Three Grande Dames of Performance Art

Three Grande Dames of Performance Art

Exhibitions by a trio of female performance art pioneers are sure to bring out the crowds this spring, says Design Museum director Tim Marlow.
Exhibitions by a trio of female performance art pioneers are sure to bring out the crowds this spring, says Design Museum director Tim Marlow.

T hree of the world’s most influential museums of modern art have finally – if serendipitously – programmed landmark exhibitions by a trio of artists whose careers have collectively defined the course of performance art over the past five decades. They have each explored their own histories in the pursuit of universal resonance and truth; they have worked with the transitory while establishing genuine legacies for participatory projects, and they have helped to move performance art from the margins to the mainstream – as will no doubt be confirmed by the substantial audiences set to gather in New York, London and Amsterdam to see their trailblazing work.

Marina Abramović in Amsterdam

The presiding force in performance art for the past four decades said recently that her home was her body, but there is still a sense of homecoming as Abramović’s monumental Royal Academy exhibition begins a global tour at the Stedelijk. Amsterdam was where she lost her heart and found her long-term collaborator Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) in 1975. They devised many of their radical performance pieces in the city, which they enacted around the world until their break-up in 1988 after completing Lovers, a work in which they walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and met in the middle. Abramović has since paved the way for numerous younger artists by establishing the precedent that her works can and should be performed again by others. This idea – that the self can be transcended and that performance art is not just lived in the moment – is both groundbreaking and generous. What’s more, it is a notion that also informs the very distinctive careers of Yoko Ono and Joan Jonas.

Marina Abramović is at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 16 March–14 July

Marina Abramović performing The Artist is Present at MoMA, 2010. Photo: Will Ragozzino/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Joan Jonas in New York

The artist Joan Jonas was born in New York in 1936. The city defined a career that MoMA curator Ana Janevski deftly summarises as an exploration of the “the confluence of technology and ritual” and, more recently, of “ecology and the landscape”. While this extensive survey will occupy the hallowed spaces of MoMA in Midtown, Jonas, who is now 87, performed all over the city: from downtown lofts and empty lots to the piers and public beaches at the edges of New York. Her shift from object-maker to experimental artist and performer was triggered by her contact with the short-lived Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s, but her engagement with everything from ancient myths and folklore to an ongoing commitment to oral histories (and their documentation) was all down to the inimitable Jonas.

Joan Jonas: Good Night Good Morning is at MoMA, New York, 17 March–6 July

Joan Jonas in 2017. Photo: Jason Bell/Camera Press

Yoko Ono in London

Yoko Ono, meanwhile, was born in Tokyo, but Tate Modern’s landmark survey is built around her five-year stay in London from 1966 to 1971. Ono, now 90, has always been a global practitioner, making work that universally resonates, but the writers, artists, musicians and activists she met in the city in this period had a major impact on her, as she did on them. This exhibition also helps to recontextualise what is often avoided in assessing her art: her relationship with John Lennon. Ono’s stature as a major figure in conceptual art and activism was long-debated, but has finally been established once and for all. If you know her work, this show promises to expand that knowledge; if you don’t, it will be a revelation.

Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind is at Tate Modern, London, until 1 September

Yoko Ono with her work Half-A-Room, 1967, from Half-A-Wind Show, Lisson Gallery, London. Photo: Clay Perry

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