“Women & the Critical Eye: The Intersection of Performance and Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
On July 14, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held the sixteenth annual installment of its Women and the Critical Eye series. This program supports the work of women artists, collectors, curators, and museum professionals, serving also as a fundraiser toward the Met’s acquisition of works by women artists. The event featured a conversation among four women: Limor Tomer, General Manager of Live Arts; Lauren Rosati, Assistant Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art; Bijayini Satpathy, dancer, choreographer, and MetLiveArts Commissioned Artist; and Sarah Arison, YoungArts Board Chair. Sitting in the spacious, luminous Charles Engelhard Court of the Metropolitan’s American Wing, they discussed the theme of this year’s installment, the intersection of performance and art.
Rosati began by situating the medium of performance art in its twentieth-century context, noting its discourse with both contemporary visual art and the much older tradition of the performing arts (dance, opera, theatre, etc.). Defined simply by its “liveness,” the quality of happening in real time and space before the spectators, performance art is less an artistic medium and more akin to “a set of concerns and approaches” that an artist uses. Therefore, the history of performance art is also the history of music, dance, and poetry—these media-specific boundaries are collapsed in the legacy of performance art.
The Met has been a key setting and participant in performance art in the past century. Free concerts were held in the museum’s great hall into the 1940s, and the experimental performance art of the 1970s took both the Met and the streets of New York City by storm in its heyday. Recently, Vessel Orchestra (2019) by Oliver Beer was a commissioned acoustic installation involving thirty-two objects from the museum’s collection whose natural frequencies were incorporated into a live performance created by the artist and a group of musicians. In the same year, the artist-in-residence Julia Bullock, staged her musical performance Perle Noir on the stairs of the museum.
The incoming artist-in-residence in the MetLiveArts program is Satpathy, a choreographer and dancer of Odissi Indian classical dance. She spoke about the importance of the museum space in her choreographic work, noting that “there is a certain conversation that begins to take place between the embodied art and the space itself.” This continued dialogue with art objects steeped in historical memory informs the creative process of performance art, and Tomer noted that this process in turn reflects the essence of the practice, unfolding in real time.
Arison, speaking about the creative process and the mechanics of art-making, described the support that the YoungArts program offers high school artists through both a one-week intensive and a lifetime network of alumni. YoungArts was founded by Arison’s grandparents, with the mission of providing students with the skills and financial security to pursue a career in the arts. Now, YoungArts is an expanded program with five hundred student artists a year and partnerships with cultural organizations that provide sustained community and opportunities for commissioned works.
The COVID-19 pandemic deprived many artists of these very things—community, commissions, financial security—and the landscape of art and performance moved out of communal spaces and onto the digital sphere. Artists, many subsisting on gigs to make money, were hit hardest, and YoungArts responded by fundraising to provide relief grants while working to adapt their workshops for students to a Zoom format.
Reflecting on the new, digital space of performance art, Arison and Satpathy commented on the difficulty of teaching and performing dance through video. There is a temporal and spatial disconnect, rendering impossible the kind of conversation between performer and performance space about which Satpathy spoke earlier. “The camera records, whereas an audience witnesses,” and as so reliant on its live-ness and ephemerality, performance art feels a kind of identity crisis in this new normal. But at the same time, the silver lining to the online format is the possibility of reaching a much wider audience: performances at the Met can be broadcasted far beyond New York City, and they can in turn prompt more conversations about art. Even beyond the pandemic, the women agreed, many performances and art events will continue to take place both online and in person; “the IRL and the URL,” as Arison summarized.
Wednesday’s event was presented via YouTube and Facebook premiere, and remains available as a video on the Met’s YouTube channel.