'Odd Spaces' And The MFA's New Performance Art Program

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Sandrine Schaefer's 2012 performance "Ghandi's Flame." (Daniel S. DeLuca/Courtesy of the MFA)
Sandrine Schaefer's 2012 performance "Ghandi's Flame." (Daniel S. DeLuca/Courtesy of the MFA)

Staring for two hours at a single work of art. Inviting cooks in the museum restaurants to add their own personal selection to the institution’s menu. These are a couple of the performance art pieces that Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has planned during its “Odd Spaces” performances and panel from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 15.

“It came from me pondering what does it mean to have performance art in spaces where it hasn’t existed for many decades,” says organizer Liz Munsell, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art and MFA programs.

It felt, well, odd, she says. So she wanted to highlight and consider the irregularity of the whole notion.

Over the past decade major American museums have begun to make a concerted effort to present both new and historical works of performance art. With performance at the forefront of contemporary aesthetic thought—especially so in Boston—museums have been feeling their way toward embracing this most ephemeral and elusive art form.

Munsell was tasked last August to initiate the MFA’s fledgling performance art program. The museum has had a sporadic engagement with performance. Zhang Huan did something there in 2005 involving a pyramid of books, dog walking, Buddhist monks chanting, and him trying to scale a flagpole. The museum presented a handful of performances when it opened its renovated Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in 2011.

Munsell’s plan calls for a more sustained effort, with the museum to present about three performance events annually and to incorporate performance art into group exhibitions. The big news is that, in what may be a first for a museum in the region, Munsell says the MFA plans to begin acquiring performance art for the museum’s permanent collection—mainly “manifestable works” that can be readily restaged by hiring performers or using artist-prepared props.

Wednesday’s event, featuring five performers currently based in greater Boston, is particularly self-reflective for the MFA. “It’s about increasing transparency about the processes that are required to make a museum function every day,” Munsell says. “I think the museum holds a certain authority on art history and the presentation of art objects. Which it should. But we also want to shed some light on the people behind these processes.”

John C. Gonzalez's "Family Meal," a collaborative performance with Hamilton Luna Álvarez. (Courtesy of the MFA)
John C. Gonzalez's "Family Meal," a collaborative performance with Hamilton Luna Álvarez. (Courtesy of the MFA)

John Gonzalez, whose past performances have included sneaking around outside the museum and inviting people to join him for walks through the institution, has asked cooks in the MFA’s Garden Cafeteria and Bravo Restaurant to prepare meals with some personal or cultural significance to them. David Levine has hired an actress to stand inside the Linde contemporary art wing’s glass-walled Druker Classroom reciting Clement Greenberg’s landmark 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” which visitors will be able to hear from speakers outside the room.

Sandrine Schaefer and Philip Fryer plan to record sounds from the “margins of the museum,” Munsell says, then meet in the Shapiro Rotunda, broadcast these sounds from speakers hidden on their bodies, and each spend two hours viewing a single work of art. Munsell describes it as “a comment on how quickly and thoughtlessly we might engage in work in a place that has so much visual richness.”

Arsem, the founder of the longtime Boston-area performance collaborative Mobius, plans something “top secret” for the Egyptian galleries. “Marilyn has worked next door [as a teacher at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts] for 20 plus years now. She’s performed around the world, but this is her first performance at the museum,” Munsell says.

The performances will be followed by a 7 p.m. panel discussion moderated by Munsell in the Alfond Auditorium and co-presented with the Boston online art journal Big Red & Shiny. Boston University curator Kate McNamara, School of the Museum of Fine Arts professor Tony Schwensen, and artists David Levine and Sandrine Schaefer are expected to discuss the day’s events and how the embrace of performance art by museums might affect the field.

This article was originally published on May 13, 2013.

This program aired on May 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Greg Cook Twitter Arts Reporter
Greg Cook was an arts reporter and critic for WBUR's The ARTery.