Clifford Owens’s “Five Days” was an ambitious undertaking, if for no other reason than that it occurred on five successive evenings, Nov. 18 to 22, in performances lasting from one to two hours each. A Performa 13 “consortium” event, it was staged at Third Streaming in SoHo, a nonprofit loft space for performances and exhibitions. I attended on the fourth and fifth evenings.
Based in New York, Owens is a photographer, performer and provocateur, known for work addressing his identity as a black male. He exhibited three breakthrough videos in Thelma Golden’s 2001 “Freestyle” exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which gave rise to the term “post-black.” He gained further attention from a public contretemps with Kara Walker over his 2011 show at MoMA PS1, “Anthology,” in which he solicited scripts from other artists. Walker’s script, which she described as hypothetical, asked for a forced sex act.
With no advance information other than the single word of its title, “Dad,” the fourth evening of “Five Days,” promised to be a surprise. In addition to agreeing in writing that Owens could photograph them and use the photographs however he wanted, spectators were asked to remove their shoes on entering what turned out to be a weird house of worship. Owens had covered the floor in Islamic prayer carpets, oriented east, toward Mecca. On one of the gallery’s white walls, he had mounted three photographs: on the left, a picture of his father seated on a couch; on the right, a picture of Owens seated at the other end of the couch; and between them a picture of Elijah Muhammad, a leader of the Nation of Islam.
The first half-hour of “Dad” consisted of listening to an audio recording of Elijah Muhammad talking about meeting Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard Muhammad. A door-to-door salesman of indeterminate origin and race, Fard said he was the reincarnation of God and propagated an ideology that collaged Islam, the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, anti-Semitism, Black Supremacy and Freemasonry. As Elijah Muhammad rambled about Fard and his racial mythology in the recording, it was hard to believe that anyone would find either of them credible, though the audience listened reverently, unprovoked by the content of his speech or the movement the speaker represented.
When the recording was cut off, Owens, dressed all in white, appeared briefly. From the audience came a shouted question, “Where did your father come from?” Without answering, Owens left. Soon a saxophonist, later identified by Owens as the artist Terry Adkins, played in an alcove. Camera in hand, Owens reappeared and waded in among the audience seated on the floor. He took pictures of some spectators as well as several shots of his portrait on the wall and of Adkins. After walking out the door, he returned after a few minutes and thanked the audience for attending.
The Friday performance, scheduled to last two hours, was called “Come to Me.” Attendees were required to bring a “thing, text with an instruction/action, or object” with which Owens could perform. The set-up was thus similar to his MoMA PS1 project. Owens was dressed all in black. He was friendly, smoked a cigarette and asked to have drinks brought to him from the bar. All the while, his assistant photographed. He commented at one point, “Everything is about the image. Performance art is about the image.”
He took a feather and tickled the faces of several spectators and poured glue into the hands of a couple of them. He had some fun with a fertility doll, pumping it and comparing its squeak to a bedspring. Responding to the instruction “Love,” Owens polled the audience, asking those in love to stand up. Many times he refused to perform with the object or instruction. On being presented with a pink razor and shaving cream, he promised to use it later with someone from the audience, the same offer he made with a pretty package of condoms. He frequently turned the task over to the audience, but as they grew more assertive in calling out instructions or performing as they wished, he expressed frustration with their takeover. “Control. Control. Whose piece is this?” he said, provoking laughter. Presented with a sheet of music, he turned it over to a spectator to vocalize. Given an empty wine bottle, he asked for a volunteer to piss in it.
The randomness of the requests and objects, together with Owens’s live reaction as a cordial emcee, made for a pleasant experience. He and the audience were comfortable with the familiar format of rule-based performance with audience participation. Owens didn’t show a particular gift or alacrity for performing with the object. After he announced at the beginning that he wouldn’t go the scheduled two hours, he commented several times along the way on his exhaustion: “I’m getting tired. Can we stop soon?” Perhaps Owens was fatigued from whatever happened on the other nights, but Thursday and Friday were low-energy affairs.