Upon the dawning of the New Year, Oxford Rd’s Cornerhouse announced it would be playing host to Clifford Owen’s European debut in the form of Better the Rebel You Know. Featuring an array of existing works and two new commissions, Manchester soon braced itself for the methods and the man who, in the words of Cornerhouse’s Artistic Director, Sarah Perks, “fuses performance, identity politics, audience interaction and subsequent photography, film and documentation together into powerful, personalised experiences and emotive reactions.”
As an artist, Clifford Owens’ history remains one shrouded with controversy. Marked as ‘egotistical’ by certain critics or ‘charismatic and daring’ by others, his previous exhibitions, including a show at MOMA’s PS1, have often resulted in a mixed bag of both praise and criticism. Take ‘Photographs with an audience’ for example: an event in which the American artist invites participants to openly disclose their innermost thoughts, emotions and histories, with a range of questions, such as ‘who has an alcoholic parent?’ and ‘who has ever taken cocaine?’ being posed to those involved. For some, the outcome results in an honest and open-ended piece of performance-led art, and yet for others, such a practice remains almost self-indulgent and grotesquely overt.
With themes of race, sexuality and gender often spearheaded to the fore, Perks is quick to acknowledge the fears that hover around Owens’ work. “I often see audiences confuse the performative elements of an artist’s work with their own projected ideas and images of that artist’s ego. A black man performs pieces about sexuality and power with white women in the audience and everyone goes crazy.” In regard to the aforementioned ‘Photographs with an audience’, Perks is again quick to realize the pitfalls, but offers a welcoming dilemma for those who’s mind remains skeptical: “Owens is wise enough to understand and address this dynamic; issues of race, gender, sexuality, age and other, often obvious, indicators are naturally foregrounded in an intimate setting with strangers. It is as if the camera, not the audience, can become the delegated performer for Owens. He can collude with either side to stabilise or destabilise the experience, yet no one is forced to participate.”
For the man in question however, and somewhat dissimilarly to Perks, Owens feels no need to defend his work. As an artist, he simply refuses to acknowledge the negative press whilst, on the other hand, almost relishing in a shower of superlatives. Upon questions regarding his practice, reputation and the ‘pigeon-holing’ he has experienced as an artist, we are left with a typically whimsical display of self-assured bullishness. “I’m not sure what critics you’re referring to” states Owens, “or the context of their criticism. I don’t like pigeons especially when they take a shit on me, and labels are decoys.”
So far, so typical. And yet, regardless of the press, viewer perceptions or personal opinions (of which the vast majority have remained resoundingly positive), there can be no denying that by bringing Clifford Owens and Better the Rebel You Know to Manchester, Cornerhouse have continued to pave the way for pioneering performance art here in the city. In her own creative sights, Sarah Perks believes that “instead of fading, performance art in Manchester now glows brighter than ever.” Which, given the closure of Manchester’s Greenroom in 2011, is no mean feat.
It is an argument that is hard to challenge. Continuing on the foundations of her hypothesis, Perks furthers her explanation, citing Manchester International Festival’s Marina Abramović Presents…, as the catalyst to which enabled Manchester to “realise performance art’s potential.” And with regard to Clifford Owens and Better the Rebel You Know, Perks cannot speak highly enough of both the artist and audience alike; “Clifford is another of the great performance artists who have chosen Manchester as the place to showcase their art, and people have really embraced the opportunity to experience it. Our opening night in May was absolutely packed and we’ve received a lot of fantastic feedback from both our visitors and the media.” With such a statement in mind, Cornerhouse’s decision to secure Better the Rebel You Know represents something special in the gallery’s make-up. Both daring and pioneering, Sarah Perks can be proud to boast Owens’ debut on European soil. The fact that such a debut takes place here in Manchester, simply adds to such praise.
And what about Owens, what does the man behind the exhibition itself think of the city hosting his European debut? “I’ve greatly enjoyed preparing for and opening my first solo exhibition in Europe” he explains, “clearly, I’ve experienced very little of Europe but I’m fascinated by the continent and the possibilities it has to offer to artists.” When pressed a little further on the subject of Manchester itself, Owens offers the wittiest of ripostes, explaining how he “lost his virginity to the Smiths in 1980” before acknowledging the similarities between the city hosting Better the Rebel You Know and his native Baltimore – perhaps something which added an extra incentive to fly himself and his work across 3000+ miles of Atlantic Ocean.
As an artist, Owens’ work can trigger debate, inspire new thought and reach into lands previously uncharted. Through Better the Rebel You Know, Manchester has seen such a theory through its own eyes. We have seen that performance art breaths deeper then ever and that, even in the throes of controversial techniques, methods and madness, the city can respond with the casual glance of the liberal observer. The decision to host Better the Rebel You Know, inspired by Sarah Perks, signifies both Cornerhouse’s and Manchester’s position in the world of contemporary art. It signifies the daring voyeurism to challenge, explore and reveal new works, to host even the most bullish of artists in the pursuit of one clear vision. Through both the methods and the man, Clifford Owens and Cornerhouse can be proud of Better the Rebel You Know.
And who knows, perhaps Perks is right, and that “we haven’t seen the last of Mr. Owens yet”.
Clifford Owens Better the Rebel You Know continues at the Cornerhouse Manchester until the 17th August.
Alexander Lester is a freelance writer and Editor of Tusk Journal.
Image by TAPE | Jan Dixon & Emily Dixon | www.WeAreTAPE.com