(Ed. Note: In 2011, I wrote this piece for the Bay Citizen, which became the Center for Investigative Reporting, which resulted in the piece vanishing into the ether. So. Now it will live here. Enjoy!)
Kiss and Tell
In SFMOMA’s public atrium, museum goers stroll idly, teens talk in hushed whispers and play with their phones, young children gasp excitedly when a motion-sensor spotlight falls upon them, following their movements as they try to escape its light. A disembodied voice overhead booms on speakers, “We are all watching you,” and, “It’s so great to see you again!”
Amidst all that, off to one side, Michael Zheng and Nicole McClure, both artists and near strangers, stood locked in an arduous embrace in public view for seven straight hours, from the time the museum doors opened at 11 a.m. until they closed at 5:45 p.m.
The purpose of Zheng’s piece, aptly called “Making out at SFMOMA,” was, he said, “a critique on both the PDA and, more importantly, museums’ relationship with more vulgar forms of culture. This to me is more relevant in light of the recent efforts of various museums to ‘popularize’ themselves with activities/events designed to really just attract visitors.”
It’s true that many museums are seeking more innovative uses for their public spaces, and SFMOMA is one of them. “With SFMOMA’s own Live Art and Now Playing event series, we’ve been consciously experimenting with new ways to activate museum spaces,” wrote Frank Smigiel, associate curator of public programs at SFMOMA, in an email. “We’ve hosted in our atrium the Weimar New York cabaret, live cinema events by artists Martha Colburn and A.L. Steiner, the amazing movement and noise piece C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience), and an edition of Pop-Up Magazine’s live-format periodical. In collaboration with OPENrestaurant we even butchered and served a whole spit-roasted cow in the atrium as part of an investigation of Futurist banquets and performance.”
Spit-roasted cows and live magazines are part of a growing trend toward art that, like Zheng’s, exists ephemerally as the experience is happening. The pieces live on afterward only in memory, except of course for the photos and videos snapped on the cameras and Smart phones of museum-goers.
A resurgence toward the ephemeral
It’s quite possible that the resurgence of performance art in the Bay Area is a direct rebellion to our modern tendencies of incessant public documentation, be it on social media sites, blogs, photo sharing apps, or even online dating profiles. Almost everything we do is recorded, so it makes sense that transience, both in life and art, would once again appear to be making a comeback.
Zheng’s “Making Out at SFMOMA” is not the first to explore kissing as conceptual art, of course, and in fact, Zheng’s work echoes the popular Tino Seghal piece, “The Kiss,” which made headlines again last year with Sehgal’s New York retrospective at the Guggenheim.
Zheng’s piece differs from Sehgal’s in that his was not sanctioned by the museum or affiliated with it in any way. This was of the utmost importance to Zheng, who specializes in intervention art.
“Things and gestures in a museum are rarefied as high art, by virtue of being selected to be displayed or positioned in a museum. By short circuiting that process, I try to problematize it and bring attention to that process. After all, who decides what art is?”
“Does this turn you on?”
Museum onlookers became participants in the performance, whether they wanted to or not. Some were not happy about it. One man’s look of disdain was almost tangible, and as he walked up to the ticket taker, he complained, “That is disgusting.”
“Get a room,” whispered an older woman from out of town to her female friends. One husband turned to his wife at the coat check and said, “I wish it was two chicks instead,” which his wife responded to by smacking him.
At one point Zheng stealthily removed McClure’s bra and flung it to the floor, where it lay with a few other garments until the Customer Service Manager covered up the bra because she was concerned it was offensive to some families. Interestingly, as one SFMOMA staff member told me, “A lot of people were offended by it until they found out it was performance art.”
Other visitors broke into wide grins when they noticed the making out. “This is the most interesting thing I’ve seen in the museum,” said a college-aged guy, who had just visited SFMOMA’s voyeurism exhibit on the fourth floor. While the make-out performance wasn’t intentionally timed with the exhibit, it fit damn near perfectly, and because of that, many people mistakenly thought Zheng’s piece was in collaboration with the museum.
“That’s hot,” said a girl in her late twenties. “This is masturbation material,” said another, a sentiment that was echoed by many of the women I spoke to, including a girl I invited to watch with me for a potentially awkward first date. Very early on, she admitted to being turned on by the performance. I figured since Zheng’s piece was sort of like an awkward first date performed for the public, that I would engage with it in a similar way.
No documentation of my performance exists, but I will say that the date went very, very well.
I wasn’t the only one emboldened by the public nookie. Three straight couples, all at different times, joined in and performed their own PDA right along with Zheng and McClure. Several people posed in front of them, making thumbs-up gestures and faces, as if they were being photographed with cult celebrities. Toward the very end of the seven-hour make-out, one guy, after posing lewdly, grabbed Zheng’s ass, as if simply being sexual in a public place meant that his body was available for the taking. I found this to be really disturbing, but both Zheng and McClure seemed nonchalant about it, agreeing that that was a necessary risk of the performance. They also noted that they hadn’t really thought about what they would’ve done if any inappropriate touching had gone further.
Curiously, very few men claimed to be turned on, but by and large, they were the ones recording the action.
One local couple, who chatted and watched with me for about an hour, were fascinated, and posed several thought-provoking discussions about the piece, as well as recording the action on their video camera for about a half an hour. There were also a small percentage of people who remained completely unaware that a performance was taking place at all, but those who did take notice formed strong opinions of it immediately.
This kind of direct engagement is pretty rare in more traditional, static art forms. How often have you looked at a painting or sculpture and felt nothing?
When it comes to performance art, you might be shocked, amused, titillated, or even roll your eyes, as several friends did when I described “Making Out at SFMOMA” to them, but the immediacy of such art is difficult to ignore or brush off.
As Zheng described it, “It cuts through many layers of mediation and gets straight to the audience on a physical and psychological level, and often times intellectually.”
And just as the act of kissing can invoke multiple meanings depending on the person or context, there’s much more to making out in public than meets the lips.