Friday, July 19, 2024

Performance Art Gets Its Due in Norton Museum’s “Past Lives”

“Oh my God, that’s disgusting.” This was the consensus among a trio of women as they absorbed a particular artwork last week in the Norton Museum’s new exhibition “Past Lives: Performance Art Through the Camera.” I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their reaction, because their displeasure carried through the gallery. They were so appalled by the images of Zhang Huan’s “Seeds of Hamburg” that they gave scant attention to the rest of the exhibit, eager to move on to tamer fare.

I bring this up not to repel you, dear reader, but to illustrate the effectiveness of this series of photographs. “Seeds of Hamburg” is a dangerous and confrontational piece, an exemplar of the great Pablo Picasso quote that “good art bristles with razor blades.” The images capture a 2002 performance-art showcase, in Huan’s native China, in which the artist covered his naked body in honey and birdseed (the ladies in the gallery seemed to mistake it for avian excrement) and enter a cage, followed soon by 28 doves, which were given free rein to peck away at his body.

In the still images, Huan could pass for a mannequin, or even a corpse—charred, perhaps, from self-immolation—that is allowing itself to be transformed into food, perpetuating a cycle of life. When Huan staged “Seeds of Hamburg,” it had only been a year since five protesters set themselves afire in Tiananmen Square, and this recent history could not have been lost on many of the viewers of this powerful work. But there is also a great beauty in its overarching message of transcendence of the physical and of oneness with nature. “Seeds of Hamburg” rewards those who suppress their initial “ick” factor.

It’s also bound to be the most divisive contribution to “Past Lives,” a tantalizingly small exhibition that salutes a slippery medium—performance art—that is long overdue for a multi-gallery survey. Huan’s piece is archetypal of the popular conception of performance art, in which artists often deploy their own bodies in a performative setting, in the vein of Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono and Ana Mendieta. In “Past Lives,” other artists also use their bodies as mediums: “Tear” is a quadriptych on four video screens in which artist Jaye Rhee forces her way through a lengthy piece of fabric, tearing it down the middle as she trudges ever forward, in a metaphor for a dogged perseverance.

“The Seniors Project” by Nikki S. Lee

Elsewhere, we’re treated to two examples of Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects” series, in which the artist immersed herself in various cultures related to age, ethnicity and interests, to the extent that she essentially cosplayed as a member of each group. “Projects” raises disconcerting questions about cultural appropriation, but as with “Seeds of Hamburg,” the series rewards deeper introspection. Past the shock factor of seeing the artist adopt the appearance of an old lady or a Hispanic woman, it’s easier to see “Projects” as a tribute to strangers—and to human life itself, in its multiplicity of forms and figures.

Other pieces extend the definition of performance art beyond the artist’s own body. In Shizuka Yokomizo’s “Dear Strangers,” the artist posted invitations for random strangers on first-floor apartment buildings around the world to appear at their windows to be photographed from the outside at specific times. Sure enough, many complied with the artist’s request, some shirtless, others through blinds, in a series of works that speaks equally to our human desire for voyeurism (on the artist’s part) and exhibitionism (on the subjects’ parts)—an intimate dance that transcends national borders.

Sometimes, performance art can include no people at all. Naoya Hatakoyama’s “Blast” is from a series of real-time photographs of the demolition of a limestone quarry into a million little pieces. Again, there’s beauty in destruction, as the artist’s work crystallizes chaos into a kind of controlled order.

Two pieces from Noelle K. Tan qualify as the most abstract selections from “Past Lives.” In one, people appear as tiny specks, no larger than flies, on a pale white void; in the other, we see a park or a depot, squintingly visible out of a black morass, the stairs leading up to it seeming to emerge out of nowhere. Both scenes evoke a David Lynchian unease—reality filtered through a dream-logic lens.

And then “Past Lives” ends, almost as it’s getting started. There surely is more to be said than this small gallery space can do justice—for one thing, the exhibition’s preponderance of Asian and Asian-American artists says something about the medium of performance art that deserves further exploration. But it’s a fascinating peek into a misunderstood form. With any luck, the longer you linger with it, the deeper you’ll appreciate it.

“Past Lives: Performance Art Through the Camera” runs through Nov. 19 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Museum admission runs $15-$18. Call 561/832-5196 or visit

For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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