3 March – 22 May 2011, Barbican Art Gallery
A woman is standing on a flat roof; she is wearing a red top and trousers and is performing a series of choreographed movements against a grey vista of fire escapes and water towers. On the roof of the building, directly behind her, is another dancer who is mimicking her moves; and another dancer standing on a roof further back, again following the movement of the person in front of them – it’s like dance dominoes. This film documents a performance called ‘Roof Piece’ (1973) by Trisha Brown and is part of Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970. ‘Roof Piece’ is just one example of how these three artists’ practice overlapped as each of them used downtown New York City as both canvas, source material and exhibition space.
In ‘Fully Automated Nikon’ (1973), Anderson shows how art can be political, feminist yet provocatively comic. Every time a man would cat call her on the street she would photograph them and note their reaction. For her, taking their photograph was a direct counter attack, a ‘fuck you too’. This is so ordinary yet so out of the ordinary: the objectification of women on the streets is commonplace but in this work it’s reflected back by a woman and now exposed in the gallery. It draws a smile to see the surprised expressions on the faces of these men who were clearly so used to getting no reaction at all. Alongside Anderson’s photography are a number of her sound sculptures, including ‘Talking Pillow’ (1977), which invites viewers to rest their heads and listen to her ‘dream like’ singing and stories.
Also on show are remnants of the buildings that were either assembled or ‘cut out’ by Matta-Clark. In his most famous work ‘Splitting’ (1974), he took a saw to a derelict house and literally sliced it down the middle. It makes Rachel Whiteread’s East End terrace cast seem modest by comparison.
The majority of photographs here feel like ‘records’ rather than ‘art’ but in documenting these performances, experiments and events they build a strong sense of how raw and exciting this ‘scene’ must have been. The clumsy graphics, grainy films and lo-fi photography seems so ‘undesigned’ they feel bare and cold. The richness lies in the motivation that informs them.
The gallery also reconstructs a number of Brown’s performances throughout the day, 1971’s ‘Walking on the Wall’ being the most popular. Here the slick presentation of the performance feels out of synch with the rest of the show as it’s really just about the choreography. But every work here demonstrates how radical this period was and what a vast area the wider ‘downtown’ creative community covered as it evolved. Ultimately, the message this show leaves you with is as old as art school itself: that all you need to make great work is a sketchbook, a camera and an idea. Gemma de Cruz