We’re all sat around dinner; Charlemagne Palestine, his wife, Aude Stoclet, Middelburg’s Vleeshal director Roos Gortzak and assistant curator Julia Mullié. Without saying too much beforehand, influential performance artist Simone Forti, at the head of the table, asks if we could tell everyone a little bit about our necklaces. Mine is a silver one a friend made me with a bird about to take flight. Palestine and Stoclet’s are matching gold ones they’d picked up on a walk together with pendants resembling an animal of a kind, also with wings. It’s a special military badge, Palestine tells me —as though he’s told the story many times before, each time with the same smile and not tiresomely at all. They had become their wedding rings, these necklaces.
LA-based Forti, who 60 years after beginning to make performances, drawings and stories has a practice made up of tender dances, documentation photographs, and memories that come in the form of movement, short melodies, anecdotes and expressions and behaviours. The Italian-American born artist for who’s Here It Comes exhibition, running January 30 to April 3, 2016, and performance with friend and long-term collaborator Palestine, Illuminations, we’re gathered, watches the world around her, patiently. In Here It Comes, in the Vleeshal Zusterstraat space, there is a double white bed sheet hanging from the ceiling with a wind chime fixed to the bottom corner and a small fan blowing about a foot away. Despite the room being flooded with sunlight, there is still a projection, resiliently and gently displaying a series of images taken by Forti in Rome at a cat sanctuary. The images and the cats in ‘Largo Argentina (Rome Cats)’ (1968) move in the air on the softly billowing sheet and it seems like a very delicate way to make a video, or to make something move. It could be a 1968 version of Snapchat meme: “CATWATCH LONDON”, or at least, I’m aware that I’m watching these cats in the most undisturbed and unmediated way, despite the lack of animal and, even, footage. If you watch it for long enough the wind chime picks up more swing and energy based on its own growing momentum. It is as though the installation itself and all the subtle decision-making contained within its process mimics the way cats in general move and behave.
I have seen quite a few of my friends sleep in their work. They either go to sleep or are already asleep when the viewer enters the sacred space, performing tiredness or death, or performing the ability to transcend audience awareness in performance, like an animal or a pop star under the beaming bright lights. Illuminations begins in the Gothic Vleeshal Markt —which used to be a meat market in the town hall —with some lonely piano notes played by Palestine. Forti steps across the floor as though she is remembering walking on sand, her left hand articulated by the onset of Parkinson’s disease. She crawls, suddenly a young and curious four-legged animal going about its daily business. Forti is remembering instinctively, it seems, the work she made in 1973 by studying and mimicking the movement of bears, which is playing as a black-and-white video piece called ‘Untitled’ on two large square monitors for the Here It Comes exhibition running in the Vleeshal Zusterstraat gallery space. Then she stops and lies down in silence, so silently that everybody watches and nobody moves. She is peaceful —regardless of audience and even, it seems, regardless of performing. Everything in Illuminations, a piece repeated again and again, is improvised and also remembered.
It feels difficult to read into Forti’s artwork in the way perhaps that we read easily, or lazily, into work whose author applies un-embodied, non-relative reason-able language and personal narrative on top. However, sitting in the small cold alcove of the Vleeshal Markt watching Forti, silent on the floor, like an animal in a public enclosure that has stopped worrying about its visitors, I can’t help but recall the conversations we’ve had over every meal. They in themselves are starting to become quite sacred, aided by the fact that Gortzak takes us to the same incredible restaurant over and over. I go there on my own as well, away from the small holy crowd of oracles, this time just listening to the church bells playing Nat King Cole’s ‘Smile’ and still hoping for some pattern-induced enlightenment, maybe.
Over the weekend I learn about Forti’s relationship to the art world both in the 60s and 70s –in which I suppose you could frame the New York Art scene, with names like Yvonne Rainer and Merce Cunningham –and also since then. There was the recent book of collected writings, Oh Tongue, which has in it moments of writing under titles like ‘As I Ease into Bed’, imagined letters to Forti’s dead father, and musings on memories like “the berry girl from the story” and “the boat woman from the dream”. She joins them together in written thoughts like, “what connects the two is the herbs. The handness of their hand how the hand handles the good small grass”. Oh Tongue, Forti says during one of our dinners, was not really accepted by the art world; the dance world, yes, but not the art world. There is also the story (non-fiction), told many times in articles on her work, that she married performance artist Robert Whitman in 1962 and for five years made none of her own but instead helped him make his. There is more, but really it seems Forti is an artist that has continued to conceive of artworks, regardless of (not) being watched and that did not follow a suit, or a formalism, or a way paved-out in the art world and its people that surrounded her.
Palestine mentions that they are ephemeral artists, you know —like really ephemeral. We’re drinking some kind of Dutch spirit by this point and I want to know what he means, because I have an idea but instead we sit in silence and listen to Eric Prydz’ ‘Pjanoo’, a looping and repetitive house track that is always harsher, or harder than I feel it should be. Speaking to Here It Comes curator Gortzak in the Zusterstraat gallery the following morning, I understand more acutely: some collectors worry about what name should accompany each drawing, because some are signed ‘Whitman’, and some ‘Forti’, and some of these performance invitations-cum-drawings (‘Illuminations Cal/Arts Performance announcements’ (1972)) aren’t necessarily works until Forti sees them again and puts them in frames —on backgrounds ranging violet through khaki green —that make a musical scale in their arrangement on the wall. There’s more.
On the train from Amsterdam to Middelburg I had been reading an essay written by Andrew Berardini called ‘How to be an Unprofessional Artist’ that has recently been shared amongst the contemporary art scene on social media. Not to suggest that Forti is not professional in her dealings or addresses and earnest sensibilities, but, I have not for a long time experienced the presence and way of working of an artist that speaks so much of letting something be, and being human, or animalistic, even. And perhaps in light of recent developments that artists have made towards self-branding or co-opting “self-awareness into commerce” as Berardini puts it, we can learn a thing or two from the way Forti is her self.
A large part of the artist’s better known performance work is the ‘Dance Constructions’ series that she began to make in 1961 and continued to devise through the 60s. Many of them were performed during Here It Comes in the Vleeshal Markt, and many have been loved and danced by others, like in Again! Again! Again!, an evening of performances at New York’s La MaMa Galleria earlier this year, where artist group carried out a “slippery interpretation” of Forti’s 1967 construction ‘Cloth’. With Gortzak, I watch a documentation video of group piece ‘Huddle’, which shows performers clambering over each other to get to the top without breaking any physical contact whatsoever with the other bodies. They keep going, up and back down, under and back in, each making the same learned effort as before, re-finding the same specific ease with which to complete their climb. It makes me think what Sophia Le Fraga, Jessica Posner and Isaac Pool of maybe, and Sara Grace Powell were looking into at their Again!… event. Repeating a performance “is often concerned with improvement” or development, its accompanying text says. But when it is given over and over, it may “betray habit, a compulsion or a sign of madness”. I think this is the most interesting kind of (art) work, the kind that locates habit enough, or enough times to be able to produce behaviour (not necessarily identity), movement, knowledge and specificity in both the body of the artist and those who watch and learn from her.**
Simone Forti’s Here It Comes was on at Middelburg’s Vleeshal Zusterstraat, running January 30 to April 3, 2016.
Header image: Simone Forti + Charlemagne Palestine, Illuminations (2016). Photo by Marian van der Weide. Courtesy the artists + Vleeshal, Middelburg.