Clifford Owens Isn’t Interested in Becoming Art Fair Spectacle

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Clifford Owens, 'Anthology (Dave McKenzie)' (detail). Performance still. (Courtesy of On Stellar Rays)

“Somebody just bought that video,” artist Clifford Owens told Gallerist this afternoon and laughed. “It was the weirdest thing. A guy and his wife.” We looked over at the video screen on which he is shown in close-up filling his mouth with food and making faces. “Why would you want to live with this? It’s kind of gross. Apparently,” he said as if to explain this surprising interest, “they’re board members at MoMA, so they’ve seen the show, and seen the work.”

Mr. Owens, whose show “Clifford Owens: Anthology” is currently up at MoMA PS1, and involves a series of live performances—where he enacts graphic instructions given to him by other artists—as well as video and photography related to the performances, contemplated doing performance as part of his solo presentation at the On Stellar Rays booth at the Armory, but decided against it.

“It didn’t make sense nor was I interested in becoming  an art fair spectacle,” he told Gallerist. We were seated on two soft orange cubes in the Solo Projects Lounge across from the booth where three monitors were set up showing portions of his video work, which captured Mr. Owens’s live performances at MoMA PS1. The images showed Mr. Owens alternately handling vegetables in a sexually suggestive way and handling a live chicken in a sexually suggestive way, and showed a close-up of Mr. Owens as he filled his mouth with food. It was around 4 p.m. and people were crowding around the monitors.

“For many many years, I’ve been doing performance and photography and video,” said Mr. Owens, “and deliberately avoided the market—not because I think the market is bad for artists, but the market is so seductive. There’s a certain kind of freedom one has when you’re not concerned about making sales.”

It’s clear Mr. Owens is not avoiding the market, now that he’s at the Armory. But how do the art objects like the video relate to his performances if he’s not performing in the space or providing viewers with a the foundational context that his performances give?

Mr. Owens, whose final performance at MoMA PS1 is this Sunday, March 11, claims the video and photographs he creates are not simply by-products of his performance but works in their own right. “When I do the performance I always think about what the resulting image would be. The work in the museum is always considered as discrete art objects. Not as documentation of performances. And if you look at the exhibition it’s quite clear, through what I call my photo arrangements, that the installation of the photographs is so important.”

Though Mr. Owens has been doing performance art since 1991, when he was a student in college and “no one was talking about performance art,” he recognizes that things have obviously changed with respect to interest in the art form.

“Then what happens is RoseLee Goldberg does this great thing called Performa,” he says motioning to Ms. Goldberg, the founder of Performa, who walked by us with her severe bangs, “and interest in performance art goes through the roof. And suddenly it did have a place, a position of power. And I work with this visionary gallery that takes a lot of risk.”

But whether or not the public’s interest in what he does has increased, it doesn’t affect his practice. “I don’t think this renewed interest in performance art or marketability has influenced decisions that I’m making.”

“Look at all those people, it’s wonderful,” he said, looking at the crowd in front of the monitors, which made him laugh again. “I think the renewed interest in performance is a good thing, no? It’s a fantastic thing.”