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Sunday, March 11, 2012

When Art Evolves

TW: racially charged language, sexual language

  On Friday, I wrote a piece about New York photographer and performance artist Clifford Owens and his intention to take a score written by Kara Walker to a point where he would sexually abuse a random audience member. Needless to say, I received numerous replies via e-mail, Reddit, and other avenues. However, I wasn't the only one to get a message about Mr. Owens' intentions. The author of the score also did, and she was horrified enough about Mr. Owens' extension of her idea that she issued the following to Clifford Owens:

I am withdrawing my piece from your Anthology Series. Your interpretation of my score, which I composed as a hypothetical, a ‘modest proposal’ in the Swiftian sense has pushed at the boundaries of what I deem acceptable. It has been told to me that you plan to take the gesture a step further and “force a sex act” on a viewer in an up coming performance.  I refuse to have this idea of mine cause anyone physical harm.  Challenging and highlighting abusive power dynamics in our culture is my goal, replicating them is not. Please cease and desist.”

Even though Ms. Walker had requested Owens not perform her work, the decision whether to "take it there" and face the consequences or find an alternative rest upon the shoulders of the 40 year old artist.

So what went down at the Museum of Modern Art this afternoon?

As it turns out, Kara Walker showed up and participated in her inaugural live performance.

According to Gallerist's Rozalia Jovanovic, it went down as follows:

“Perhaps they are wondering what they will do or how they will react if they are chosen,” Ms. Walker said in her opening remarks, a show of empathy with the audience, many of whom, she added, may have read Gallerist’s article or heard about what Mr. Owens planned to do in this performance. She explained that she first heard of his intentions to force a sex act on an audience member in the article we published on March 8. She then told the audience what they could expect: Mr. Owens would say things like “I’m going to fuck your brains out,” and “You know you want it, baby” and “This is what you think I am, just a nigger toy.”

And while Mr. Owens performed the score similar to the way he had in previous performances, by walking around the room selecting audience members to move in on and kiss or grope, this time he seemed inhibited, somewhat emasculated, as Ms. Walker remained in the center of the room with him, as if on sentry duty, diffusing his machismo, at times kneeling and watching him as if ensuring that Mr. Owens didn’t force someone to engage in a sex act.
At other times, with an angry expression that felt very real, as if she didn’t want to be part of this, she challenged him with questions like “Why did you ask me to do this?” and “Why did you put me in this situation?” He would talk to her—”Kara, I need your help,” or respond, as if to the audience, “Why did you come here? What do you want from me?” or speak in soliloquy as he marched around with a glimmer of his normal cocksure attitude, “This ain’t nothing but a high tech lynching.” Mr. Owens and Ms. Walker would walk in a circle engaged in a kind of war of words.
There is a fine line between provocation and unacceptability that exists in all facets of life, as well as in the art world. Kara Walker is a woman who is acutely aware of this sometimes murky difference between right and wrong, so her and Clifford Owens altered an idea and put the power in a place not before witnessed. While Owens' performances have been criticized as phallocentric and misogynistic, he ceded his control somewhat and created something new. The audience was treated to a surprise in which they felt relaxed instead of threatened. Clifford Owens did something he never had before out of necessity and it was a success. 
One is now left wondering if Kara Walker's policing altered this performance alone or planted a seed in the mind of an artist known for his controversial treatment of living and inanimate subjects. Will Owens become Mr. Nice Guy? I doubt it. But will he stop and think before molesting women or live animals in front of live audiences? Only time will tell.

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