Sarah Perks is artistic director, visual art and film at HOME in Manchester. HOME is the new centre for international contemporary art, theatre and film formed from an amalgamation of Cornerhouse and The Library Theatre. Sarah writes for Northern Soul about Clifford Owens’s debut European exhibition at Cornerhouse which opens on May 10.
Several years ago, one of our visiting curators, Michael Connor, brought the New York-based artist Clifford Owens and his MOMA PS1 exhibition Anthology (2011) to our attention. I was intrigued immediately by both the methods and the man who fused performance, identity politics, audience interaction and subsequent photography, film and documentation together into powerful, personalised experiences and emotive reactions. On our invitation, Owens’s first trip to Manchester was his also first to Europe – another great first for our beautiful city.
I often see audiences confuse the performative elements of an artist’s work with their own projected ideas and images of that artist’s ego. A black man performs pieces about sexuality and power with white women in the audience and everyone goes crazy. Owens is wise enough to understand and address this dynamic; issues of race, gender, sexuality, age and other, often obvious, indicators are naturally foregrounded in an intimate setting with strangers. There is an inherent confrontation between the artist and the audience who await their experience or instructions, however passive or active they might become.
Photographs With an Audience Manchester (2013) is about this moment of confrontation, expertly played out with the use of a stills camera. Owens asks a series of questions (for example, ‘do you have alcoholic parents?’), inviting the audience who have a ‘yes’ answer to stand in front of the camera. It is as if the camera, not the audience, can become the delegated performer for Owens. He can collude with either side to stabilise or destabilise the experience, yet no one is forced to participate. Questions skillfully flow from the mundane to the extreme, and many people enjoy and learn from the experience particularly when unloading some of their more serious secrets as they choose whether or not to stand up.
It’s not one of the more serious moments when a few people choose to get naked, it’s their prerogative. It’s certainly not exploitative and it’s a tribute to the body in the history of performance (or at least a knowing wink towards it). The actual performance and resulting photographs work individually or together, a piece of work about the nature of participation and how people chose to perform their identities.
For his Anthology (2014) series, Owens takes inspiration from the Fluxus movement’s use of scores, instructions (usually from fellow artists) to be performed as one chooses to interpret and often involving an audience. Instigated by Cornerhouse on his second visit to the UK, Owens re-performed four scores from the American version of Anthology last October at the White Building in Hackney Wick to an audience of artists, curators, students and interested members of the public. I watched the audience react in many ways and, at one moment, it felt like all of the air had been sucked out the room. Then Owens would move on with the performance, punctuated by the reading-out of the next score by curator Daniella Rose King, which created a temporary moment of calm concentration between audience and artist. Again this exploration of the moment of confrontation between audience and artist reveals much about the power dynamics and expectations of participation in performance. Interestingly, these performances felt different in Manchester and London; people in Manchester take on a challenge faster, let’s say.
Through both bodies of work, issues of race, gender and difference become in themselves marginalised. We feel silly for thinking about them in simple, binary terms. Instead we see the complexity of a multitude of identities through the reactions and interactions of the posing audience, Owens or other performing scores, or through the visible, composite signifiers of a series of photographs. Clifford Owens pushes us past initial responses and conformity, encouraging us to really question our assumptions and behaviour. If this means sailing close to the wind on occasion then bring it on – we need to rebel and take a few risks to meaningfully explore others and ourselves, below the surface.
By Sarah Perks
Main image: Anthology (Nsenga Knight), 2011, courtesy of the artist.
For more info about the Clifford Owens exhibition at Cornerhouse, follow this link: www.cornerhouse.org/art/art-exhibitions/clifford-owens-better-the-rebel-you-know
The exhibition runs until August 17, 2014.