The Centre for Dying on Stage #1:

Project Arts Centre, Dublin

The Centre for Dying on Stage is a research platform that generates new artistic undertakings anchored to notions of disappearance and performativity. It documents deaths that have occurred in public in performative settings, recording them on a dedicated website. Sudden death during performance points eloquently to the sudden interruption that will forever change the course of everyone’s act. The research platform had its first physical iteration at Project. Curated by Kate Strain, it comprised the work of six artists and the weekly Dive Bar Programme, conceived under the influence of Krõõt Juurak. The curators wished to explore ‘that moment when the viewing body is held in the thrill of a performer’s last breath and thus moved from passivity into action.’

Consistent with this theme, the works had an underlying element of transition, either actual or implied. For example, Meggy Rustamova’s five photographs of barely discernible green images Green black out ( 2014 ) were the result of an error during their chemical development, supplanting the artist’s memory of the original moment of what was being focussed on by the lens. Similarly, Dina Danish’s diptych – two framed papers of folded deep red geometric shapes titled Stop, Sun! Continue, Sun! (2010) – allowed for the possibility of one paper fading through exposure to sunlight during the course of the exhibition. This fading event was documented in the form of a dramatic dialogue between the relevant ‘characters’, the Director (that is, the artist), Paper One, Paper Two and the Sun, as they worked through the various steps involved. The dialogue could be read on the gallery window from the street and was an interesting textual transposition of the visual. Originating in a theatrical context, Christodoulos Panayiotou’s The End (2009) was visually striking. A framed poster depicted a black theatre backdrop, overlaid with the title and date/time of an event orchestrated by the artist at the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth. The event consisted of a black backdrop occupying the stage of the baroque opera house for an hour, during which period people were invited (at the behest of the announcement poster displayed in the Project) to be present. Nothing happened and afterwards the backdrop was folded away for good, the poster being the only record of the event. The absent backdrop brought to mind Malevich’s Black Square (1915) – indeed all of the works making up The Centre for Dying tended to the monochromatic, and Dina Danish’s dialogue referred in passing to the Russian pioneer of abstraction.

The most prominent work in the space was Karl Burke’s Taking a Line (2011), which comprised four identical mild steel right angled frames. These open frames were re-arranged during the exhibition run, sectioning the space and requiring the viewer to negotiate their presence. The piece was arranged as a squared-off enclosure during the Dive Bar Programme. At Dina Danish’s event “A Simultaneous Poem”, the audience was seated inside the piece while artist participants acted out, repetitively, a fictional press conference involving Charlie Chaplin, Theo Van Doesburg, Kurt Schwitters and ‘the ridiculously good-looking Letterist International’. An exercise on the possibilities around constructing a performance, this event had an idiosyncratic and absurdist feel to it. Other Dive Bar events were presented by the exhibiting artists and collaborator performers, and included screenings, sound pieces and readings around the theme of interruption and performativity.

Another event included a discussion by Kevin Atherton on Dan Graham’s work as he experienced it as a live event in 1975. A similar Graham video-documentation piece, Performer/Audience/Mirror (1977), relayed a performance on 8 June 1977 at de Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam. This piece involved a 17 minute exploration of the audience-performer relationship, filmed in a narrow white-walled space with a small audience reflected in a mirrored wall, in front of which the artist stood. The camera was first pointed at the audience who were self-consciously put on the spot, before being gradually redirected at the artist standing in front of the mirror as he narrated in detail his posture and movements, and the audience’s reaction to being filmed. The handout accompanying Centre for Dying on Stage stressed the importance of Graham’s video to the exhibition as a whole, going so far as to say that it was ‘the backdrop against which this exhibition [was] set’.

It is significant that Graham’s work at this time was exploring the boundary between minimalism and conceptual inquiry, addressing temporality, people and space. It was also noticeable that the other work on display was minimal in format or structure, as it was Minimalism as a movement which gave rise to a significant critical discourse on art objects and audience engagement in the 1970s, treated famously in Clement Greenberg’s essay ‘Recentness of Sculpture’ (1967) and Michael Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ (1967) . Both criticised minimalist work for being literal and theatrical, having a kind of stage presence as Fried termed it. For Fried, minimalist art seemed to approach the condition of non-art, almost a new form of theatre, and therefore had become dependent on the viewer bringing a response to it for it to be complete. The work of art had become reduced to being an object in a situation, failing to attain the status of an autonomous work. Greenberg similarly contended that the borderline between art and non-art had been transformed into the frontline of a war waged between theatre and art as such. In contrast, what they termed ‘modernist’ work was considered by both writers to have properly addressed the issue of quality and medium in an aesthetic sense, and was therefore self-contained. It did not require the viewer to respond to its presence.

These criticisms were countered at the time by other practitioners, and it is in the tradition of these critics that Centre for Dying on Stage is itself ‘staged’. Apart from Graham’s experiments with performance, film and architectural sculpture, Robert Morris also addressed the issue of the viewers’ co-presence in his adaptable minimal form works, to which Burke’s pieces at Project bear a certain resemblance. Robert Smithson was particularly critical of Fried and used the forms of minimalism to address scale, entropy and human presence. Much of the work at the Project, while minimal in format, contained inherent qualities or propositions of change of a physical, spatial and temporal nature. The first impression of the work was relatively static and appreciation depended somewhat on the explanatory documentation. However, once the pieces’ status as bases of a series of prior theatrical manifestations was established, the exhibition succeeded in extending the boundaries of the crossover of minimal work with performativity and theatrical engagement with the audience. The exhibition was also marked by a strong sense of interactive openness and showed the potential of continued engagement with Minimalism’s critical legacy.

The Centre For Dying On Stage #1, installation shot. Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 2014. Featured works by (L – R) Meggy Rustamova: Green black out (2014); Dan Graham: Performer/Audience/Mirror (1977); Karl Burke: Taking a Line (2011); Dina Danish: Stop, Sun! Continue, Sun! (2010). Image © Project Arts Centre.

The Centre for Dying on Stage #1 was on view July 18 – September 13 2014.