The venerable, self-proclaimed “un-artist” Allan Kaprow passed away last year and the art world hasn’t been able to let go. Just as history needs its stories, art needs its artifacts and though the “Happenings” Kaprow coined and created were meant to slip from gerund to past tense, posterity must have spooked Kaprow from his deathbed.
Having repeated many of his early pieces with self-imposed rules to safeguard against tedium, Kaprow authorized a precise re-doing of his most time-sensitive creation mere weeks before he died. Despite writing, “Happenings should be performed once only” as the fifth decree in his 1965 manifesto, “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings,” he halted the fleeting motion of experience for the benefit of future audiences. Thus based on a bundle of scrupulously detailed notes, Kaprow’s 1959 magnum opus has been given another life, first at Haus der Kunst, Munich, in the Fall of 2006 and again in the Performa re-creation, Allan Kaprow: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (Re-doing). The homage turned out to be a harsh debunking, for contrary to Kaprow’s entropic philosophy, it demonstrated that nothing past is gone forever, it just loses energy in the resurrection.
In a full-scale replica of the three plastic-shrouded particleboard rooms that housed the original Reuben Gallery performance, director André Lepecki followed Kaprow’s notes obediently, hoping to reconcile temporality with contemporaniety. He draped the set in Christmas tree lights as instructed, and arranged seats on which the audience would play a very tightly controlled, non-competitive musical chairs between observing the robotic movements of a dozen participants extracting art out of common yet displaced gestures, such as bouncing a ball, squeezing oranges, and reading from a scroll of words orphaned from their context. Like factory work and public school classes, the performances began and ended with the sound of a bell.
Context, as postmodern theory both warns and celebrates, changes everything. One major change in this re-creation was the lackluster cast compared to the original, which included John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Hard acts to follow, they were visionaries who enacted the balance of intention and abandon just by being themselves. Rearranging props, speaking of art and time in fragments, assembling into a discordant noise band, showing a slide show and painting briefly, they were practicing what they preached with an urgency that today’s performers can’t fully embody. Analogous to modern science, many contemporary performances seem driven to revive and enhance our memory, reverse the aging process and extend the theoretical virility of the past.
Another Performa production, Yvonne Rainer’s anticipated RoS Indexical, for example, reworks Millicent Hodson’s own reconstruction of Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s 1913 landmark leap into Modernism, Rites of Spring. All the awkward inadequacies of the restoration are exposed through scrupulous videos of the process, whereas the new 18 Happenings keeps them hidden. Both approaches are honest yet ersatz. In RoS Indexical, that’s the point, but 18 Happenings was left in limbo, neither grounded in the now nor peacefully ephemeral.
Evident by the high bids 1970s performance documentation receives at auction, all significant art will be remembered (and sold) despite its transient ingredients. Though what Kaprow initially advocated can only be practiced by being left alone, we sacrifice theoretical piety for mortal curiosity. It is not enough for Kaprow’s critical writings to inform our conception of performance art; for better or worse, we have to see it to believe it. “How can you retrospect on a 30-year career where everything was throw away?” Kaprow once asked. When the career was as momentous as Kaprow’s, how can’t you?