Last March, the xx installed an intimate, 50-minute performance experience at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Sponsored by Burberry, with most tickets going to Armory patrons and VIPs, the experience was exclusive yet well-publicized, and attended by Jay Z, Beyonce, Madonna, and Kanye West. Last night, the band played a similar event, The Guggenheim Museum’s International Gala, only 22 blocks north from the Armory. It was sponsored by Dior and attended by young art patrons and New York's fashion elite.
By taking place in historical spaces of revered visual art, both shows also resemble a less-promoted concert that the xx played in Marfa, Texas at The Chinati Foundation last April. The museum, founded by the artist Donald Judd in 1986, has hosted artist residencies since 1989, and the band recorded part of their forthcoming third album there.
The xx’s booking contract states that they “have to play either at sunset or after dark,” according to Jamie xx, the band’s producer and beat-maker. So it’s fitting that their show started precisely at 10:30 p.m. and ended precisely 30 minutes later. Even as a young band whose first album came out five years ago, such a stipulation reveals the early attention they've given to their music and its translation to a live setting.
However young, the xx’s achievements, with only two albums under their belt, are impressive. They won the Mercury Prize in 2010, they curated their own Night+Day festival in Berlin, Lisbon, and London in 2013, and they continually sell out their tours. They’ve reached a point where, knowing the value of their art, they can play it in institutional spaces where more exhibitions are installed than concerts performed. The xx have effectively turned their live show into performance art, as many witnessed at the Guggenheim last night.
Performance art is a term that today’s biggest music artists use generously. Many people use it without knowing that the medium was created as a reaction against the traditional format of commercialized theater, done using unrepeatable, not-for-sale events. Jay Z did a “Picasso Baby” performance art event at Pace Gallery, Lady Gaga had artist Millie Brown vomit on her at SXSW as performance art, and Kanye West called his “Bound 2” video performance art. (Unsurprisingly, all of them have voiced being directly inspired by “the grandmother of performance art,” Marina Abramovic.)
These artists, the xx included, engage with performance art at a time when the music industry’s struggle to commercialize music has indirectly led to an influx of music festivals globally. Over-saturation in the festival circuit, where sets are short and impersonal, and bands are distanced from audiences, would surely lead a band like the xx to seek a more unique, mutually educational experience—the audience gets unusually close proximity to the band, and the band gets to experience the audience's reactions, and adoration, more fully. The music industry hasn’t found a way to create cultural value for popular music or monetize it well enough in the digital age. Turning to the art world—where living, performing, and engaging are dignified and carefully preserved—makes sense for performers who want the opportunity to experiment and present their music with emphasis.
The xx defied the traditional concert and festival formats at the Guggenheim by performing on a raised circular stage in the center of the museum’s ground floor. They began after three mini-performances took place, which were signaled by darkness, shifting lights, and then a spotlight—on a man playing xylophone, Caroline Polachek singing operatically, and then a man playing a trumpet. A giant orb by Otto Piene—an innovator in minimalism, conceptual art, and performance art—loomed above, hosting colorful projections.
Their 30-minute set began with “Angels” and introduced two new songs, one where Oliver sings about someone being “just a stranger in a room,” letting the long microphone cord rest on his shoulders, and another where Romy sings about “putting on a performance.” The band sounded sad when they announced the end of the show, so much that they seemed to play the last song “Stars” noticeably slower than its recorded version.
Jamie commanded two keyboards, an MPC, CDJs, and a blue steel pan. Romy held her guitar with ease, and Oliver held his bass with equal detachment and attachment—like he could just as easily choose to drop it but couldn’t, because it was actually an extension of his body. For a band who has been mainly described as "shy," this was a real moment of openness and outward enthusiasm. If they were ever shy before, you wouldn't know it from this performance.
If nothing else, the xx had practice from the Armory, which was much more dramatically staged and physically intensive (they played between two and three 50-minute shows per day). They engaged directly with audience members by alternately staring them down and smiling at them. It was performance art for not only attaching itself to an institutional space and its architecture so directly, but also casting off the "shy" characterization of the xx's previous live shows perfectly.
The Guggenheim’s famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda has been home to many acclaimed site-specific installations, including an engulfing light piece by James Turrell in June of last year. In 2011, the artist Maurizio Cattelan held a retrospective where all 128 pieces in the exhibition hung from the ceiling, announcing his retirement. The circular rotunda, and the building itself, have been the site of many beginnings and a few endings. The xx performance felt more like a beginning, as they prepare their third album and engage in live formats that are new to them. They will be able to leverage their future accomplishments towards the dignified, experimental, and also challenging performances they seek to create, hopefully creating a new model that other musicians can follow.
First new xx song
Visit "ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s" at the Guggenheim Museum through January 7, 2015.