Shiny Art-World Celebrities Turn Out for Performa’s Metal Ball

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The contemporary-art market took a sobering blow in last week's auctions, but the hundreds of people who turned out for Performa's Metal Ball on Saturday found the mood to be redolent less of 1929 Wall Street than of 1929 Wiemar, Germany. Inspired by the Metallic Festival of that year thrown by Bauhaus artist Oscar Schlemmer, the $1,000-per-plate dinner and dance party featured a scattering of performances throughout the evening, including a theremin recital accompanied by a video from artist Jesper Just, and a politically minded line dance called "The Prop 8 Two Step Backwards" that was led by the two-woman group robbinschilds. But the real draw was the crowd, an upbeat slice of the art world — from David Byrne and Cindy Sherman, who came from the night before had her opening at Metro Pictures, to Rufus Wainwright and Studio Museum in Harlem director Thelma Golden — who came gilded in metallic-colored clothing to support the fledgling performance-art organization.

"It's a great party; the atmosphere is very relaxed," said Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, who wore a pair of silver-lamé socks in the spirit of the event. Others approached the theme with greater gusto, like MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, who dyed his hair a bright copper, or dance artist Caitlin Kirby, who wore a full-body, silver-spandex suit. (A team of "wardrobe specialists" was on hand to make silver-Mylar turbans and other accoutrements for any non-shiny guests.) Enough people came to raise about $250,000. "You know, New Yorkers are real survivors," said Performa director, RoseLee Goldberg, who wore a stringy metallic-silver dress. "We tend to almost like it when things are tough, and then when it's too easy, it tends to slow." The economic crisis has made bringing the art world together important, according to Goldberg. "That's what this is about, creating community, creating a sense of possibility," she said. "When I came to New York in the seventies it was all about meeting people and talking to people and ideas. Without any nostalgia that's what I'm really trying to reinvigorate."

Writer Anthony Haden-Guest said the party, which struck him as something out of sixties London, was a reminder that the state of the top of the market has little trickle-down effect on working artists. "I tend to think that even if the world of expensive art gets incredibly bad for a while that it won't affect this kind of world," he said. "Most of these people don't care at all if Roman Abramovich paid $100 million for a painting." But while the stage shows played on and people alternately mobbed the bars and took to the dance floor, Dennis Oppenheim, one of the fathers of performance art, remembered when the medium had a more austere character. "Real performance art as it was initially, coming from the seventies, was not that entertaining," he said, sitting at a table to the side of the stage. "It was quite boring. If you look at the early tapes of Nauman and Acconci and so forth; they were very clinical, they were really done as an almost tutorial thing about theory, and it wasn't really made for an audience. But it morphed into what we're now looking at; it's quite different." We asked Oppenheim, who long ago changed over to making large-scale public architectural works, if he had worn any metallic accessory to the party. "No, I don't really take this stuff seriously," he said. "I don't know. I'm jaded, and I'm a cynic."