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Showing posts with label Performance Artist. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Performance Artist. Show all posts


MONK, MEREDITH (1942– ) Performance Artist, Composer, Choreographer

“I combine forms weaving together music, movement, film, object, light and ambiance,” wrote Meredith Monk in 1996 of the performances that have made her a leading force in the American avant-garde. On November 20, 1942, Monk was born in Lima, Peru, where her mother, a professional singer, was on tour. She has claimed that she learned to sing before she could talk. At three she began taking dancing lessons, and at 16 she began composing music.

Monk formally studied performing arts at Sarah Lawrence College, where she embraced the school’s interdisciplinary approach. In addition to studying composition, opera, and chamber music, she concentrated on dance, learning both classical ballet and the modern dance techniques pioneered by DORIS HUMPHREY and Merce Cunningham.

After graduating in 1964, Monk moved to New York City, where she joined the innovative Judson Dance Theater and became involved in happenings and off-Broadway theater. Monk also began creating her own works, which combined music, dance, theater, and film. Early solo pieces included Break (1964), during which she moved across the stage accompanied by an audio tape of car crashes, and 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966), in which a film was projected onto her body.

In 1968, Monk founded her own company, The House. Ten years later, it was expanded to include the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble to perform her vocal compositions. In many of her early experiments with The House, she created site-specific performances designed for nontraditional spaces. Juice (1969), for example, was performed over three nights—the first at the Guggenheim Museum, the second at a Barnard College theater, and the third at Monk’s loft. Another piece, the Opie-award winning Vessel (1971), about Joan of Arc, began in Monk’s home and ended in a parking lot.

Monk’s work drew the attention of a larger audience with the success of Quarry (1976), which earned her a second Opie. It dealt with a sickly girl’s perceptions of World War II and the Holocaust. Monk again explored the effects of war in Specimen Days (1981), in which performers playing two Civil War–era families—one from the North, the other from the South—occupied separate sections of the stage.

More recently, Monk has been acclaimed for Atlas (1991), a full-length opera that premiered at the Houston Grand Opera. It examined the spiritual journey of a woman played by Monk and inspired by explorer Alexandra David-Neel. Also well-received were  American Archaeology No. 1: Roosevelt Island (1996) and Politics of Quiet (1996). In 1995 Monk was given a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, just one of the many honors she has received for her pioneering work.

Further Reading
Jowitt, Deborah, ed. Meredith Monk. Baltimore Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Kreemer, Connie, ed. Further Steps: Fifteen Choreographers on Modern Dance. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Four American Composers: Meredith Monk (1983). Unapix, VHS, 1991.
Our Lady of Late.Wergo, CD, 2000.


FINLEY, KAREN (1956– ) Performance Artist

In the 1990s, performance artist Karen Finley found herself and her work at the center of a national debate on censorship. Born in 1956, she grew up in Evanston, Illinois, encouraged by her parents to express herself through the arts. She was especially inspired by her father, who sold insurance but considered jazz drumming his true vocation. Intending to become a painter, Finley left home to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. While she was visiting her parents during a break, her life was shattered when her father killed himself in the garage. Finley later maintained that the event was “where everything comes from” in her work. She explained that her father’s suicide left her so full of anger that she had trouble concentrating on her painting. She instead turned to performance art as a way of turning her rage into art.

Finley arrived in New York in 1984 and soon became a fixture in the city’s art scene. Her shows developed into mixtures of provocative onologues, dramas built around props, and projections of prerecorded videotapes. Nudity and obscenities, too, became familiar elements in her work. Although praised by many critics of avant-garde theater, her performances also drew sharp criticism, most notably an eloquent attack by journalist Pete Hamill that appeared in the Village Voice in 1986.

An even more influential diatribe against Finley’s work appeared in The Washington Post. Syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak expressed outrage over the content of the work produced by artists with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). They singled out Finley, ridiculing her as a “nude, chocolate-smeared young woman.” Their criticism focused on one section of her 90-minute performance piece, We Keep Our Victims Ready. In this part of the performance, Finley stripped to her underwear and rubbed chocolate over her body, shrieking obscenities in the voice of several characters, including victims of rape, suicide, and poverty.

Commenting that the chocolate was a “symbol of women being treated like dirt,” Finley was offended that the diatribe mentioned only a part of a much longer work, taking it entirely out of context. Evans and Novak themselves admitted that they had never seen the performance they were commenting on. Still, their criticisms were embraced by conservative politicians such as Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan. They chose Finley’s grant from the NEA as a battleground for the fight to further their political agenda. Under pressure from conservative groups, the National Council of the Arts, which advised the NEA, rejected grants for Finley and three other artists—Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller—on June 29, 1990. Finley, who had been an NEA grant recipient since 1984, was aghast. “I am shocked,” she told the press, adding, “A year ago I was in a country of freedom of expression; now I am not.”

Now known as the NEA Four, Finley, Hughes, Fleck, and Miller responded by suing the NEA. The artists won their case; each was awarded their grant money and $6,000 in compensatory damages. In the meantime, the NEA approved a new requirement for evaluating grant recipients: The agency was now to consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” The new requirement and its subsequent appeal in the NEA case was largely seen as a concession to its conservative critics.

Despite her notoriety, Finley continued to produce provocative performance pieces, including American Chestnut (1997) and Shut Up and Love Me (1999). She also wrote three books. Shock Treatment (1990), published amidst the NEA debates, includes the text of two performance pieces and other writings. Her other books are works of satire. Enough Is Enough: Weekly Meditations for Living Dysfunctionally (1993) lampoons self-help literature, while Living It Up: Adventures in Hyperdomesticity (1996) offers Finley’s own take on the Martha Stewart phenomenon. In 1998, Finley was performing Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman, a piece that commented on the image of her presented by the press in the thick of the 1990 NEA grant debacle.

During its run, the appeal of the NEA Four case was decided by the Supreme Court. In an 8 to 1 decision, the court decided for the NEA, claiming that its decency standards constituted “advisory language” that did not violate the First Amendment, as Finley and her fellow artists alleged. Finley called the ruling “a big loss for our country.” Even with the defeat, Finley has remained a symbolic leader for freedom of expression. As Laurie Stone wrote in a 1998 profile of the artist in Ms. magazine, “We need Finley: she doesn’t duck bullets, . . . and she continues to push against her own boundaries as an artist.” Seeking a fresh start, Finley left New York for Los Angeles in 1999. The same year, she posed nude for Playboy magazine—an ironic response to critics who saw nothing in her work but sexuality. In 2001, she debuted a new performance piece, Shut Up and Love Me, which explored how heterosexual women must “[try] to find a sensible way of living within a code of being desired.”

Further Reading
Finley, Karen. A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000.
Sante, Luc. “Blood and Chocolate: What Karen Finley Really Does.” The New Republic. October 15, 1990, pp. 34+.


ANDERSON, LAURIE (1947– ) Performance Artist

The first performance artist to find a mainstream audience, Laurie Anderson was born on June 5, 1947, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, an affiuent suburb of Chicago. After studying violin in high school, Anderson attended Barnard College in New York City, majoring in art history. She continued her education at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in fine arts. As part of New York’s conceptual art scene, Anderson began producing performance pieces in the early 1970s. In Duets on Ice (1974), she played the violin, accompanied by a taped instrumental track hidden inside the violin. While playing, she wore ice skates encased in ice. When the ice melted, the performance was over. In other early works, including Songs and Stories for the Insomniac (1975) and Refried Beans for Instants (1976). Anderson combined music, sound, and the spoken word. Using references to popular culture to produce social and political satire, the stories she told in performance were anthologized in two collections, Airwaves (1977) and Music for Electronic and Recorded Material (1977).

In 1980, Anderson began performing United States II. A section of the piece called “O Superman” featured Anderson’s voice electronically distorted by a Vocoder. Released as a single in England, “O Superman” became a surprise popular hit, reaching number two on the British charts. In addition to marking Anderson’s first financial success, the single led to a long-term record deal in the United States with Warner Brothers.
In 1982, her label released Big Science, which included excerpts of an expanded performance piece titled United States I–IV. Premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February 1983, United States was a multimedia concert that ran for eight hours over two evenings. Anderson described the piece as a “big portrait of the country” and divided it into four sections on transportation, politics, money, and love. The extravaganza brought together monologues, music, sounds, light shows, and photographs to create a witty commentary on modern American life. As Anderson attracted sold-out crowds while touring with the piece through the United States and Europe, Time magazine declared that United States was “the biggest, most ambitious and most successful example to date of the avant-garde hybrid known as performance art.”

Anderson brought United States to an even larger audience in 1984, when a live album and book chronicling the performance were released. The same year, she brought out Mister Heartbreak. The album included a piece titled “Sharkey’s Day” that featured the voice of novelist William Burroughs. Two years later, Anderson released the album Home of the Brave and a concert film with the same title. On the heels of Natural History—a 1986 greatest hits tour—Anderson moved in a new direction. Of this period, she later explained, “I was tired of being Laurie Anderson. I wanted to start over.”Responding to criticism that her performances were becoming overproduced, she began creating simpler pieces, such as Empty Places (1989) and Voices from Beyond (1991). She also performed excerpts of Stories from the Nerve Bible, a collection of writings and pictures published in 1994. In Anderson’s solo show, The Speed of Darkness (1996), she returned to familiar themes of art and technology while approaching them through her own personal stories.

After taking voice lessons, Anderson sang for the first time on the album Strange Angels (1990).Her other recordings included Bright Red (1994), an album produced by Brian Eno and featuring a duet with rock star Lou Reed, with whom Anderson has been romantically linked. Anderson alsoexperimented with an interactive CD-ROM titledPuppet Motel (1995).

In 1999, Anderson returned to the stage with the ambitious Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. A postmodern reworking of Herman Melville’s classic novel, the performance piece marked the first time Anderson performed with a sizable cast. In Moby Dick, Anderson also employed the “talking stick,” an inventive instrument that translates movement into sound. Calling the piece “10% Melville, 90% Laurie,” Anderson in Moby Dick grappled with larger, eternal themes, such as thesearch for the meaning of life, suggesting a new direction for her future work.

In 2001, Anderson wrote an impressionistic essay on New York City for Encyclopedia Britannica, to be included next to the scholarly entry.

Further Reading
Anderson, Laurie. Stories from the Nerve Bible: 1972–1992,
A Retrospective. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Goldberg, Roselee. Laurie Anderson. New York: Abrams, 2000.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Talk Normal: The Anthology. . . . Rhino, CD, 2000.
United States Live (1984). Warner Brothers, CD, 1991.