Alicia Frankovich’s backflip: From child gymnast to performance artist08/16/2019
Alicia Frankovich suspects that the activities we undertake as children can determine the shape of our adult selves. When Frankovich, 38, who's among the most respected New Zealand-born contemporary artists of the past decade, was a girl in the coastal city of Tauranga she was a competitive gymnast, a pastime seemingly poles away from the art world. Turns out the two were closely related.
Alicia Frankovich in the foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW where her work will be staged.Credit:Louise Kennerley
"Gymnastics demanded a lot of concentration but it was also about what it means to perform," says Frankovich, who's wearing a snappy navy-blue trench-coat and speaks with a trace of a New Zealand accent, although she's lived in Berlin for the past ten years.
"It informed how I think about the world but in relation to art, there's this idea of the body performing."
She rakes her hand through an asymmetrical tangle of curls. "Take [US gymnast] Simone Biles – she is out of control! There's an ecstasy in [gymnastics], a euphoric moment. I think that's what I look for in art as well."
To watch Biles' signature moves, such as this week's historic triple-twist double-flip, is to be awed by the power of the body in space but also, a little dispiritingly, to be confronted by our own physical limits. Frankovich has spent the last 13 years mapping what it is to inhabit a human body, to be a body among other bodies or to be part of a social body that's being acted upon by invisible cultural and technological forces. Her performances, films and sculptures – which have shown everywhere from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris – are an ode to all the highs and lows of embodiment. They can be playful, cerebral, laugh-out-loud funny. They're also increasingly ambitious, both conceptually and in scale.
The Work is a celebration of art patron John Kaldor’s 50 years of his public arts projects.Credit:Nic Walker
She's engaged the Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh in a rugby scrum in Brooklyn (Bisons, 2010) and filled the Art Gallery of New South Wales' entrance court with performers who jog in circles, peel mandarins or stretch out on yoga mats in pigeon pose (Free Time, 2013). In September, as part of Making Art Public: 50 Years of Kaldor Public Art Projects, she'll return to the site to stage The Work, a choreographed performance starring those who worked behind the scenes on some of Australia's most iconic public art projects.
Her 38 participants include the chocolatier involved in Asad Raza's Absorption, the gardeners who maintained Jeff Koon's 1995 Puppy and the female bodyguards who patrolled 13 Rooms, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Beisenbach's 2013 presentation of living sculpture.
When we meet, Frankovich is knee-deep in logistics, an occupational hazard, she laughs, when your medium is other people.
"John Kaldor talked about these 10 photographers who were university students when they worked on [Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 1968] Wrapped Coast and they are all much older so I'm working with some younger student photographers in their place," says Frankovich, whose work the art philanthropist first came across while watching Free Time in 2013.
"I asked a potential participant to bring in a Portapak camera and he said, 'this is not the camera I use.'" She smiles and cocks an eyebrow. "I was trying to convince him that it would be okay."
Wrapped Coast by Christo, pictured, and Jeanne-Claude, 1969, Little Bay, Sydney.Credit:Shunk-Kender/J. Paul Getty Trust
Frankovich grew up in New Zealand's North Island in the 1980s. The ages of six to thirteen were consumed with gymnastics training and national competitions.
"I didn't turn to art until I was 13 or 14 – I used to paint in my bedroom." Two uncles were artists. "I was always going to go to art school."
Frankovich studied sculpture at the Auckland University of Technology, where she brought in videos of gymnasts falling off apparatus. Then, Julian Dashper, the late Auckland painter, caught her freestyling at a party.
"He said that I had to follow performance – but performance was really prompted by my life outside art.
Early work such as Fall from Handstand, in which Frankovich would do a handstand, collapse into a space and photograph the process, took cues from Bruce Nauman, the American artist who in the late 60s documented himself falling on the floor of his studio.
In 2007, Frankovich, who spent two years as a resident at Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne, attended summer school at Italy's Fondazione Antonio Ratti. Her teacher was Joan Jonas, the ground-breaking feminist artist whose 1969 performance Mirror Piece I, in which performers holding rectangular mirrors made slow, deliberate movements that blurred the line between audience and spectator, self and other. Everything changed.
"We spent three weeks with Joan in this big chapel in Lake Como working together and it was fantastic to see her approach to the world," says Frankovich. "When you are used to your own society and community you [don't] realise that your work slots into different artistic interrogations. I threw away my ticket home and stayed in Europe for the next ten years. I'd realised that I'd never really lived."
Gardeners who tended Jeff Koons’ 1995 work Puppy will be included in Frankovich’s performance.
Over the next few years, Frankovich's performances often mined the slippery nature of power. In I would like to be attached to a random entrant to the performance viewings (2009), performed in Zagreb, the artist physically attached herself to viewers as they travelled between locations. The 35mm film, Volution (2011) sees the artist engage two men in an impromptu boxing match in Berlin's Kreuzberg, referee and boxer swapping roles in a balletic, circular rhythm.
"Random entrant was about tension and what will happen if you give your body up to a group of people and ask them to transport you somewhere?" After watching Marina Abramović's 2010 performance The Artist is Present, Frankovich switched course.
"I decided to stop using my own body because I started to feel that artists believed that they had to bleed or cry in order to make a good piece," sighs Frankovich, who showed Volution as part of Bodies and Situations, a 2012 solo show at her New Zealand gallery Starkwhite in Auckland.
"I'm always interested in controlling a piece but I also renounce it at a certain stage so there is an element of the social. Now I want to create community, something positive through the work."
In the decades since Bruce Nauman's jittery videos captured the pressure of bodies under surveillance and Jonas explored the tension between viewer and subject, performance – once the avant-garde of the art world – has become a defining tenet of the culture. We play-act our politics on social media and role-play our professional identities, while technology makes our working lives more precarious. Frankovich is increasingly fascinated by what she calls "Post-Fordist labour."
It's a condition, she says, whose greatest mascot is the artist. "We are at a bar, networking when we're talking about art or an exhibition," she points out. Free Time, which sees performers entranced by their MacBooks, bowing to each other spontaneously and jogging until they collapse in exhaustion, physically embodies these Digital Age contradictions. Questions of labour, invisible and otherwise, are also alive in The Work.
"Free Time was about beginnings, middles and endings, the way our working conditions now exceed nine to five with people working on their phones and teaching 9pm yoga – but what happens when you're too old or tired?" she says. "For The Work, I thought it would be interesting to work with the people who had produced the shows who weren't seen. There's a class critique in the work because of the forgotten labour but I want to celebrate those roles as well."
I think through opening up to all the species that aren’t human we can live together in a way that’s more ethically minded.
Lately, Frankovich's own life has been subject to beginnings, middles and endings. Her wife, the artist Alex Martinis Roe, was offered a position as Head of Sculpture at the Australian National University in Canberra, where the pair have relocated from Berlin although she still shows regularly in Europe.
Her own work, too, has undergone a metamorphosis. How do you make art about bodies in the world without accounting for the way the world is changing? For Frankovich, this means embracing the philosopher Rosi Braidotti's ideas around "the post-human", the notion that the self is related to the environment and other species, both living and non-living things.
A 2014 performance commissioned by Melbourne's ACCA, Defending Plural Experiences, saw performers spanning the spectrum of age, race and identity perform at Melbourne Zoo's butterfly enclosure. The accompanying film featured a dancing avatar, a digital stand-in for Frankovich.
Exoplanets, an October 2018 show at the Monash University Museum of Art, invited viewers to walk through a timed sequence of artworks that contrast the otherworldly with the microscopic, the surfaces of planets and the molecules in food occupying the same visual plane.
A moment from Frankovich’s Defending Plural Experiences, 2014, performed in the butterfly house at Melbourne Zoo.Credit:The Age
Decentring the body altogether might be an unusual move for an artist that deals in performance. But for Frankovich, it's a shift that's optimistic.
"I think through opening up to all the species that aren't human we can live together in a way that's more ethically minded," she grins, blue eyes twinkling. "I think it has potential for the becoming of us all."
Making Art Public: 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects is at Art Gallery of New South Wales from 7 September 7 – February 16. Alicia Frankovich's The Work will be staged in conjunction with the exhibition on September 14 and 28 in the Gallery's Entrance Court.
What the artists thought
Five artists who have participated in the John Kaldor Public Art Projects share their memories.
Jonathan Jones, Project 32: barrangal dyara (skin and bones) 2016
What was the biggest challenge facing you in realising your John Kaldor Project?
One of the greatest challenges we faced with the project, staged, in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens was that most people had completely forgotten about the Garden Palace [an exhibition hall that burnt down in 1882]. It's difficult to create a major art project about a story no one had ever heard of. To generate knowledge about the project, so that the public would understand the context, we ran a series of three symposiums in the lead-up to the installation. Public engagement on this scale, again, underpins John Kaldor's ethos. He cares about the relationship between the audience and the artwork.
Thomas Demand, Project 25: The Dailies, 2012
What was the biggest challenge facing you in realising your John Kaldor Project?
Facial hair. Finding a grooming parlour in Sydney which would provide me with the same elegancy as John Kaldor. Never managed.
What do you believe is John Kaldor's contribution to contemporary art?
A big dent
Anri Sala: Project 33: The Last Resort , 2017
Why is the John Kaldor Project different to other art projects around the world?
"For me the difference was the time spent with John himself, which is unique and great. Many days he would pick me up in his car and drive us around Sydney looking at possible sites, having meetings and finally dinner together, talking the whole time about the evolving project and art in general. He is like a great editor or director, getting you to go further, and then finding great people to help you realise your project. I learned about my own practice from John pushing me"
Michael Landy: Project 24: Acts of Kindness, 2011
What do you believe you achieved with your work?
I brought kindness and compassion to Sydney's CBD, something that was sadly lacking until my Acts of Kindness project. It encouraged the public not just to think about themselves, but to acknowledge their fellow human beings. And that small acts can have profound impact on peoples' view of the world they live in.
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