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Moving Performances

by James Lileks

Fine art these days is rarely either. Go to the sculpture wing of a contemporary museum, and you won’t find a painstakingly chiseled block of marble whose astonishing frozen drapery recalls the brilliance of Bernini. You’ll get a lump of masking tape with the title “Despair III” (1974). If there is painting, don’t expect that the artist could do anything more with a brush than draw Hitler mustaches on pictures torn from fashion magazines. Why? So we can have a conversation about anorexia and fascism, or something. Or explore the connection between cosmetics and nationalism. Modern artists always want to explore connections, although the connection between a lack of a marketable talent and a reliance on arts grants is not high on the list of conversations they’d like to have.

The contemporary museums of the world are stuffed with forgettable truckloads of junk-shop agglomerations and conceptual ciphers, instantly forgotten when a show of spray-painted sex toys or photographs of cast-off prosthetic limbs comes along to start another conversation about exploring. How do you keep it fresh and intriguing? The Aussie paper The Age reviews a new work that raised eyebrows and flared nostrils at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art:

“The two-hour act saw the six dancers, masked but naked beneath sheer garments, move around a room in the gallery before sitting on transparent stools and performing — only if they were moved to do so — what is usually one of our most private and rarely discussed daily acts.”

Bowel-moving, in other words. Finally, some eliminationist rhetoric the Left can get behind! Mikala Dwyer, the choreographer of the special event, wants us to have a conversation about it all, of course. Will it be about the utter bankruptcy of a culture now facing the end result of the long war against technique, beauty, and transcendence? That would seem to be subject number 1, in need of exploring, but she wants us to talk about subject number 2.

“She hoped ACCA visitors would think and talk about something we have been socialized to consider dirty and shameful, and have historically hidden from view, even though it is perfectly natural.”

“Socialized” means something bad, if you’re wondering. Dull-witted puritanical society-shapers have stifled our glorious natural response to the world by cinching our free spirits into straitjackets of shame and self-loathing. The idea that something that’s perfectly natural is endowed with a Rousseauian halo of virtue is an idiocy surpassed only by her hope that people, having seen her work of art, would then have a conversation about excrement.

You suspect they did just that, but not for the reasons she preferred.

This is the conceit of the artist: Until we are confronted with ballet dancers engaged in a process of elimination that is not an audition, no one thinks or talks about the subject. Dwyer is described as “a highly respected artist with an impressive CV” and a painting prof at the U of Sydney, which adds weight to her university-strength insights on the human condition:

“As she said, this is humanity’s most democratic act: from royalty and supermodels to politicians or the tiniest newborn baby, we all participate in this necessary biological function.”

The same holds true for respiration, but try getting a grant for just standing on stage breathing.

The Australian Center for Contemporary Art, like a toddler who used the little potty correctly for the first time, is awfully proud of itself. Said a spokesperson to The Age:

“We evaluated it as a key and bold move in her practice, one that links to a long artistic legacy looking at alchemical transformation and magical performance. The work, while challenging taboos, never becomes sensational or gratuitous. It’s wonderful, powerful work.”

If it’s a magical performance to anyone, then there are a wide variety of fiber-packed cereals on the market, and as far as alchemy goes, the old philosophers were trying to turn lead into gold. This is defining alchemy down.

The Age’s review also had a sidebar called “Excrement and the arts”; it included the time that an inflatable sculpture of canine leavings slipped the surly bonds of earth, floated away, and struck a power line. To which the artist no doubt thought: Top that, Michelangelo.

This is the culture of the West’s artistic intellectuals. It’s everywhere. Last summer at the Walker, I saw an exhibit on modern art after the pivotal year of 1989. The Berlin Wall fell, Tiananmen Square happened, but most important, the NEA “was under a sustained assault,” as the catalogue put it, and that’s really hitting artists where they live. One of the works on display was a series of boxes with writing on the side, with a plaque to help you out: “Minimalism’s Evil Orthodoxy Monoculture’s Totalitarian Esthetic” was the name.

Well, of all the truly evil orthodoxies afoot in the world, Minimalism probably ranks low. When car bombers start using firecracker-packed Cooper Minis on behalf of their “Less Is More” ideology, we can talk. When artists are shot on orders of a commissar purging everyone who’s using the wrong shade of yellow, then our Monoculture might be Totalitarian. The title told you the art work was art about theories of art, a symbol of an exhausted, narcissistic culture whose collective head has been thrust so deeply into its fundamental inanity that a performance of defecating dancers is the most logical result.

Of course the Australian museum is taxpayer funded! Don’t tell Harry Reid, or he’ll insist the NEA fund performances of the campfire scene from Blazing Saddles. It certainly challenges taboos, and starts conversations. And if that’s not Cowboy Poetry, nothing is.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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