Back to the Future

Call it an anti-retrospective. When Art Performs Life opens this Saturday evening at the Walker Art Center, it will represent the first major museum exhibition to survey the works of three genre-defying performing artists. But after spending some time with tangible fragments from the careers of Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones, one discovers the show is really about the process of looking forward.

As Siri Engberg, curator for the Monk segment, recently explained, "We are not trying to present three generations of performance art. Each artist is still making important work in the 1990s. They are all innovators who are really pushing the limits of performance possibility." In other words, this trio has only just begun to blow our minds.

Selecting three voices to represent the seismic shifts in perspective endemic to the late-20th-century art world had to have been a daunting task. Cunningham, Monk, and Jones, however, are among the chief rabble-rousers of an era in which visual imagery, musical composition, postmodern movement, and manipulated text converged to establish an unpredictably volatile source of creative potential.

These artists continue to defy categorization today, although each employs a dominant form on which to build a broader framework. Cunningham and Jones are choreographers yet neither has been content to let his dances live and breathe by movement alone. Monk, too, has a dance base but she's best known for wedding vocalization to resonant visual and theatrical images.

Cunningham, a near-octogenarian, is the elder statesman of Art Performs Life. Curator Phillipe Vergne charts Cunningham's journey from the late-1940s when he left Martha Graham's company to pursue his own work. While Graham relied on fiercely dramatic movement punctuated by contractions emanating from the core of the dancer's body, Cunningham chose to look outward, creating a technique that utilized limbs to carve space precisely and pragmatically. He placed his dancers into abstract environments designed by collaborators Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and even Andy Warhol.

In what is often referred to as one of the most influential artistic pairings of recent times, Cunningham joined forces with composer John Cage, and soon began to experiment with chance in dance making. Coin flips, dice throws, and other tools of fate soon dictated how the choreographer ordered his phrases. (He continues this practice today using a computer program that will be available for hands-on play at the Walker.) Other highlights include Cunningham works on video directed by Nam June Paik, not to mention photographs and notations from a considerable body of work.

Jones, at age 44, is perhaps the most intellectually controversial of the exhibited artists. His work became the subject of recent discourse when New Yorker critic Arlene Croce branded his 1995 piece about death and perseverance, Still/Here, as "victim art" and refused to review it. The Walker show as curated by Kellie Jones portrays a man who has never played the victim when confronting issues surrounding racism, homosexuality, or his own HIV-positive status. Among the represented works are several collaborations with Jones's late partner Arnie Zane, including the central cinder-block wall from Blauvelt Mountain and a tent designed by Keith Haring from the groundbreaking Secret Pastures. Huck Snyder's African-influenced sets and costumes from Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land, which had its world premiere locally in 1990, will also be on view.

Art Performs Life, like the individuals it represents, could hardly be contained by galleries alone. Several lectures, films, video screenings, and, of course, live performances are scheduled throughout the next three months. Notably, in September, Cunningham will revive his 1968 work Walkaround Time in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, complete with its original Marcel Duchamp-inspired set by Johns. Two weeks later, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company will perform We Set Out Early...Visibility Was Poor at Northrop Auditorium.

Monk is the first to visit, however, appearing this Friday in a concert with works spanning her 30-year career. With the help of local artists, Monk will also perform a service at the First Unitarian Society on Sunday that combines music, movement, and texts from Zen, Sufi, Christian, and other religious traditions. During a brief respite in a packed residency schedule, Monk, with her trademark waist-length hair in a cascade of braids, gave a personal tour of her gallery accompanied by co-designer Paul Krajniak of Milwaukee's Discovery World Museum.

The 56-year-old Monk launched her career during the early 1960s, when the iconoclasts of New York's Judson Church Dance Theater were burning their leotards long before their bras. A descendant of a famous Moscow cantor and musician grandparents, Monk soon established herself downtown as a singer with a classically trained voice that could be harnessed for more experimental purposes. Her original repertory has since expanded into a wild collage of tones, yelps, chants, and other calls that seem to know no other source than the primal core within.

Monk's exhibit, appropriately enough, begins with a time line describing her artistic progress, but instead of the usual dry list, shoes are employed to mark major milestones. Laughing, Monk points out that shoes seem to be a dominant theme throughout: Eighty-five red boots from her 1969 work Juice are also on display. "We wondered how to show the passage of time in a visceral way," she explains. "Feet seemed the best way to do it. There's a sense of ephemerality. You see the life energy, you see the effort of the performer. The shoes are still here, even though the people are no longer wearing them."

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