Credit: Robin Bell

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On June 1, before an intimate crowd at the DC Arts Center (DCAC), Holly Bass performed a piece that left her feeling sore. For the piece, she stood stock still on the black box theater stage between two wood columns, while another artist worked around her. It was a test of endurance typical of her performance art, only the piece is not hers.

At a nearby work bench, another performer, artist Wilmer Wilson IV, sawed long pieces of wood into halves and thirds. One after another, he placed the wood slats between Bass’ figure and the columns, fitting them against her frame. Bass used her body to hold the slats in place, dozens of them, some of which crashed to the ground at times. Bracing herself put pressure on her core, she says, and her feet most of all. Just watching the performance was stressful for viewers. 

One member of the audience knows her pain. “Something Akin to Living” is not a Bass original, but a re-performance of a decades-old performance by Sherman Fleming, a Philadelphia artist who called D.C. home for nearly 30 years. He first performed “Something Akin to Living” in D.C. in 1979, as part of a series of pioneering, radical, and all-but-forgotten experiments. At a time when punk and go-go were coming into their own, Fleming was moving in a wholly different direction.  

“Sherman was the first black person I saw do durational performance,” Bass says. “It had an affect on me. It was a delayed effect.”

For The Black Overlay—part collaboration, part retrospective, now on view at DCAC—Bass is reviving two seminal pieces by Fleming. Later this month, she will re-perform “Pretending To Be Rock,” an endurance piece she saw Fleming do at DCAC in 1997. The Black Overlay brings Fleming’s work full circle. But in a sneaky, subversive way, it’s also a show that belongs to Bass.

“Part of it is deep respect. Part of it is selfish,” she says. “I want to be part of a tradition because I want to have that legitimacy.”

The tradition of black performance art in D.C.—or maybe any performance art in D.C.—dates back to the late 1970s. Fleming, who grew up in St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland, moved to the District after finishing graduate school. One of his earliest performances took place at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, although not inside the museum. 

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Even before the building was finished, the angular design by I.M. Pei was already turning heads. In particular, the so-called “wedge” or “knife edge”—the 19-degree point of the facade to the right of the museum entrance along its eastern face—was a subject of public fascination. People started to rub this edge before the building opened (and still do to this day). Fleming decided to claim it as his own.  

For “Shave Sharp,” a 1978 performance, Fleming lathered his face with shaving cream and shaved his face, so to speak, by rubbing his mug against the East Building’s edge. This was part of a larger series of gestures executed by the Anti-Formalist Reclamation Organization (AFRO), an experimental group that got its start in Richmond, where Fleming studied sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University. Fleming and the four other members of the group, among them the late conceptual artist and saxophonist Terry Adkins, tried out different strategies and provocations in the neo-dada vein of the Fluxus movement.  

Between 1978 and 1984, Fleming worked exclusively in performance, alone in this field in the city. It was a verdant time for experimental art, he says, with green shoots like d.c. space and 9:30 Club finally popping up in the wake of the 1968 uprising. But performance art was a lonely calling. “No one else was doing performance the way I was doing it, from a visual art standpoint,” he says.

In 1979, Fleming performed “Something Akin to Living” for the first time, at a studio above 930 F Street NW (where the first 9:30 Club opened the following year). This early piece had all the hallmarks of the series he calls “States of Suspense” (or SOS). It was an endurance piece: physically demanding of the artist but stressful for the audience, too. It investigated black masculinity: Fleming performed nearly nude under the name “RodForce” to draw attention to the pernicious sexual fascination with black men’s bodies. And it packed a sociological punch: “Something Akin to Living” featured two columns, representing official Washington, with a black man trying to build a space for himself between them.

Fleming’s early performances caught the eye of Kristine Stiles, now a preeminent art historian, then a critic who reviewed his work for a magazine called High Performance. Stiles, who as an artist made work with Yoko Ono, collaborated with Fleming for a piece called “Western History as a Three-Story Building” (1989), in which the two appeared naked, separated only by a wooden board smooshed between their bodies as they shuffled through the space. For “Ax Vapor,” which Fleming (aka RodForce) performed at the original Washington Project for the Arts (at 1227 G Street NW) in 1979, the artist cut a duckpin bowling ball in two and attached the halves to the soles of army combat boots. He would attempt to stand and spin on the rounded soles, falling over again and again.

“A lot of my work has to include the breakdown, the accident, things that don’t work, fatigue,” Fleming says. 

Year later, Fleming performed “Pretending To Be Rock,” a two-hour performance in which the artist—no longer performing under a pen name—kneeled on all fours as hot wax from a custom candelabra dripped onto his back. Another performer (Josephine Nicholson), who was suspended over a small pool, was subjected to a continual drip of water. Bass, who was in the audience for Fleming’s project at DCAC back in 1997, will re-perform it with another artist, Maps Glover, on June 20. She will be the one suffering burning candle wax for two hours.

“Sherman is building the candelabra,” Bass says. “He has to remake it because my back is smaller than his.”

Marina Abramović made performance art mainstream with “The Artist Is Present,” a 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. For this blockbuster show, Abramović hired performers to re-perform some of her own past works. Between this and other museum surveys, in which she re-performed works by the likes of Joseph Beuys and Valie Export, Abramović established re-performance as part of the contemporary artist’s repertoire. For African-American artists, however, re-performance is an archival strategy: It serves as a vital tool to save works at risk of being lost forever. 

Bass says that recent archival projects inspired her to re-perform Fleming’s work. Gesel Mason, a dancer, conducted an exhaustive survey of black dancers by re-performing their work, learning solos (and styles) by performers such as Donald McKayle and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. For a recent project at the Museum of Modern Art PS1, the artist Clifford Owens performed “scores,” or performances, contributed by 26 different black artists. These surveys have helped to shore up black performance art as a category.

“It was important for Alice Walker to go find Zora Neale Hurston,” Bass says, referring to Walker’s 1975 essay about her search for the author. “She almost disappeared from history. I can go in any bookstore and find Their Eyes Were Watching God, but there was a moment where only a few black women knew her name.”

The Black Overlay, which was co-curated by Terence Washington, features new collages by Fleming made between 2012 and the present day. But the re-performances may count as new works, too. When Bass performs “Pretending To Be Rock,” she’ll be doing so with Glover, another black artist, whereas Fleming originally collaborated with a white woman—a detail that led the audience to misread the piece as a project about interracial relationships, Bass says. She hopes that a suite of all-black performers will help viewers to focus on formal qualities of the performance, rather than blackness in relation to whiteness. 

“People impose their view of whatever blackness is onto the work, whether the artist intends that or not,” she says.

After The Black Overlay, Bass and Fleming plan to create a new work together, although they don’t know yet what that will look like. Bass says that she hopes that the show, and any future projects, help to establish a generational framework for understanding performance art in D.C.—the same kind of foundation that exists for hardcore or go-go. “Maps is in his 20s, I’m in my 40s, and Sherman’s in his 60s,” she says.

Watching Bass perform his original work, Fleming says that he was struck that the piece still holds up after several decades. Part of that, he attributes to Bass’ work as a performer. “I got sucked into her vision because she thought [the pieces] were important,” Fleming says. “It reaffirmed what I was going for.”