What Can You Expect at This Year’s Performa? A Haunted High School Talent Show, a Six-Hour Clay Dance, and More

The eighth edition of New York’s performance art biennial features new works by Yvonne Rainer, Kia LaBeija, Ed Atkins, and Bunny Rogers.

Bunny Rogers, A Very Special Holiday Performance in Columbine Auditorium (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Societe, Berlin.

One hundred years ago, the legendary art school the Bauhaus was founded in part on the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk—that is, works of art that synthesize different disciplines into one holistic vision. A similar ambition underscores the mission of Performa, New York’s 16-year-old biennial. The event is technically dedicated to performance art, but it embraces a broad definition of the term: any number of art forms, from painting to poetry, are brought into the fold for each edition.

It makes sense, then, that the curators of this year’s program, the eighth edition, chose to  honor the German school’s centenary. (The Bauhaus was the first art school to consider performance and theater under the umbrella of visual art.) 

Performa 19, on view in a variety of New York venues from November 1 through November 24, will feature a number of Bauhausian nods. The most referential of them is bound to be Untitled, The Black Act, a movement piece by visual artist and classically trained dancer Kia LaBeija, who is taking on performance art for the first time. Taking cues from the third act Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus masterpiece Triadic Ballet (1922)—often referred to as the “black act”—LaBeija will direct five dancers to move as an extension of her own body.  

Also referencing history is Yvonne Rainer, who has reimagined her own landmark 1965 dance piece, Parts of Some Sextets, which features 10 performers interacting with 12 mattresses through everyday movements. Meanwhile, Romania-born, Sweden-based artist Éva Mag will stage a work deeply indebted to Rainer and other pioneering performance artists. In the legendary downtown theater space the Gym, Mag will enact a durational performance in which she and 10 others will erect, and interact with, ad-hoc clay sculptures for as long as six hours at a time.

Kia Labeija, Untitled, The Black Act (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

“One looks for a sense of wonder—art that’s accessible but still speaks to you in a different way,” RoseLee Goldberg, Performa’s founder, said in an interview with Artnet News earlier this month. 

“To be an artist is to be in a state of freedom, which is really quite extraordinary. In these times we’re living through, it’s more obvious than ever. No one’s going to be satisfied working separately from the world—I think we’re all very engaged in the politics we’re living through every day. That means you’re asking a lot of an artist: to present an idea that is visually extraordinary, that moves us, and that takes an ethical position.”

Indeed, the wonder quotient will be high in Together, a piece by New York- and Bangkok-based artist Korakrit Arunanondchai. Working with fellow artists boychild, Bonaventure, Alex Gvojic, and Aaron David Ross, Arunanondchai will create a surreal alternate reality that mixes painting, video, sculpture, installation, and performance following a series of high-profile outings at the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial. 

Among the biennial’s less conventional venues is a high school overtaken by artist Bunny Rogers, who has repeatedly turned to these fraught spaces for her installations and video pieces (she made a trilogy based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre). In Sanctuary, held at Essex Street Academy, audience members will have the chance to walk in and out of the school’s empty rooms before ending up in an auditorium, where the rehearsals for a macabre talent show play out on stage. 

Éva Mag, <i>Standup</i> (2015), still. Courtesy of the artist.

Éva Mag, Standup (2015), still. Courtesy of the artist.

Other highlights from Performa 19 include Paul Pfeiffer’s University of Georgia Redcoat Band Live, which will transplant 50 members of the eponymous southern school’s marching band to the Apollo Theater in Harlem; Ed Atkins’s A Catch Upon the Mirror, which will find the British artist best known for creating digital avatars dramatically reciting a poem by Gilbert Sorrentino; and an animated ballet by artist and composer Samson Young that retells the Chinese myth of The Eight Immortals.

See the full list of programs—and purchase tickets for them—here.

Performa 19 will be on view at various locations in New York from November 1 through November 24, 2019.

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