Matthew Stone, the London-based artist and party monster, opened a multimedia show earlier this month at The Hole on New York’s Bowery. The two-part eponymous exhibition was comprised of the visual series “Optimism as Cultural Rebellion” followed by the film-based performance piece, “Anatomy of Immaterial Worlds,” as part of Performa 11. Familiar with !WOWOW!, Stone’s avant art collective, and his recent collaboration with Riccardo Tisci for the Dazed and Confused 20th anniversary cover, I entered the Hole ready for an evening of sexed-up stimulation. What I wasn’t prepared for was 45 minutes of isolating darkness.
“Optimism as Cultural Rebellion” was as stunning as the photographed slender nudes would suggest, but it’s elements of originality—contorted bodies, truncated limbs, and a mix of skin tone befitting 21st century exhibitionism—are what make the collection noteworthy. The images are then printed directly onto birch panels that are left in traditional canvas-like formats or cut, hinged together, and folded into geometric sculptures. At times Stone goes even further; in “Forever Rules,” the panel is divided into hundreds of squares before being attached to fabric, which is then draped across the floor. It’s the body poetic disrupted, only to be retranslated back into a flowing form.
The entrance to the gallery’s basement was clogged by a mob of would-be lumberjacks and scarlet-lipped art flies well before the performance piece, “Anatomy of Immaterial Worlds,” was set to begin. When we were finally given the go-ahead, the crowd was ushered into a dark, cavernous space to await, well, god knows what. With the seats filled and standing room scant, a batch of eager patrons were ousted for fire-safety purposes.
Performance art is a tricky business. Unlike its sister mediums—painting, photography, sculpture, and any art form that isn’t “happening” in the Kaprow sense of the word—performance demands a more complicated commitment from its audience. It requires patience and a willingness to let go on the part of its viewer-participants, and this is where it runs into problems. Not everyone could sit still during the time it took artist Carolee Schneemann to pull a scroll of feminist texts from her vagina, and if it weren’t for the those who endured the performance in its entirety, Schneemann’s work may have been for naught.
Stone’s piece began with a projection that replicated the experience of swimming through underwater caves, only to be accompanied by equally hypnotic music. This went on for nearly 30 minutes, which saw the exit of the first 25 percent of the crowd, who were perhaps a bit impatient. After a brief projector malfunction, the cave journey gradually came to a close, leaving the audience to sit in complete darkness accompanied by a deafening boom-boom-boom. This went on for yet another 30 minutes and saw the exit of the next 25 percent, who were the sanest quarter of the group. The rest of us, crazy and polite, stayed on, armed with little more than the sheer optimism (Stone’s ism of choice) that something else must happen. After another 30 minutes of complete bewilderment, a light flashed to spotlight a ghost-white, lanky boy extending his limbs in ballet movements as a gorgeous operatic voice burst out of nowhere. I could have watched for much longer than the duration of the three-minute spectacle, but at last we had been rewarded for our doggedness! (Or freed from this ridiculous experience, depending on how you look at it).
For a guy who once drew 4,000 people to an art opening party at the Tate Modern, the walkouts were certainly unexpected. I’m still unsure whether or not Stone intended, or even foresaw, the exit of the 75 percent—could it all have been a social experiment? Regardless, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel— even if that tunnel is long as hell.