Mathew Wilson and Mark Alice Durant, who make up the performance duo Men of the World, are teachers. Performance-art teachers, to be exact. And their work fits perfectly within the 20th-century tradition of art created by and for academics and their disciples, and God help the rest of us. Wilson and Durant's pieces are not nearly as interesting as the many questions they raise: What was that all about? What is performance art? If a performance is done without an audience, is it still art? Was this show paid for with your tax dollars?
Documenting such events is more important than attracting an audience. Fewer than ten people came to Navy Pier specifically to see this show, and of those people two were photographers, one was a videographer, and two were journalists. Moreover, any viewer lacking at least a cursory understanding of the history of performance, with special emphasis on the happenings of the 1960s and conceptual art of the 70s, will be as baffled as the tourists who happened upon We Want to Believe--White Handkerchiefs of Good-bye as it was being executed on the eastern tip of Navy Pier.
Several times I was approached by people who asked what was going on. Once I lied and said I didn't know. Once I twisted the truth and said, "I think it's part of Art 1996 Chicago" (happening that day in another part of Navy Pier but not associated with this performance). When I mentioned the word "art," the woman groaned and walked off in the direction of the Ferris wheel. Once I just answered "performance art," and the man snorted to his female companion, "I knew it," and led her away chuckling.
The premise of Wilson and Durant's performance was sweet in its simplicity: 100 or so performers agreed to enact a ritual on the morning of May 11. They were to don white shirts, dark ties, and dark pants, then stand and wave in the direction of the lake from one of four locations, after which they were to travel to Navy Pier, where at midday they were supposed to wave at the eastern horizon with special We Want to Believe handkerchiefs Wilson handed out from a briefcase. The spectacle of waving performers ended when Wilson and Durant dismissed them one by one. After the last waver had been sent away, Wilson and Durant stood next to each other for a while waving, then stopped waving, hugged each other, and walked solemnly away.
We Want to Believe certainly had its charms. So many performers waving white handkerchiefs was a beautiful spectacle. And every time a tourist boat passed, it was fun to see whether anyone on deck would wave back at the people on the pier. It was also amusing to see how utterly confused most spectators were by the display.
But what it all meant was not clear. Nor was it meant to be. Wilson and Durant worked hard to keep their piece ambiguous, preventing viewers from formulating any specific meaning, teasing them with intimations of significance: the "uniforms" the performers wore, the rigid ritual, the enigmatic name ("Men of the World"), the handkerchiefs printed with the words "We want to believe." Even Wilson's own explanation of the work, as related in Justin Hayford's April 26 Reader profile, is tauntingly vague: "It's all about a general notion of hope." Not hope itself, mind you, but a notion of hope.
I suppose their refusal to show their hand frees us to give any meaning we want to the work. And this is for a while a diverting, if masturbatory, exercise. But after a certain amount of time watching performers who are only what they are--people waving at the horizon--I recalled the glass bead game Herman Hesse describes in his satiric novel Magister Ludi. Monastic intellectuals, hidden away from the real world, played the complex game so obsessively--their advancement depended entirely on their skill in the game--that businessmen and politicians ruled the world, blissfully free of interference from the educated classes.
Wilson and Durant's performance, abstract and disconnected as it was from the world, is the perfect game in an America riven by culture wars. Who on the right could object to a performance in which everyone wears a white shirt and a tie? In which everyone follows orders with such precision? Who on the left could complain about a spectacle that treats men and women alike? That could be read as an ironic take on asking people to follow orders with crisp precision?
No flag is damaged. No opinion, political or otherwise, is vented. And the only text in the show--"We want to believe"--could mean anything you want. Wilson, who will be teaching again next year at Columbia College, and Durant, who teaches at the University of New Mexico, will never raise the ire of a reactionary trustee or rabid faculty member with this performance.