Art historian RoseLee Goldberg is the founder of Performa, a performance art biennial that takes place in New York, although she herself tries to avoid the words ‘performance art’ and prefers ‘new visual art performance’. It’s a subject about which she is passionate not least because of her belief that performance art is a prism through which so much other art can be understood. She is a natural teacher and has taught at NYU and Columbia for more than two decades and everything she says is infused with respect for and intense curiosity about how and why artists make art.
So we want you tell us what performance art encompasses.
What it encompasses … artists have always made live performances and people don’t really know that. You can even go back to Leonardo Da Vinci who did these incredible events – you know these incredible weddings where he would be invited to do these things with planets in some palazzo … artists were creating pageants. In the twentieth century, it really becomes a very big part of what artists are doing … I’m giving you the history here …
Go on, it’s interesting.
Well, the Futurists, which is where I begin my book [Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, Thames & Hudson], were the first to come out and say “enough of the 19th century; we’re in this incredible world of speed, trains and planes and the industrial revolution.” It was all about motion and what they said was very explicit: that art should be in the streets, it should be with the people and not in museums. In fact they called museums ‘cemeteries’. Art needs to be a part of life.
Art being part of life might have been a new idea in Europe but it isn’t a new idea to non-industrial societies—I’m thinking of tribal cultures and their rituals, dancing and masks and the role of blacksmiths.
Absolutely. I think for me growing up in South Africa, and for you growing up in Africa, we start there. We understand that as children, almost instinctively … in Africa you see this integration.
Well when did art stop being incorporated into life?
Right … it’s a really good point. If you look at medieval art it was also to tell stories. This is what is so fascinating about art history, these shifts. You have to look at who the patrons were. There was a shift towards multiculturalism in the 80s …we were so used to seeing this western European idea of art, you know you go to Versailles … but things change and then there’s license to take from anywhere.
You know William Kentridge seems to be the first of the major names to be doing that but I still think the average person has a hard time getting it.
I think it’s very complex. I think the average person still has a hard time understanding Picasso. Twentieth century art is difficult. It’s all a kind of philosophy and it gets more and more conceptual.
I’m ambivalent about all this complexity. I don’t know if I want to work that hard at understanding it.
I think what art is always doing is making us see the world so differently, and I don’t mean just colors and light, but re-thinking relationships, spatial relationships, psychological relationships … those who gravitate to the art world actually want to be puzzled.
It is work. I mean when Marina Abramovic was at MOMA, it was very interesting to watch other people’s reactions—that was more interesting than what she was doing. Some people felt such a need to relate to her and other people were just rolling their eyes.
Other people’s reactions are everything. People can now recognize that art has this collective utility. But it works at so many levels … it’s really the anthropology of the art world and [to explain] how artists think. Artists don’t think “I’m a painter and that’s all I make.” Artists are looking at culture all the time. Artists are so in tune with different parts of their bodies and minds. Where do ideas come from? That is what is key.
How did all these ideas and thoughts coalesce into Performa?
I thought it was time to make this history [of performance art] much more public. I’ve been writing my books and teaching at NYU for 25 years, and I was tired of hearing: “Oh performance art is back” and I wanted to say: “It hasn’t ever gone away.” We’re living in such extraordinary times of all these different layers of media. It’s overwhelming and it’s thrilling, so I thought it was time to create this biennial. In a sense I wanted to make a museum without walls.
Didn’t the prospect scare you?
I woke up one day and I said to my assistant, “Guess what, we’re going to do a biennial.” and she went, “Uhuh.”
Do you think people are biennial-ed out at this point?
We’re so different, and I’ll tell you why. I was going to a lot of shows, Venice, Dokumenta … and what would happen after a whole day of just walking and walking and looking and looking is that someone would say, “Oh there’s a William Kentridge performance tonight.” And I would think, I love William but all I want to do is go and have a glass of wine and a lovely dinner. There has to be another way so that you could really focus. There’s too much material out there. Ninety percent of what we show has been commissioned. I want to commission performances that are such special events that they grab you.
But you can’t buy performance art. You can’t own it.
There is a lot of talk about buying performance art …
How do you buy it then?
We’ll get on to that later … that’s getting way too complicated.
Do you meet people who, when you say the words ‘performance art’, just roll their eyes and obviously think it’s pretentious claptrap?
The funny thing is, the kinds of things they’re rolling their eyes at are probably the kinds of things that I would roll my eyes at.