclothed, always to be hidden behind some artificial construction of what masculinity should be (here I feel I could analyze "clothes" as symbolizing a lot - with reference to the art piece - about societally enforced notions of masculinity that males are required to "wear", but then I might just be going too far). (He mentioned posing nude - or simply stripping - for his class, did he remove all his clothes?). To me, it seems that his work is merely taking the symbols of what "radical" is, but is lacking any of the meaning or bite, being instead, just an empty husk. The work should make the audience feel uncomfortable so that they are forced to, at the very least, evaluate (or re-evaluate) their views. It shouldn't make us laugh at how ridiculous it seems.
What about the other parts of the performance Chance Running? I felt I was only given vague explanations about why any of the particular actions he took were taken - a reason that contemporary art is often derided for: for example, saying, "'X' really shows 'Y'", without explaining how or why. I'm not sure there was any part of the performance I found crucial - or for that matter important - to the work. And I certainly could not have found meaning in it without the artist himself explaining what it meant (with explanations that often seem to come not actually from the art piece). The work seemed so caught up in absurdity, but not absurdity for absurdity's sake (which is an entirely different movement), but (meaningless) absurdity that claims with a straight face to be profound.

The work "Eating People" by Zhu Yu, form the Fuck Off exhibit is a work for which I haven't fully settled upon a conclusion - not that that is necessary, or even desirable. In the work, Zhu takes pictures of himself eating, what he claims to be, a human fetus. Zhu described the work as by saying, "No religion forbids cannibalism. Nor can I find any law which prevents us from eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it". As a work intending to be "radical" (a word which is itself rather vague), it certainly succeeds in packing a punch. Cannibalism is something that I think almost everybody is disgusted by and the very thought of it makes us feel uncomfortable and (the work eventually drew attention from the CIA and Scotland Yard after rumors of cannibalism in China/Taiwan grew out of hand). At first I was more than skeptical of the work, to the point of ridicule. But to Zhu's credit, after reading over his statements on the work, I actually began to turn a much more appreciative eye towards it. Like most contemporary art pieces, it's vague, but there is a definite message here, and it does get you to think about where law comes from and how it relates to humanity and a sense of some absolute morality. It seems silly to say, but if law (secular or religious) doesn't forbid something we almost unanimously agree as wrong, what does it deal with? Is it really connected to reason, or perhaps - to an opposite end of the spectrum - it is just a tool, created by men, used for control. The fact that I am still uncomfortable with how I view the work - as a piece of art - makes me think that perhaps it really is successful at what it set out to do.

Anyhow, I'd like to hear what everyone else thinks about these two works.

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