Sacha Baron Cohen: Performance Artist

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Let’s say that one definition of performance art is behavior that’s been framed in some way to make us bestow meanings on the behavior. Yeah, I know, that’s a definition so squishy you could use it to describe reality tv — which by the way, is also a form of performance art — but, hey, it’s a fluid practice. But if we accept that definition then the convergence of a few events over the last few weeks has brought home to me the ways that performance art has escaped the confines of galleries and other “performance spaces” and spilled out into the world at large.

One was the death of Michael Jackson, whose personal life, his continual morphing across racial and gender lines, was the most powerful performance he ever gave. The venue was the media and the evolution of his appearance is now a permanent tape loop in our brains.

Then over in London last week they began what you might call the Fourth Plinth performance. The Fourth Plinth is the empty pedestal in Trafalgar Square that’s been used for several years now for a series of temporary public artworks, most of them definable as sculpture. The new work by Antony Gormley, One and Other, is described as sculpture too, but the living kind. For 100 days real people will stand on the plinth one at a time, each for an hour, round the clock, and do whatever they please up there so long as its legal. They can shout, sing, proselytize, sleep, or as one guy has already done just stand there with his hands in his pockets, just existing, like the Empire State Building in Andy Warhol’s Empire. Simply by being presented as art, the people become human readymades and their behaviors, whatever they are, become art, performance art — to be regarded, pondered, beheld. The British have been eating it up. Exactly 40 years after Gilbert and George stood on a table as The Singing Sculpture and sang along to a recording of an old music hall ballad, everybody in England wants to be a work of art.

And then there’s Sacha Baron Cohen. I saw his new film Brüno at a preview screening a few weeks ago because we decided here at Time to do something a bit different with this one and have it reviewed by the art critic, meaning me. That review is on line now and in the magazine that appears on stands Friday, and demonstrates definitively why I’m no threat to our real film critics Richard Corliss and Mary Pols. But there is a certain logic in having Baron Cohen looked at through an art critical lens, because performance art is one of the many cultural streams his work draws on.

It helps to remember that his films are effectively documentaries, at least in the scenes that aren’t scripted. Baron Cohen confronts groups of real people, presents them with a provocation and then films the results. The results are predictable — serial demonstrations of the adage “What fools these mortals be” — but when he hits the right mix of the provocation and the people provoked he produces something that’s both hilarious and instructive. And when he doesn’t, it’s still usually funny, which I think is the outcome more important to Baron Cohen then exposing homophobia or anti-Semitism or any of the other noble goals that he occasionally accomplishes along the way.

Anyway, from here on I think I’ll stay back in my art box and let the real movie critics talk about movies.