Peggy Phelan said it best: “Performance’s only life is in the present.” Slippery in designation and impermanent by nature, a performance is not the same as the video of a performance. The viewer must be present for not only the sights and sounds of the performer, but also the smell, the temperature, the crowd, the fidgeting in a folding chair, or standing on a concrete floor—in other words, part of what differentiates a performance from its documentation is not just the body and actions of the performer, but also the body and unmediated perceptions of the viewer.
Rituals of Rented Island, now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is only a brief and disembodied impression of performance art in 1970s Manhattan. Despite how that statement sounds, it is no reproach. In actuality, Rituals is an enlightening—and productively frustrating—exhibition of documentation of works by artists who were in the nascent periods of their careers at that time.
There are plenty of performers in the exhibition who went on to become art stars: Mike Smith, Laurie Anderson, and Vito Acconci all have works here; but it’s mostly the lesser-known artists who steal the show. The work of Julia Heyward, in particular, is a revelation. In the video documentation of Shake Daddy Shake (1976), an excerpt from the performance series “Three Evenings on a Revolving Stage” at Judson Memorial Church, she appears on a tiny lazy-Susan platform, speaking in an exaggerated southern drawl about her father. Shake Daddy Shake is stripped-down and bare, emphasizing her ability to manifest characters in the fashion of a spiritualist medium. Likewise, the video excerpt of This Is My Blue Period (1977) shows the artist wearing a blue dress and talking about a woman named Mary, alternately enunciating clearly and croaking through strained vocal cords to emphasize different words. With the modulation of her voice, Heyward embodies a tumult of personae in quick succession, shifting so rapidly within the same sentence or phrase that she evinces these characters almost simultaneously.
However, it’s nearly impossible to apprehend the reality of these performances from their brief documentation. Though photographs of Heyward’s other works, along with the artist’s notes and scripts, are hung between the two monitors, this arrangement begs the question: What are we really looking at? When we regard performance through the artifacts of notes and videos, we do so at an extreme distance to the original; in no other form of art is the span between the thing and its own representation so vast. If this somehow seems a tedious and obvious distinction to make in a review—the difference between the primary form and these short video outtakes—it’s also a crucial one: This exhibition regards not so much art as anthropology, as suggested by the word “rituals” in the title. Here, what viewers actually see is less performance and more “manners in which performance can be represented and historicized.”
So then, if documentation cannot faithfully reproduce the experience, what can it do? Obviously, it sheds a partial light on what these performers attempted to convey; and often the imperfect illumination of this documentation is so engrossing that it’s difficult to remember that the video is not the work itself. Stuart Sherman’s Tenth Spectacle: Portraits of Places (1978) demonstrates the artist’s purposeful machinations with quotidian objects. He builds an intricate, obsessive cosmos by making these objects—some wire coat hangers, a front-desk bell, a teacup, a mallet, a tape recorder—interact in seemingly spontaneous and idiosyncratic ways. Sherman’s absorption is almost childlike, and he often manipulates the objects as though he has never seen them before and does not understand their normal function, as when he slides the hollow barrel of a revolver snugly onto the round stem of a metal music stand. In the conventional world, neither of these objects exists to interact with the other, but for Sherman, the rightness of this maneuver is self-evidently demonstrated by the snug fit of the two cylinders conjoined, showing a universe in which likenesses catalyze action. Witty and clever, he fully inhabits a realm of his own making. What Rituals does, beyond historicizing these artists’ contemporaneous practices, is make viewers itch to see the real thing in the same way that a movie trailer incites a desire for the full-length feature.
Moving beyond the old argument of whether performance should be documented at all, one concern that this exhibitions raises—in the most productive way possible—is how to best present this ephemera so that the spirit and essence of each performance is captured in such a way that the viewer may come to understand part of what the original experience was like. Not all presentations here succeed: Jared Bark’s The Cold Bright House (1977) is documented by three black-and-white photographs, and by performance props that appear in these photos. Though this arrangement is suggestive, without a video, the grouping fails to evoke the spirit of the performance. In an area reserved for Jill Kroesen, the ambient sound from a single-channel video bleeds distractingly into the sound on the headphones for a different video about five feet away. In an exhibition where the evidence of the act is the only way to reconstruct the performance, the presentation becomes central.
The merit of these performances is not in any doubt, and performance as a category has already capitulated to the demands of the marketplace in the form of documentation and circulation. Yes, Rituals of Rented Island is a foundational exhibition of important works, but thankfully it raises more questions than it answers. On the way back to the elevator, stop and look again at Julia Heyward’s Was Here (1973), four photos and an old typewritten explanation of a performance, mounted in an awkward arrangement under glass and defined by the perimeter of a simple black frame. The photos are warped with age, and there are staple marks, bent corners, and foxed edges on these documents. The piece acts as a metonym for the exhibition itself: contingent, evocative, and surprisingly dynamic. The notes and images provide a window into a performance, yet they are apart from it. They point, but do not touch.
Rituals of Rented Island is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through February 2, 2014.
 Phelan, Peggy. “The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction,” in: Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 146-166.