October 28: An aspect of photography that we all treasure is its capacity to preserve the past, whether that be a personal past found in the snapshot album or as exploited by Facebook’s timeline feature; or a shared past in which certain documentary images become attached to an historical event; or in the way we almost automatically assign to a particular era the sepia image, the monochrome, or the desaturated yellowing of a 1970s snap to the point where these effects have been instituted as ‘filters’ in Instagram to evoke, or fake, the patina of time.
This mysterious and provocative picture demonstrates the importance of that preservative effect. Performance art is ephemeral. It is intended to have no object other than the experience, usually first-hand, of the audience and the performers themselves.
“If I don’t record these,” Peter Moore said of the works he photographed, “they’ll be lost.” Over the last decades of his life he made over half a million pictures of performances by George Maciunas, Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Joan Jonas, Charlotte Moorman, Yvonne Rainer and many others. Born in London, attended Haverford College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950’s and was assistant to the renowned O. Winston Link, before working for LIFE magazine in their darkrooms, then from 1978 to 1989 was technical editor and columnist for Modern Photography magazine.
Moore’s photograph at the head of this post was taken at the 9th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival, where the Festivals’s director cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman performed, underwater, Jim McWilliam’s A Water Cello for Charlotte Moorman at South Street Seaport, New York City in 1972.
Moorman (1933–1991) was a phenomenon, but almost forgotten until recently surfacing in a number of retrospectives.
Born in Little Rock she took up the cello at ten. After leaving her stale first marriage, she moved to New York loft and in 1963 gave her first performances of New Music after having ‘fallen in love’ with John Cage’s work.
A visionary performer, cellist, and event producer she soon made her formidable presence felt amongst New York City’s avant-garde scene. Her networking was tireless, though not always appreciated, she founded and coordinated the sporadically annual Avant Garde Festival for experimental music, performance, and art, around cutting-edge performances and artworks by hundreds of artists, presenting 15 Festivals between the years 1963 and 1980. Her efforts brought widespread public attention to lesser-known artists and practices in populist locations included Central Park, Shea Stadium, the Staten Island Ferry, and Grand Central Terminal. Moorman encouraged participating artists to respond to the sights and sounds of each location specifically. It was in 1967 that Moorman was arrested for indecency while performing a . As reported in The Canberra Times:
Charlotte Moorman, 28, was found guilty of performing a lewd act on February 9, in a theatre here because she played a cello bare breasted. Judge Milton Shalleck suspended sentence on the charge because, he said, he found Miss Moorman to be ‘weak and immature’. The pristine beauty of human female breasts, Judge Shalleck wrote in a 29-page judgment, has been immortalised by painters and sculptors and writers of poetry and prose…the fullness of the female figure conjure up the image of its beauty. But in no poem, in no prose respected by the test of time, have I read, in no valued oil, in no statue or bust have I seen, either visually described or portrayed, a picture of a nude or topless cellist in the act of playing the instrument. I wonder if anyone has”.
Moorman didn’t regard herself as a feminist, and indeed many in the movement regarded her semi-nude performances in collaboration with a man as retrograde. Contrary to this perception, she and Nam June Paik conspired on Human Cello in which he is the instrument, shouting slogans like “Imperialist Americans should hit yellow man” as he is ‘played’, a direct critique of Man Ray’s Le violin d’Ingres
There is an Australian link with Moorman. In March 1976 Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman arrived in Australia for John Kaldor’s Public Art Project 5. Moorman had a long-term collaboration with Paik, regarded as the “father of video art”, and arriving slightly before Paik she gave a press conference at the Sebel Town House. At the press conference, entrepreneur John Kaldor, who had previously brought Gilbert and George and Christo to Australia, introduced her.
She talked about having been trained at the Julliard School of Music and not being allowed to play a John Cage piece for her graduation performance. She then gave a short performance of the TV Bra, which she introduced by explaining that Paik “is trying to humanise technology”.
Their first engagement was at the Adelaide Festival (21–24 March 1976), after which they returned to Sydney and began an 11-day presence at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW, 1–11 April 1976) where Moorman also performed Jim McWilliams’ Sky Kiss near the Sydney Opera House (photos: Kaldor Public Art Projects).
The photography of Kerry Dundas introduced the artists to Australia. Son of artist Douglas Dundas, he worked for various studios starting at Monte Luke’s in 1948 and Max Dupain’s through the 50’s, then was an expat photojournalist in the UK documenting the Notting Hill Gate riots, with work published in The Sunday Times, Vogue, The Guardian and The Geographical magazine. He returned to Sydney in 1967, publishing a book on New Guinea in 1969. In 1972 he was appointed photographer at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the post he occupied when he documented Moorman’s performance.
The audience for the performances can never be big so the majority must rely on images like Moore’s and Dundas’s to know what those works were like. It takes nothing from the photographs, though, and is in fact a credit to their poetry, to wonder how reliable they are.
A degree of interpretation and timing is involved in shots like Kerry Dundas’ Charlotte Moorman performing Jim McWilliams’s Ice Music for Sydney, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1976; Dundas conveys a time element by using a slow shutter speed to blur Moorman’s hands, and through choosing a moment when the ice cello is half-melted, and incidentally, the chilling effect it is have on its player.
Some producers of performance art complain that the presence of the camera influences their performers’ interaction, but as part of the audience, as Moore and Dundas ensured they were, this ‘surveillance effect’ is questionable. Especially so in the case of Moorman who was an exception amongst performance artists. A classically-trained cellist used to being a public performer it is her professionalism, and audacity, in challenging and engaging her audience that separates her work from that of other performance artists whose actual performance experience is more confined.
When a half-nude Paik held a wire along his back so that Moorman could play him like a cello, Moore’s photograph makes of it a tender and sober moment, when the 70s audience might have been squirming with embarrassment, or laughing outright at the sexual posture.
Looking at photographs of performance we are left to believe that ‘this is how it looked, this is how it was’. It may have been good to be there, but this is all that remains, this the document, and now, effectively, it is the artwork.
Museum der Moderne Salzburg hosts a comprehensive survey from March 3 to June 18 2017, which acknowledges Charlotte Moorman’s contributions to the avant-garde