Review: Wait, Wait … I Want to Tell You.

Words that gave me the most relief this weekend: “These are the last moments of Adam Linder’s ‘Shelf Life.’”

They came at the end of an hourlong performance at the Museum of Modern Art that was one half of the inaugural commission for the museum’s new Kravis Studio. For the preceding 20 minutes, a voice whispering — as if to titillate people who get off on such sounds — had been methodically counting down the number of movements left in the work, periodically interjecting “wait … wait,” like a dominatrix version of an audio crosswalk alert.

I wondered if Mr. Linder, the choreographer who created “Shelf Life,” was daring the audience to leave. I wondered if he was testing the etiquette of a performance in a museum — a performance without seating, set up like any other exhibition, with visitors free to linger or keep walking.

It’s possible. “Shelf Life,” which smoothly alternates with Shahryar Nashat’s sculpture-and-video installation “Force Life,” certainly intends to provoke. But Mr. Linder has many other ideas he’s trying to get across.

The whispering comes from one of the four performers. They all wear versions of sci-fi wet suits but only the whisperer sports a small scuba tank and spends the hour doing stretches at a ballet barre. Another, whom the program identifies as “the blood,” moves about more freely, dancing crypto-ceremonially or manically. The remaining two, often on all fours like alert animals, represent “the brain” and form a dual-lobed pair, one verbal, one mute.

It’s the verbal one who provides the work’s dominant element: an intermittent series of fortune-cookie rhetorical questions that function like phrases in textual art. Sometimes, after the talking brain asks a question, the mute one seems to answer with a gesture. Q: “How do you know that we’re not still practicing?” A: Form fingers in the shape of a gun and point at viewers.

Few exchanges are that obvious, but most are that smug and tiresome. (Though I did take pleasure in the Dr. Seussian nonsense of “Make me make you chew through the viewer, too.”) The performance repeats three or four times a day, and from show to show the four performers (out of a pool of six) take different roles. They alter pieces of the text and give a different edge to the parts, Angie Pittman imparting self-possession, Sandy Williams upping the flamboyance.

No matter the cast, though, it’s always good news when the computer-like narrator announces that the prolonged waiting is over, and the performers start to turn the platform holding the barre to reveal the screen for Mr. Nashat’s video on the other side. “Force Life,” with its creepy images of a body on the floor and animals on CCTV, expresses similar themes of technological fragmentation and dissociation so much less irritatingly, even in its own tendentious question: “What is authority?”

As for the questions of “Shelf Life,” you may be tempted, as I was, to answer them, possibly with other questions:

Q: “Does the city really need another arts institution?”

My Q: Would it be discerning enough not to be hoodwinked by work like “Shelf Life?”

Q: “Could anyone perform this work?”

My Q: Do these performers and this space deserve better?

Shelf Life

Through March 8 at the Museum of Modern Art;

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