Performa Biennial takes an open view of performance art, showcasing work that might as easily be dance or theatre for a visual art audience. By Jane Howard.

New York’s Performa Biennial

A woman reading a book as she stands under a spotlight.
The Malady of Death at the Performa Biennial.
Credit: Haegue Yang

From where I sit, I am looking out at a wide performance space. Wooden columns hint at a history to this building long before it was a home to art. Across the floor, behind the audience taking their place in another set of seats, I can see through the windows out to the calm blue of New York Harbor and the glittering skyline of Lower Manhattan beyond. The late afternoon sun hangs low in the sky, its light coming through the windows behind us and reflecting off the glass buildings in front, bathing the space in a golden glow.

Pink lights shine down on the space but they are subtle and cannot compete with the grandeur of the city beyond. This light effortlessly mirrors the name of Anna Maria Häkkinen’s work: Afterglow, low lingering slips of light.

As an audience, we gathered at The Battery to catch the ferry to Governors Island. Once known by the Lenape people for the island’s abundance of nuts, then used for more than 150 years as a post for the United States Army, it is now a public space: a sea of calm less than a kilometre from Manhattan.

We have travelled to this small island off an island for the Performa Biennial. Established in 2004 by RoseLee Goldberg – who has been curating and writing on performance art since the 1970s – this 10th edition is a return to “normal” after the last biennial, in 2021, was disrupted by the Covid pandemic. Over the course of the opening weekend, the festival takes us from this island off the lower tip of Manhattan, up to the Guggenheim and the riches of the Upper East Side, down to Canal Street and its scores of fake designer handbags, and across the East River to the gentler pace of Long Island City.

It’s an eclectic program of free and ticketed events. Talks and workshops run alongside the core program of performances – Louis Chude-Sokei’s lecture on his work is as exciting and enriching as any of the artworks proper. Some works on the opening weekend leave me invigorated; others only frustrated.

Häkkinen’s dance piece, Afterglow, is one such bright spark. The Finnish choreographer – who appears as part of the biennial’s focus on Finnish work in 2023, the Finnish Pavilion Without Walls – has worked with Finnish sound artist Keliel, who effortlessly blends live harp with electronica, and nine local dancers. At times it is hard to disentangle the white noise of Keliel’s soundscape from the near-omnipresent hum of helicopters manoeuvring to and from Manhattan.

Häkkinen moves her dancers with gentleness and ease. They work through patterns, ever so slightly out of unison, individualities shining through. They dance in solos, duets, trios and as one unit. When they step out of formation they stop and sit on the sides – on the floor or on a windowsill – watching their collaborators. The music shifts from gentle rhythms to something more pulsing; the dancing shifts from trance-like walking across the diagonal to a full freedom of turns and leaps that take up the whole space. An incredible sense of connection emanates from the work, and from the audience sharing it.

The next night, we’re in an old warehouse where a thick, yellow smoke sits cloyingly, echoing the haze of bushfire smoke New Yorkers became acquainted with this past summer. From somewhere in the smoke a small string orchestra, The Unsung Collective, starts to warm up, the familiar tuning of instruments morphing into dissonance and unease. They move into The Four Seasons, Vivaldi’s familiar composition here modulated with the tapping of bows on strings, an eerie plucking, and percussive taps on the wooden bodies of instruments. The lights in the space pulse, dramatically shifting colours. The smoke never completely lets up. This is Vivaldi with an underlying sense of panic and doom.

Californian artist Nikita Gale’s thrilling Other Seasons takes Vivaldi’s composition – neatly broken down into four acts for each of the seasons – and breaks it apart. In an era of climate change, the seasons are no longer as simple. As the performance progresses, Gale breaks Vivaldi’s frame further, remixing pop songs. We traverse from “Ain’t No Sunshine” to “Rain on Me”, from “Stormy Weather” to “Cruel Summer”, from “Like Lightning” to “It’s Raining Men”. It is a thrilling reinterpretation of Vivaldi, at once homage and critique. Gale captures the urgency and beauty in the original composition and the urgency and enormity of our current situation.

The centrepiece commission of the opening weekend is from the celebrated artist Haegue Yang, who lives between Seoul and Berlin. Mostly known for her sculpture – an exhibition of her work has just concluded at the National Gallery of Australia – she now turns her view to staging Marguerite Duras’ 1982 erotic novella The Malady of Death, after a long fascination with the text and multiple other stagings in other languages and formats.

Duras wrote a “general suggestion” for how Malady could be staged: the woman “should be lying on some white sheets in the middle of the stage. She might be naked.” Yang’s Malady starts with audio of the author’s notes before throwing them out completely. Instead of a naked woman on white sheets, we have Noma Dumezweni’s head ever so slightly lit amid the surrounding darkness, a ghostly echo of Samuel Beckett’s Not I.

When all we have is Duras’ complex and beautiful text and Dumezweni’s rich and resonant performance, we are presented with a compelling piece of theatre. But everything Yang places around Dumezweni serves only to distract us. When we see all of Dumezweni – she slowly inches towards the audience, before she begins to circle us – we become aware of how unwieldy her gown is, tangled up in her legs. Yang projects overly literal images of the ocean and bedsheets and then seemingly misplaced images of ball bearings. Throughout the performance, we can hear the stage manager calling prompts from the control booth – not loud enough to be deliberate but loud enough to be distracting. The final image of a fan is inexplicable.

Performa takes an inclusive view of “performance art”. Works I see here would be as at home in a program of dance, theatre or music. What sets it apart is perhaps only this framing: by situating this range of work as performance art, it attracts an audience more attuned to visual art. Part of being that audience in 2023 is a sense of needing to document the work and your presence at it.

I don’t see a single performance without glimpsing at least some of it through someone’s phone screen. Uptown or downtown, it is a far cry from Broadway, where ushers stridently police recording. At times it feels as if the biennial is asking: does performance art exist if you don’t record that you were there?

Then again, perhaps all I am doing now is recording my presence. Saying I was there. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Lingering sparks".

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