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Photo by Babette Mangolte
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Photo by Babette Mangolte

Sylvia Palacios Whitman: »The Artwork Speaks by Itself«

December 1, 2019
Text by Wera Hippesroither
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Photo by Babette Mangolte

Wera Hippesroither interviewed the legendary performance artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman discussing the difference between dance and performance and how the position of female artists has changed over the years.

Chilean-born and New York-based performance artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman withdrew from the art scene in the 80s and returned in 2013 with the exhibition »Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan 1970—1980« (Whitney Museum New York). Her poetic performances combine simple materials with the artist’s unique humor to create pieces that incorporate a childlike gaze – which she was able to preserve. What, How & for Whom/WHW, the new direction of Kunsthalle Wien, chose Palacios Whitman’s performances to kick off their new program and also a collaboration between Kunsthalle Wien and Burgtheater. The choice of Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz couldn’t be more suitable to show Palacios Whitman’s work since it connects to her roots as a dancer.

You are going to show »Elephant Trunk« (1975), »Green Hands« (1977), »Cup and Tail« (1977) and also the new work »Visit to the Monkey and other Childhood Stories« (2019). How did you choose these works?

We thought a lot about what props would be possible to bring here. Usually, shipping is not a problem, but what happened here is: They lost my green hands! When I went to find my hands at the airport, they couldn’t find the box. I was very scared – the green hands, it’s the one thing I cannot lose! Eventually, they found the box again the same day. They didn’t know what had happened, maybe they had sent it back to America and back here again.

Do you feel today’s younger audience is more open to performance art? Are there different reactions compared to the 70s?

I did a lot of showings in the 70s and 80s in New York, a little dancing before that. Then I did nothing, and then the Whitney got me right back! I was reluctant to do it at the beginning but then I got into it. I had no idea that people were waiting for what I have done! It’s definitely different. The interest in what I did way back – I mean look at my age – is tremendous now. Today, there’s an interest in how I and other artists did performance art, why we did it and where we did it. It wasn’t like that at the time. Suddenly, I’m all over the place – pictures here, pictures there. But it’s not the reception of my work that has changed. What was happening in performance art, didn’t change, it just kept going on… it was me that retired from it. It was only when they brought me back that I realized there was a tremendous interest in the works that had already been done. I was so out of it, I didn’t realize.

You have shown your performances in exhibition spaces as well as in theaters. Does it affect your work where you show it?

No. We all know how the space at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Tate in London are different from this here [our talk is held at Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz]. What I do is: I breathe in the space and then deliver the work. It’s the same approach at every space. Over the years, I figured that you really can’t limit yourself to do artworks that will only work in one situation. The artwork speaks by itself so I can do it everywhere. I can do it in a space like this here, I can do it in a very solid space like the Tate. It would be the same if I did it in a bathroom – that would actually be wonderful, the green hands would touch the ceiling! I don’t make work for the spaces. I do the pieces, and then they could be done anywhere. Especially »Green Hands« I have used in different ways. Not too long ago, I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge in New York with the hands. I was invited back to my country Chile to cross a bridge there, but I couldn’t go now because of the ongoing political problems.

It creates a strong image to cross a bridge with the big hands.

I think it adds to it. If you look at the photos of me crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, you’ll see that the performance incorporates people on the street. In New York, people are all going about their business, and then some of them see me with the green hands and don’t know what to think. You know what, some policemen loved it! I got a little bit scared when I saw them approaching me. I thought I’d get a ticket or something, but what the police wanted was a picture with me! Other people didn’t know what they were supposed to do, looking at me or just continuing their daily crossing or something. I produced different reactions from different people.

Does that mean the audience is an element in your work?

Well, in a way. I mean, if you do artworks, it’s always for people to look at – especially when you do performances. People are going to react to it.

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Photo by Babette Mangolte

After your move to New York, you danced with Trisha Brown Company for a few years. Is it your experience as a dancer that conveys itself when you speak of breathing a space in?

The body of the performer becomes part of the image I create. It’s true that I make use of the way I walk, the way I do the actions. It’s done in a very direct, simple way. I did dance with Trisha for a while, and we were very good friends – I know it’s said that I was in her company, but she didn’t have a formal company then! It was more like, »You wanna dance?« And that was it. We had wonderful times, a lot of drinking, going to the beach, doing things… living life. I did a lot of stuff with Trisha in the beginning, the work was simple and about basic movement. Then Trisha became more dancey, it was all about dance. I loved it, but it was not my thing: I wanted to do something more stationary. Something that stays there. I told her, and we continued to be friends and helped each other whenever we could. When I did a performance, »South«, at the Guggenheim Museum, she helped me out with putting stuff together.

You often work with very simple materials out of everyday life such as paper or strings. I’ve read that the props were sometimes even discarded after the show.

Yes, of course we often threw the props away, or I’ve made new ones recently. My pieces are of a very strong nature, they will still survive. My thing is simplicity, that’s exactly why I can present my works everywhere. I don’t do anything before the hands or after the hands, it’s with the hands and that’s it! It’s the immediacy of my image. Once the image is shown, it’s over. It doesn’t continue like in some other performances from different artists. I don’t want to criticize those but just state that I work differently. I don’t transform my ideas or images. The image is what I’m showing you. Now that I’ve shown it to you, it’s over. That’s all there is to it, there is nothing more than the image.

When thinking of your »Green Hands«, the enormous hands increase your bodily presence in a room. Do you think of it as a feminist act of taking up space, making oneself bigger?

Yes! I feel tremendous power when I wear them. It empowers me completely. That’s necessary for being a performance artist anyway. You have to fill yourself up to perform, make fun of yourself before you go out. I love to laugh – humor, to me, is one of the most important things in life. I’m thankful that my father had a great sense of humor because I think I inherited it. I’m going through life laughing all the way!

Your performances often feature comical moments. Is this how you incorporate your sense of humor in an artistic practice?

[Laughs] Is this sense of humor?! I performed in so many different places that I get a feeling for the kind of audience I have. Some audiences react incredibly much, while others don’t know what to say. Some other people are so respectful to the arts that they get the feeling one shouldn’t be laughing about certain stuff. But it is what it is. The humor is there, I don’t put things in a very serious way. I keep focused on the image I want to create. Like in »Cup and Tail«… with this piece, I wanted to produce something like a drawing. You know, my tail goes up like this and the smoke is coming out of the cup and going upwards too [draws a wave around herself with her hands]. The smoke is going through my body like shhhshhh. My body and I become part of the drawing.

When you started doing performances in the 1970s, performance art was only just in the making. You were part of the progressive New York scene. Was there a place for women in performance art?

I felt yes but it was very different from now. Now, there’s no doubt about it. In dance, it was a little different, maybe it was more acceptable for women to dance. In performance art though, at least in the 60s, there were few women doing it. In the 70s we were more and then I stopped in the 80s until the Whitney brought me back. I am married to one of the first few people that like, actually started performance worldwide. Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine, Robert Whitman – that’s my husband –, Red Grooms. All those people are friends, I’ve always been involved with performance. I was in the middle of it. Though it was mostly guys, men doing it.

Do you experience your current position as a female artist any different than in the 70s?

Yes, definitely! I think that now, we are extremely powerful. I’m sure you can feel it here too. You are young so you can forget about the 70s. At the time, there were way more male artists doing stuff. But we were going in, coming in and being unstoppable. Female artists are more visible today. There are more and more exhibitions with only women artists, like »Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985« (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and Brooklyn Museum, New York) that I participated in.

What are your plans for the following years?

I’ll go on with painting and drawing as I always did, it relaxes me, I like it so much. They even want to make a book out of my new performance »Visit to the Monkey and other Childhood Stories«. It’s funny it’s going in this direction now and I’m looking forward to it.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.