On November 21, 2015 the Perez Art Museum hosted a performative talk by Nari Ward to accompany the opening of Ward's retrospective exhibit Sun Splashed, on view through February 21.
Upon entering the auditorium, the audience was treated to a back lit screen conjuring the silhouette of a body - that of the artist receiving a massage. This mise en scene was positioned to the left of the stage with two empty chairs and a podium to the right.
During the time when the massage was the only action on stage (about ten to fifteen minutes from the point we sat down,) I was vigilantly watching for any moments that would illustrate a crude shadow play gag like those in the Austen Powers movies.
Somewhere just before the moment when PAMM director Franklin Sirmans took to the podium to offer his introduction to the program and give a talk on Ward's work, a grumbling older couple (actually the wife was doing the grumbling) got up to leave out of impatient disgust. I worked on the exhibition installation and I was aware, at least broadly, of what Nari wanted to do in the talk. I'm always interested in how we all react to moments that thwart our expectations and try our patience or our gameness. We all have our limits and we have all undoubtedly missed out on something we may never know about having succumbed to those internal voices of hurried agitation. Being aware of those same mechanisms at work in our neighbors who might have relieved us of their presence and comments makes our reward - if there is one, and there is never a guarantee of one being there at the end - that much sweeter.
Were we rewarded? I think I was.
Before working on the exhibit I was not aware of Nari's work....I was sure I had seen it before but had never been conscious of it. As it turns out, I had installed a work of his at MoMA shortly after it had been aquired. That piece is in the current show at PAMM, proof that consciousness is a slow, additive process, and only when enough of the stuff sticks to the wall of our minds are we able maintain an awareness. The talk was a reward because through I learned what I perhaps should have known already. Sirmans gave a rundown of Ward's career and oeuvre, followed by exhibition curator Diana Nawi who presented a eulogy to the body of Ward's works that no longer exist, complete with a short bio giving the context of each work's creation, existence and demise.
With the eulogies presented and massage complete, Nari Ward sat down, wrapped thickly in a comfy looking robe, with Diana Nawi to take questions from the audience.
The choice of massage was performative for sure, but functional too in a way I think most would understand. First, having the obligation to present a talk of some sort to accompany one's retrospective (it's the least one might expect to have to do as a living artist being granted a retrospective by an institution, as annoying as it may be,) this bit of shadow theater freed Nari from having to do any of the heavy lifting (talking) during the program. I firmly believe in cases like this, it's almost always better to have someone other than the artist discuss that artist's work. It is the job of the curator or scholar to frame the artist's work for the public and if they are at least modestly able to speak before a group can offer a more robust and transferrable insight into the artist's work.
Secondly, the massage was both a demonstration of, and a coping mechanism to address, the unnatural, nerve racking task of standing before a theater of people and lecture to them on what it is you do, when, not 200 feet away sits the very embodiment of what you do, first hand, on its own terms and in its primary tongue.