Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media
Jul 14 - Oct 08
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The exhibition Stage Presence, curated by Rudolf Frieling for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), provides an outstanding exploration of theatrical modes of representation in contemporary visual art. The exhibition posits that visual art possesses the same aim of self-reflective awareness on the part of its audience as epic theater does. The Brechtian concept of epic theater necessitates that an audience is always cognizant of its own being; the illusionary veil of immersion is lifted and the mechanics of watching a performance are revealed. The works included in Stage Presence—which range from film screenings and live performances to multichannel videos, photography, and installations—affect this self-awareness by depicting performances in suspended states of staging and rehearsal rather than fully-realized productions. Moving throughout the exhibition, a viewer becomes acclimated to the disruptions, fragmentations, and repetitions that recur, and one’s attention shifts back to one’s role in these productions and one’s agency in inscribing meaning to them.
It is not accidental that Stage Presence occupies the same floor as the Cindy Sherman retrospective, which functions as a prelude. In appropriating the guises of various female typologies—the ingénue, the aging sexpot, or the society matron—Sherman pushes everything to the surface. A viewer’s translation of these characters relies upon one’s recognition of the mimetic gestures, expressions, and styling that Sherman applies over her inherent traits. Even though garish costuming dominates the photographs, the images become blank slates: we craft histories and psyches for these characters-as-subjects that are untethered from the lived experience of the artist.
Sherman’s engineered blankness finds its counterpart in Geoffrey Farmer’s installation, The Surgeon and the Photographer (2011–12) shown in Stage Presence. Farmer collaged photographic reproductions from books into 365 puppet-like sculptures, each approximately the size of a hand, thirty of which are included in this exhibition. The puppets bristle with multiple identities; each angle presents a new figuration as disproportionate and layered appendages cohere into forms. They are totemic but not possessed of any spirit. Rather, they are waiting for occupation and activation.
Clustered together and stilled, the puppets project the sense of anticipation that recurs throughout Stage Presence. Like them, we are waiting for something to happen; we sense the latency at the root of things. In exploring theatricality, the exhibition foregrounds rehearsal and staging—the props and schematics that construct the arena in which the narrative might unfold. The act of rehearsal consistently fractures a sense of narrative coherency and resolution; the artists lay out scenes that repeat and eschew linear progression but never culminate. For example, Hail the New Puritan (1985–86) by the filmmaker Charles Atlas depicts a fictional day-in-the-life of the Scottish choreographer Michael Clark and his company. Each vignette is a rehearsal of sorts, even the highly choreographed scene in which the camera follows Clark arriving at a club and flitting from one patron to another. The moment doesn’t progress from the exposition; Clark moves in a continual state of greeting.
Atlas also collaborates with the artist Mika Tajima on Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal (2009–12), a film production and installation. Constructed roughly like a stage set, the focal points are two videos—one by Atlas and one by Tajima—alternately screened on a monitor and projected onto a paper backdrop hung from a metal frame. Both depict the feminist theorist Judith Butler rehearsing and delivering a lecture in the lobby’s Schwab Room that was simulcast to an audience in the museum’s theater in May 2009. Whereas Atlas’s recorded live-edit abstracts Butler’s appearance with digital effects, Tajima emphasizes the shifting assembly of activities happening in the rehearsal space, such as the crew moving her modular sculptures around like scenery flats or checking lights and sound levels and Butler practicing her lecture.
Excerpts of the lecture appear as written text in cue cards or subtitles, which take on a particular resonance when Butler notes that the speech act is performed and requires the body. The visualization of her language exercises Brecht’s concept of the “distancing effect”; it interjects a gesture that precludes us from experiencing the lecture as reality rather than a construction of reality. It compels one to stay within one’s own physical space rather than imagine one’s participation in the projected one. Brecht theorized that such disruptions could engender a sense of criticality that enables us to become performers in a larger social sphere—to, as Butler notes in her lecture, “see how politics is at once performative and universalizing.”
Sharon Hayes and Carey Young each frustrate and undermine the performative nature of the revolutionary stance while suggesting where a viewer’s inclusivity lies. In the four-channel video, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, & 29 (2003), Hayes, the camera framing her face tightly, recites from memory the text of three ransom messages Patty Hearst delivered while she was held captive by the SLA and one after she joined their cause. An unseen audience has copies of the transcriptions; they follow along, correcting or prompting the artist when she varies from or pauses in the speech. Their constant interruptions distance a viewer from Hayes as the transmitter of Hearst’s radical message and realign one with their recitation as the more accurate, and therefore truer, message. Repetition has a similar effect in Carey Young’s video, I am a revolutionary (2001). Here, the artist stands with a man in a room that resembles a wood-paneled corporate office suite. There is a wall of windows behind them that overlooks an atrium and into another suite of offices across the way. The man coaches Young on where to stand, how to stride forward, and how to say the phrase, “My name is Carey Young, and I am a revolutionary,” using different intonations and emphases. Young’s camera frames the space so that it resembles a traditional proscenium stage, and while the rehearsal leaches any potency from her declaration, the glass wall is a metaphor for Brecht’s desire for the disruptive impact within the theater space to translate to the world outside.
The audience’s self-awareness of its potential agency lies at the intersection between visual, performative, and theatrical modes of representations. Each of the installations included in Stage Presences proposes the adoption of a critical perspective in relation to what we are witnessing that might translate into a larger criticality about all of our experiences and the potential to change them. But when confronted with the performative potential of the audience, how does the distancing effect translate to the live performances that are also part of the exhibition? Shannon Jackson picks up that question.
[Cue: go here.]