Legendary artist Yoko Ono will be honored at this year’s Performa gala, to be held on November 1 at a decommissioned Harlem church. Known for her pioneering performance art, as well as her conceptual pieces and work with the Fluxus movement, Ono will have several of her pieces recreated by young performers throughout the evening.
“Yoko is eternal,” Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg told artnet News. “Her work always has been deeply conceptual and yet deeply humanist.… [it’s about] thinking yes, with a positive, uplifting way of looking at the world. I think we need to be reminded of that, especially at the moment with everything that’s going on.”
Kicking off three weeks of performance art events held around the city, the gala will be the first of several Performa 17 events held at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem. The 110-year-old neo-Gothic building was closed by the Archdiocese of New York in 2003. “I’ve always thought of Performa as a kind of radical urbanism,” said Goldberg, adding that the goal is “to take hold of the city, not just preserving, but animating spaces.”
For the past 14 months, the former church has served as the studio for Julie Mehretu, as she worked on paintings for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and her Performa commission with jazz composer Jason Moran. “We spent a lot of time up in Harlem watching Julie and listening to Jason,” recalled Goldberg. “He said he was watching her paint and felt like her marks on canvas were like scores for him as a musician.”
The evening’s other honoree is longtime Performa board member Wendy Fisher, recently named Performa board chair. “Wendy was really there at day one,” said Goldberg. “She’s been a guide and friend and enthusiast, and because we’re both South African, there’s an understanding between us.” (This year’s edition of the biennial has a special pavilion focusing on South Africa.)
The organization recently received a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to support Performa 17’s exhibitions and installations, as well as research trips to South Africa.
The gala also celebrates Roya Sachs becoming a new board member, and Toby Devan Lewis continuing as the board’s honorary chair. The gala’s chairs are Performa board president Richard Chang, artist Rashid Johnson, South African designer Hanneli Rupert, and Sachs.
Between the unusual setting and recreation of historic Ono performances, expect Performa to offer its own unique take on the typically staid gala format. “It’s not going to be the usual speeches,” Goldberg promised.
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