March 3rd, 2006


My life as a living sculpture

Yesterday was my first day as a performance artist at the Whitney Museum; for the next three months I'll be freewheeling across the four floors of the Biennial, bullhorn in hand, dressed as an art ninja.

It was pretty nerve-wracking to begin with. Once, years ago, I went out in London planning to busk. I couldn't do it. I just walked around the corridors of Waterloo Station, unable to unzip the guitar case. Well, it felt like that at first. I paced the galleries in my silly costume for a while, the bullhorn dangling at my side, my heart beating quickly. Eventually I made my first "intervention" -- only to have a guard run up to me and tell me that I "couldn't use that thing in here", for all the world as if I were a cross between a member of the public using a cellphone and a terrorist. (The bullhorn would be a very big and loud cellphone, taking lack of consideration up to Alert Code orange at least.) I explained that I was part of the show, and went to make another "intervention" -- only to have the same thing happen.

A quick visit to the head of security sorted out my problem: I left with a Museum Staff pass dangling around my neck, and an announcement was sent out to all the staff: "There's an artist doing an unreliable tour guide in the galleries; he's part of the biennial, it's okay, let him do it!"

Next came the problem of tone. I started off with the smartarse tone of a tour guide addressing the public, telling them, for instance, that a big pile of metal bars wrapped in flags had been 400 bicycles stripped bare on a flyover in Lagos, the cycles' recyclers leaving only the most useless component: national flags. Or that Richard Serra's image of the Abu Ghraib torturee in the pointy-hooded black cape was in fact a shot of Hedi Slimane's new Dior Homme collection, a garment incorporating an electric heating element to keep the wearer warm during those long extra-judicial incarcerations, but that Iraqi fashion victims had complained "Hedi brought electricity to our ass before he brought it to our houses". This got a laugh, but I didn't want to become some sort of political comedian.

I also felt a bit mean telling people looking at the Daniel Johnston cartoons that Johnston actually gets these drawn by a 14 year-old in Hong Kong who's only paid $5 per drawing, and that Johnston, far from being some kind of outsider artist, is in fact an advertising man working on Madison Avenue (which happens to be the Whitney's address). Or that a slide sequence of Nan Goldin-like nudes had been made in iPhoto and iTunes, and been demoed by Steve Jobs at the last Apple Expo. In fact, I felt like someone might punch me saying these things. So as the day wore on (and no doubt as my blood sugar levels declined -- I didn't even stop for lunch) I got a bit more poetic and lyrical, sitting on the floor in the corner of rooms with more ambient washes of electronic sound in them, improvising abstract imagery in a "mesmeric" voice. I enjoyed that; it was a bit like being an improvising poet in residence, and I felt like I wasn't going against the grain of the work on display or irritating people too much.

Some of the most successful pieces were comic, though. Upstairs on the fourth floor there's a room with huge holes punched out of the walls, and for this I paraphrased a short text by Kafka: "Panthers broke into the temple and drank the holy wine. They did this year after year, until eventually they were incorporated into the ceremony..." but added "That's what's happened here too... as you can see, they were very large panthers."

It's funny how, just as every rock band tends to gravitate towards being The Velvet Underground at some point, the irresistible gravity in performance art is towards being Laurie Anderson. (This is why seeing Lou and Laurie together on the street is such a startling thing... talk about "the anxiety of influence"!) A couple of pieces I developed yesterday drifted close to Anderson's work. In one I sat in the elevator for a while, announcing a "biennials cruise" that would take rich art fans from one biennial to the next in a permanent culture vacation (an adaptation of the theme of an old Wired News piece). In another I sat halfway up the stairs, issuing department store Floor Guide information. "Fourth floor: steel toecaps, lorgnettes, mushroom cases, scent vials, idiot drool..."

The "Andersonian" piece I liked the best was a dramatic sketch addressed to people looking at Adam McEwen’s "Obituaries" (celebrities’ fictional deaths, as reported in mock-up New York Times obits): "Your cellphone is ringing. It's Nicole Kidman. "Tell them I'm not dead!" says Nicole. "But Nicole, I saw your obituary in the Times. I saw your obituary in the Times in the Whitney Biennial." Nicole Kidman hangs up."

It actually became quite lonely being a "living sculpture" all day. I felt very eccentric, isolated by some portable "fourth wall illusion". So it was nice when people occasionally broke the art shield to ask me what I was doing. I had a short chat with Wolfgang Tillmans, but the high point of the day was a long conversation I had with an elderly lady who told me all about her son's fashion boutique in the Meatpacking District, and how she remembered Orchard Street when it was "all Jewish". By telling me how lovely my accent was, she made me feel warmer, and I spread some of that warmth through the gallery for the rest of the day, taking the sharp edges off my act and talking about the art in a more sensual, consensual way.

I left the gallery at about 4, exhausted, ate some dumplings on Eldridge Street, then flaked out for six hours of jet-laggy sleep. Tomorrow is another -- weird and wonderful -- day.