The Art World Gets Existential, Courtesy of Performa and Samuel Beckett

Last night, at the opening performance of the three-week Performa biennial, the art world took their seats in the large auditorium at NYU’s Skirball Center roughly according to rank. They were there to see Happy Days in the Art World, a play commissioned by Performa by the Scandinavian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. The production, a patchwork of references to Beckett’s Happy Days and Waiting for Godot, is mostly autobiographical.

“ME!” the actor Joseph Fiennes, who plays the character ID, said as the lights came up on stage.

He was calling out to his stage partner, whose name is ME, played by Charles Edwards, though the blurring of biography and solipsism was not lost on anyone. (Note the initials: Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset.)

The play opens with the two men waking up in a bunk bed, scared to leave it because they do not know where or who they are. They are wearing slim fitting suits. Like Beckett’s Estragon in Waiting for Godot, they are each wearing a single shoe. Me wakes up from a dream in which the two were successful artists. They talk for some time about the money they would have made if Me had not woken up. Beyond that, there is no real plot to speak of. The script cycles back and forth between Beckettian anxiety and jokes catered especially for the particular people occupying the chairs in the auditorium in a bombardment of piecemeal cultural references and self-effacing humor.

“Since we’ve opened our eyes we’ve been in trouble.”

“We’re like a Scandinavian Laurel and Hardy. Or worse…Gilbert and George!”

“What do you call a whole group of curators in front of an artwork? Unemployed.”

“Let’s turn this into a durational performance.”

At the back of the stage is a large sign featuring a running man and an arrow going forward—a kind of billboard-sized street sign signifying progress. There is a large crack at its center.

The self-referential jokes comprise the first half of the play until BI, a Fed-Ex messenger played by Kim Criswell, who is some kind of amalgamation of Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky, is lowered onto the stage via a harness with cables. The two men attempt to talk to her only to receive ad-copy gibberish in return.

“Who are you?”

“Just relax it’s Fed-Ex.”

“Where are we?”

“Coast to Coast.”

“What time is it?”

“Always on time.”

ME punches her in the face and she goes on a rant as long-winded and ultimately meaningless as Lucky’s when he is given back his hat in Waiting for Godot. BI rattles off all the art world signifiers one could think of, from Klaus Biesenbach to the state of the image in “post-postmodern society,” finally deteriorating into a list of names: MoMA, MoCA, Marfa, mama, papa. It is like the play-in-miniature, overstuffed with shout-outs to the crowd.

The Fed-Ex message, by the way, turns out to be from Nancy Spector, the chief curator and deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum. She would be coming by for a studio visit. The two men began waiting for her and they were still waiting when the lights went black.

The Art World Gets Existential, Courtesy of Performa and Samuel Beckett