The punk Marie-Antoinette of the New York art scene of the 1970s
Although she symbolically died of a staple cut at the Whitney Museum in 1978, Colette is alive and well. Resurrected a few days later as Justine, lead singer of a newly formed group, Justine and the Victorian Punks (a collaboration with Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra), Colette recalls in a 2013 BOMB magazine interview with Katie Peyton that her performative death was a critique of artists often having to wait until their deaths to be recognized (which is particularly the case for women). And indeed, it is an indisputable fact that the Franco-Tunisian Colette Lumière is a seriously unrecognized artist, whose lasting importance on visual culture and the practice of performance has not yet been fully understood by the world of art. Prior to moving to Berlin in 1984, Colette was a prolific artistic personality immersed in the New York art scene of the 1970s, a punk Marie-Antoinette with a childish voice and fashion outfits. Working across a variety of media, while always emphasizing the performance of identity, her designs ranged from frilly dresses and punk T-shirts to sculptural installations, light boxes and shorts.
Before Tilda Swinton slept in the glass box Cornelia Parker built at MoMA, Colette incorporated sleep as an endurance practice into several of her performances. Between 1972 and 1983, the artist created a gesamtkunstwerk by transforming her downtown loft into what she called a ‘living environment’, an immersive installation in which she herself is activated as a living sculpture. The current exhibition at the Company gallery, Notes on baroque life: Colette and her living environment, 1972-1983, curated by Kenta Murakami, takes the latter as its foundation. Entering Colette’s reconstituted living environment means entering a dreamlike world saturated with a palette of creams and light roses. Fragments of walls, light boxes, sculptures, clothing and objects, as well as footage from films and framed postcards, are spread throughout the gallery. In Colette’s world, the theatricality of Versailles meets the punk ethic of the Sex Pistols, and the silky ruched fabric is a signature material you can’t get too much of. The likeness of the artist is omnipresent; photographs are incorporated into most parts, and his image is featured in performance announcements and literature. A large sculptural installation entitled Notes of baroque life (1978-1983 / 2021), reconstructed from original elements of her living environment, centers a life-size doll sculpture by Colette, produced in collaboration with the artist from the Compagnie Cajsa von Zeipel.
For a decade that has seen a preponderance of conceptual art, as well as a nascent generation of images that denounced the notion of authenticity even as artists returned to representation, Colette’s practice is simply radical. Her identity performance, portraying a number of characters in addition to Justine over the years, is combined with a deep dedication to materiality that is rare in performance art, by its nature fleeting form. The “baroque” element referenced in the title does not simply indicate extravagance and taste for dramatic lighting. What Colette shares with the Baroque movement is a brilliant ability to eliminate the border between art and life, between the space of the spectator and that of the work of art, creating a truly immersive environment.
Notes on baroque life: Colette and her living environment, 1972-1983 continues at Company (145 Elizabeth Street, Manhattan) through January 22. The exhibition was curated by Kenta Murakami.
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