Spectacle: A Portrait of Stuart Sherman

Robin Deacon

2015 | 01:32:00 | United Kingdom / United States | English | B&W and Color | Stereo | 16:9 | HD video

Collection: On Art and Artists, Single Titles

Tags: AIDS/HIV, Art History, Artist Portraits, Performance

“We lose good artists to the past all the time because their work was ephemeral, or difficult, or fashion wasn’t on their side. The performance artist Stuart Sherman, who died of AIDS in 2001, was a candidate for disappearance on all three counts.” 

— New York Times, 2009

The late American artist Stuart Sherman (1945—2001) was a strange and underexposed figure in the history of performance art and experimental film. Using interviews with friends and colleagues, and original and re-enacted footage of Sherman's performances, this film explores the life, death, disappearance and rediscovery of this unique artist. Described by one writer as, 'the Buster Keaton of linguistics', Sherman's art defied neat categories and simple explanation. The same could be said of Sherman himself, who as a person was a notoriously secretive individual. From this perspective, the film asks viewers to question their understanding of how a life story can be told relative to the private nature of its subject. Stuart Sherman’s work was varied in its style and content, but he was best known for his characteristically deadpan approach to object manipulation, displayed in a series of short, minimal performances conducted with the most basic of props, using a table as a form of ad hoc stage. One could describe Sherman’s work as being modest but singular. However, the modesty in this case should not be equated with the amount of work produced, as Sherman was incredibly prolific in his lifetime. The modesty seen in his work could be related to his ‘anti-presence’ as a performer, and in terms of its scale, which in these works was concerned with aspects of the miniature.

“In that sense, he was the opposite of Robert Wilson and other grand scale conceptualists. But in his own way, he had an expansive view of the artistic universe, referring to his tabletop work as ‘spectacles.’”

— New York Times, 2001

Using the word ‘spectacle’ to describe these small scale performances may seem contradictory. But it could be suggested that there was always something ‘big’ going on in Sherman’s work in terms of the complexity of image, language and thought process. Overall, this project represents an investigation into the notion of artists being seemingly ‘written out’ of performance art history. Why is it that Sherman’s work is not more widely known about and disseminated? Has the differing understanding and reception of Sherman’s work outside of America (it appears his work was always more accepted in Europe) affected his presence within the documentation and discourses surrounding performance art since his untimely death in 2001? Broader issues raised by this film concern the possibility for the preservation of ephemeral artworks through reenactment.

This film was made over a period of five years and has been made possible with support from London South Bank University, Robert Wilson's Watermill Center, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Estate of Stuart Sherman. Parallel to this film has been a series of talks, screenings and performed re-enactments of Sherman's works which have been presented throughout the UK, Europe and the US.

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Performa Performance Biennial
New York, NY