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Holding pattern

Is Brian Feldman's '24 Hour Embrace' serious performance art or schtick?

Photo: Tisse Mallon, License: N/A

Tisse Mallon

Fellowship of the ring - Brian and Edward Feldman's all-day hug takes place in the boxing ring of an Orange Avenue gym — a comment on father-son relationships?

So was it art or political action – or just a gag? What about "Leap Year Day" or the annual "Pillowlando" mass pillow fight? The challenge for any performance artist who doesn't choose to coat his head with honey or film himself being shot is that a lot of people aren't going to take you seriously, and a lot of people aren't going to see the difference between your project and that cute dance troupe at the Gap. (The proximity of "24 Hour Embrace" to May 28's Big Big Big Hug, a bright and breezy celebration of the international Free Hugs movement organized by local teahouse owner/community visionary Julie Norris, is a perfect expression of the contrast between art and, let's say, social activity.) Feldman's body of work is infused with a light-heartedness and humor that makes it easy to conflate with events like these.

The aura of Abramovic hangs over "24 Hour Embrace" in yet another way: Like her 2005 re-creation of those seven not-even-slightly-easy pieces, "24 Hour Embrace" is a cover. New Zealand artist Young Sun Han (who made it and granted Feldman the right to re-create it) has performed it twice now, both times exploring with strangers ethnic identity and the push-pull of intimacy, the longing to connect with others balanced against the repulsion of breached boundaries. "After reading an article in Juxtapoz about Young Sun Han's performance, where his co-embracee (?) described the piece as ‘open[ing] up an internal dialogue about father-son relationships,' it dawned on me that the fact he had selected someone other than his actual father might lead me to proceed with a re-performance featuring that very significant change," writes Feldman in an email. "I consider this to be the toughest thing I've ever done."

Feldman's "Embrace" will take place in a boxing ring, a choice I have to think expresses still more about the father-son relationship. After the first 12 hours, pairs of viewers are welcome to enter the ring for their own embraces. I hope this echoes Abramovic's staring-contest viewer/collaborators, rather than becoming a quirky Dad's Day diversion to be uploaded to Facebook, but my desires have less than nothing to do with how it will play out. In the end, Brian and Edward Feldman will stand in each other's arms, dozing, swaying, sweating, aching (and, let's hope, laughing) together for a full Father's Day.

So back to that original question: Who gets to call it art, anyway? The answer, of course, is the viewer. Abramovic's gaze only worked as art because hordes of people were willing to consider it that. Here in Orlando, Feldman's goofier projects draw hordes of curious onlookers, but not all of them would even agree that what he does is art. Feldman's work does, ultimately, hold up a magnifying glass to that line we all draw between the public and the personal (and what is art, and what isn't). His interpretation of what makes a performance "art" works for me.

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