Earlier this year, Marina Abramović caused a stir at MOMA with her performance The Artist is Present, where she sat across from an empty chair seven hours a day, six days a week, for three-and-a-half months. One by one, people occupied the empty chair and met her gaze. Meanwhile, the rest of the exhibition reproduced Abramović’s oeuvre, with actors recreating her performances in body, if nothing else. The exhibition title could have read “The Artist is Present in Part,” because although Abramović was sitting in the museum’s atrium, her presence was not felt in all of the works on display.
But a recent weekend in Ottawa proved that performance art, its documentation and its legacy need not be at cross purposes. Gallery 101 and SAW Gallery both provided insights into what it means for an artist to be present.
In the case of SAW, its current exhibition, “Bodies in Trouble,” positions both photojournalism and performance documentation under the purview of visual art. Boundaries are blurred, with Yves Klein’s iconic Leap into the Void—one of the first instances of photo manipulation—in view of Rocco Morabito’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Kiss of Life, a famous documentary photograph of a worker breathing life into an electrocuted colleague, the two of them forming an affecting pas de deux on a telephone pole. However, the most exciting (yet complicating) inclusion in this thoughtful exhibition, curated by Stefan St-Laurent, is Jackson Couse’s Playing House, documentation of performance artist Hélène Lefebvre’s actions. The photographs are seemingly stolen shots of intimate, or even disturbing, moments in a woman’s life. Bathed in light and water, the protagonist tilts her head back as she directs a hose onto her slip; with the image positioning the photographer outside her window, and at a low vantage, the beauty of the moment is somehow amplified and jolted for our never having been meant to see it—except, of course, that it is a performance. With this, the exhibition’s questions of intention and incident become extensions of its subjects, producing effects both unnerving and provocative.
On August 21, Gallery 101’s Time3, an annual lineup of performance art, took place on the streets and in the gallery over a span of 12 hours. The first performers staged themselves in Ottawa’s bustling Byward Market over the course of a Saturday afternoon, bringing large crowds around them even as a cold rain began to fall. Véronique Guitard tracked a thin pink line in heels, grinding bubblegum into the cobbles with all the determination and solemnity of a stonemason. Christian Messier mimicked a marble frieze as he doused himself in flour, and Theo Pelmus created a visceral homage to icons of contemporary art with ice cream busts of Warhol, Koons and, yes, Abramović left drooling in the streets. Pelmus’ messy totems formed the grounds for ritual, and issues of homage and consumption became mired in more than running syrup.
The evening brought a set of knockout performances from Messier, Adrian Stimson and Ulysses Castellanos, as well as film shorts from the vibrant Available Light Collective. By night’s end, Messier had quietly set himself on fire, Stimson was sliding in lard and Castellanos was hacking at the unstable platform on which he teetered, axe flying as he swung himself into a self-flagellating oblivion. I thought about what Abramović has became famous for—endurance, extremism, execution—and watched on as this new generation of performance artists assumed her post and beat on it with virility. Bodies were in trouble as Ottawa presented new life, and the boundaries between performance, incident and documentation bled out with the rain.