Marina Abramovic, The Artist Is Present, 2010

Grappling with how to stay true to the artists and the artworks in a museum setting becomes the curator’s primary undertaking, one that requires extreme finesse. As performance art becomes increasingly central to a museum’s mission, it is installations such as Sharon Hayes’ upcoming There’s so much I want to say to you at the Whitney Museum of American Art that will pave the way to the future.

Covering the third floor of the Whitney with a temporary casing and incorporating walls and platforms for visitors to participate with each other and the space, Hayes’ installation is “not exactly Zucotti Park,” says curator Chrissie Iles, “but it is going to be somewhere she wants people to sit and hang out—really look at the work in a way that feels provisional and different.” Hayes is developing this “container” in collaboration with artist Andrea Geyer, implicitly acknowledging the difficulty of exhibiting performance in a museum setting.

As Iles points out, the title There’s so much I want to say to you emphasizes “how the show has been conceived about a sense of utterance, speaking. [Hayes] is very interested in a sense of what might be called a performative action, which is the action of communication.” The show will include approximately 20 works, about half of which are new.

As more and more museums and galleries host performance installations, it is raising a host of serious questions within the art community: What, if anything, do collectors or museums buy? How can these events be documented in a meaningful way to create an exhibition? How can performances be integrated into an exhibition open for the duration of the museum day?

In March, the 2012 Whitney Biennial drew attention and acclaim by dedicating almost the entire fourth floor of the museum to performances, music, and dance. Critics pointed to its anti-object, anti-materialist slant. Meanwhile, The Pace Gallery showcased “Happenings: New York, 1958– 1963,” the first exhibition examining artifacts and photographs of a group of artists (among them Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Lucas Samaras, and Carolee Schneemann) who pioneered what we now broadly think of as performance art. In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Marina Abramovic and the Guggenheim’s Tino Sehgal exhibition drew notice in part because they signaled how performances have become central to the mission of current contemporary art museums.

Yet museums still don’t seem entirely comfortable with how to present performance art. Iles—an innovator who has been at the forefront of curating film, video, and performance for almost 20 years—emphasizes that while performance art has been around for a long time, it has garnered increased interest over the past few years, which, in her estimation, has occurred for two reasons, one good and one bad. As museums have increasingly competed to get visitors in the door, they have turned to modes of entertainment to draw crowds. From her vantage point as an academic museum curator, this is understandably upsetting. The balancing factor, in her words, is that “people want to communicate directly because technology is making it more difficult for us to do that. People are now communicating through technology. It is some sort of communication, but it’s not very real. It’s very removed.”

This is why the timing for Hayes’ show is so important. Her work engages us on many levels—politically, personally, socially—in an immersive and direct way. It is all about people talking to each other, face to face—something increasingly rare for a younger generation raised on text messaging, e-mail, and social media. “You can have an idea for a long time, but it’s a matter of when to make that idea concrete,” she says. “If it’s too soon no one will understand; if it’s too late, the moment has passed. It has to be just right. It’s something you feel very intuitively as a curator. Part of the success of curating is about a certain judgment, a feeling of what the right moment is to bring to the floor certain important ideas that resonate with what is going on in the larger world and the social body of the audience.”

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