by Jens Hoffman and Joan Jonas
The idea of performance has been seriously re-exmanined during the part decade thought the so-called 'performative turn' described in numerous theoretical discourses applied to visual art, as well as to theatre and dance. In particular, academic fields such as philosophy, sociology, linguistics and anthropology have revisited performance as a means of examine core issues of social science, shifting their focus from structuralist methods to the study of processes. Witnessing a hot-dog-eating contest suddenly became a form of anthropological experience, in which a social structure was created that would tell us something about the process of civilisation. Similarly, cocking came to be seen as a a performative ritual involving central elements in the creation of our society. Culture – in particular the connection between ritual practice, staged situations and the overall process of civilisation – is now viewed as performance.
In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, published in 1959, US-based sociologist Erving Goffman speaks of the process of socialisation – the process of establishing a social identity based on everyday acts and ways of social interaction shaped through the contact we have with our daily environment – as a form of performance. He employs the terms that are mainly related to the realm of theatre ('stage', 'audience', 'props', etc.) with the aim of articulating the concept of a theatre of life, on the stage of which we all perform our roles.
Around the time that Goffman was publishing his most influential texts, the British philosopher John L. Austin began to develop his now-famous 'speech-act theory'. It was during a radio talk show in 1956 that Austin first used the term 'performative'. He was initially describing a form of speech, the so-called 'performative utterance', in which the issuing of a performative is also the performance of an action. We therefore talk about performatives as words that do something rather than describe something. Familiar examples are the utterance 'I do' in the context of a marriage ceremony, and the bible line 'Let there be light: and there was light'. Austin's book How to Do Things with Words (1959) became a classic in the fields of linguistics and the philosophy of language, and it had a tremendous influence on social science in the following decades.
The terms 'performance' and, especially, 'performative' have been widely used to examine culture at large. When focusing particularly on the realm of art we see that the term 'performative' is being used in a less and less specific sense. It is often used simply to describe, identify or quantify a certain work of art as having a relation to performance or performance-like attributes. A look at the large variety of art works that are associated with these terms quickly affirms that performance is anything but a precisely formed discipline. It seems to be more like a heterogeneous net that gathers together concepts and artistic approaches from various media, artistic fields and cultural backgrounds.
In the field of visual art the term is mostly linked to what we have come to know as 'performance art', which could be fined as an art form that is based on representation by action. It is generally executed by an artist or a group of artists in front of a live audience at a specific time and at a specific place. In contrast to theatre, performance art does not present the illusion of events, but rather presents actual events as art. Yet the specific term 'performance art' related particularly to work made during the late 1960s and early '70s and is still mainly identified with this period.
It is crucial to look also at a more obvious but apparently more restricted definition of performance, one that sees the body as the nucleus of its artistic investigation and expression and that is analogous to the term 'body art'. Especially important here is Lea Vergine's book Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language (1971), which was the first to bring together a wide range of artists who worked with or on the body. This definition of performance as being purely centred on the body has to this day very much defined our word 'performance', many of us immediately think of work by classic practitioners such as Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Otto Mühl, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim and Carolee Schneemann. Consequently, what many of us today identify with performance are often clichés of beaten, abused and naked bodies generally crawling in mud, blood or even excrement. Certainly body art reaches far beyond these stereotypes. In fact, anything and everything connected to one's own existence and identity can be utilised in a wider understanding of the term 'body art', thereby uncovering a wide range of possible ways to creatively engage aspects of life. Ultimately we discover that 'body art' is also, in fact, a broadly inclusive term that cannot be reduced to one particular area.
Exchange and Transform
Most of us would claim with some confidence to know who we are, that our identity is fixed and stable. But can we be sure when so much else in life is in a constant state of flux? Many of these artists are forever swapping roles and adopting new personas as they explore the shifting nature of personal and collective identity. Some establish new social relationships as a way to improve people's ways of life. Others conscious that our environment often has an effect on our behaviour, seek to change their surroundings or to transfer themselves to different contexts in order to reach a better understanding of what it means to be in the world.
Xavier Le Roy
In recent years the French choreographer Xavier Le Roy has made a huge impact in the world of dance and choreography, yet he only started to work in this field after finishing a dissertation in molecular biology. His approach as a choreographer goes beyond a purely artistic one and reflects a strong scientific urge to understand the body in different, seemingly unrelated contexts. His piece Self-Unfinished clearly expresses his interest in questioning the representation of the body in the practice of choreographic art, and formulates a strong critique in regard to social hierarchies and related political subject matters. Le Roy moved from the idea of the body as signifier to the idea of the body loaded with fewer and fewer signs; from a perception of representation that is usually recognition towards representation without any possibility of recognition, leading to confusion and disorder.
Untitled Film Still #50 (1979)
Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills from the late 1970s show the artist in various outfits, situations and poses, as a critical homage to movie stills and magazine images of the 1950s and '60s and their stereotypes regarding female identity. Even though Sherman has clearly opened doors for a younger generation of female artists working today with photography on issues of gender and identity, she has never acknowledged the pure feminist reading of her works. It seems to be rather the joy of wearing someone else's clothes, getting dressed up and inventing a different personality for each of her images that is the motor behind most of her pieces.
Traces / Oblivion
Every work of art is the trace of an action, a record of the maker’s hand. For some artist, performing that action is as much a part of the art work as the finished object. But traces suggest absence, for they point to something that has once been – an action of a body – but is no longer present. We can find ourselves asking, ‘Where is the art work? Where is the artist?’
Roman Signer links commonplace items to art actions in order to crate what he calls ‘action sculptures’. HIs work is based on carefully controlled alterations of ordinary objects, mostly through explosives or fireworks, or through other physical modifications. Signer is concerned with the process of movement and material transformation, as when he blows up items such as balloons, buckets and bicycles. His so-called ‘sculptural moments’ are carefully arranged and meticulously planned processes that create a transitory buy highly spectacular event. If executed in a gallery or museum, the traces are left as evidence of the performance and they become what could describe as an accidental sculpture. Other pieces take place outdoors and are documented on video or in photographic sequences that are later shown in exhibition spaces or publications. The relationship of cause and effect in Signer’s pieces can be compared to scientific investigations but his performances are set up to create an enchanting mess, since the outcome of the experiments is usually unpredictable. In Bucket, the artist crouches beneath rows of buckets arranged in a square. The buckets are filled with water and are attached to the ceiling. When Signer pushes a trigger, the buckets all fall to the ground at the same time, maintaining the shape of the square. When they hit the ground, they release the water like fountains, in powerful vertical trajectories.
Allan Kaprow is widely acknowledged as the father of the Happening, and his influence on the development of visual art during the course of the twentieth century cannot be underestimated. Kaprow, who originally trained as a painter and was strongly influenced by action painting, and particularly the work of Jackson Pollock, radically questioned the medium of painting in the late 1950s and directed it into an assemblage of installation, performance and interactive environment. His now-legendary 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, presented in 1959 at the Reuben Gallery in New York, was based on a form of script that Kaprow had prepared which invited the audience to take part in the action. It was, however, the influence of composer John Cage that ultimately empowered Kaprow to abandon the medium of painting for good. Witnessing Cage’s experiments, Kaprow was inspired to integrate various simultaneous events and media such as light, sound and painted environments into his works. He did this in a completely non-linear manner, similar to the way in which everyday experiences unfold in a modern metropolis. Capri has maintained his experimental spirit throughout his career, making experience itself the medium of his practice. Constantly rejecting the idea of making art that is capable of yielding to any conventional interpretations, he has aimed towards moving art closer and closer to common experiences of daily life, thus provoking what he would later describe as the ‘blurring’ of art and life. Just as provisional as life, the Happening would come and go, appear and disappear, or as Kaprow wrote in 1966, ‘The Happening? It was somewhere, some time ago.’
Inside the Box / Outside the Box
By exploring the relationships between viewers in spaces, and between viewers and art objects, the artists in this room establish new social situations that make us aware of the roles we assume when encountering the world and each other. They present and create very distinct contexts to make us think about the ways in which we relate to others, to works of art and to ourselves.
Haus Ur (2001)
The German artist Gregor Schneider began work on the transformation of his house sixteen years ago and has continued ever since. Constantly developing, constructing and reconstructing, he has moved walls, built rooms within rooms, backed up windows, until it seems as if the whole house has been transfigured into an endless labyrinth of floors, stairs, doors and holes. What is important is not only the transformation of the house, but also the physical experiences the visitor undergoes when inside it. The atmosphere is intense, and everything seems out of proportion and subtly irregular. The false walls and rooms, which get smaller and smaller with every floor, absorb all noise, creating a creepy silence. The visitor soon becomes disoriented and is left with the question, how many more rooms, how many more inserts, can this house take before it finally implodes?
Imagine being taken to a place that seems absolutely normal. But as you observe more of the environment, you notice that something is wrong and out of place. You start to itch and argue in your mind and feel the urge to make them right. This is what I think my response to the work will be. It will be an unnerving experience but imposed in such a imperceptible way. It gradually and silently shifts and disturbs the viewers state of mind. It is something that I would like to experience or even create.
Le dernier spectacle (1998)
Jérôme Bel belongs to a group of choreographers who came to attention in the mid-1990s for taking apart the most fundamental elements of traditional dance and radically reconnecting the medium. His work is probably best described as what fellow choreographer Xavier Le Roy once called 'choreography after dance'. In Le dernier spectacle, Bel examined issues of identity, representation, truth and make-belive through four dancers. The first played himself, the second tennis champion Andre Agassi, the third Shakespeare's Hamlet and the fourth German choreographer Susanne Linke. Each character appeared on stage four times and repeated exactly the same routine, after which they disappeared behind the curtain to leave the stage empty. Or almost empty: a Walkman attached to a microphone was left behind, playing the sounds of the previous performances. Bel then handed the stage over to the spectators, who were asked the complete the piece in their mind and to draw images from their memory of what they had just seen.
Still Life / Tableaux Vivants
All the artists in this room freeze the actions and performances of life in highly dramatised images or hyperrealistic sculptures. Oscillating between reality and fantasy, their well-sateged spectacles present a disorientating world of uncanny and surreal drama in which motionless characters act out strange performances before our eyes. Some artists, on the other hand, choose literally to still life, holding a pose for hours as life continues around them.
A term coined by Brazilian visual artist Tunga, and drive from Hélio Oiticica’s practices with dance and performance, is instauração. It is often used to express the in-between of installation and performance in Brazilian contemporary art. It is exactly this ‘in-between’ that Laura Lima explores in her work, the crossroad of performance and sculpture. The artist never performs herself but directs the actions. During her survey exhibition at the Museu de Arte in Belo Horizonte in 2001, the artist presented probably the most extensive series of what could best be described as ‘living sculptures’, even though the artist herself rejects such a classification. Over the course of several weeks, the audience could see a whole array of sculptural performances taking place simultaneously in several spaces in the museum. What connects Lima’s performances to sculpture is not only the constant presence of the pieces in the exhibition, which overcomes the usually inscribed temporality of performance, but also the highly artificial and often motionless, mechanical set-up. In her work, for example, a female performer lying silent and still on the floor, dressed in a maggot-like outfit, sleeping in the exhibition space for the whole duration of the show. Other pieces involve an almost psychotic form of repetition, such as two people who crawl on the floor over and over again, or others who push each other through the space with their heads joined by a specially designed hood covering their faces. Costumes are very important to Lima and an essential part of all her works. They can be understood as tools for the extension and transformation of the human body and are largely responsible for the creation of her unique hybrids. The costumes become the means to link the notion of motionless sculpture to the liveliness of the performers.
The wall of a gallery pulled out, inclined sixty degrees from the ground and sustained by five people (2000)
Mexico-based artist Santiago Sierra is best known for his highly controversial pieces that focus on the difficulties of capitalist economics and its social dynamics. Sierra has often been accused of exploiting the protagonists of his pieces when he asks them to perform often rather dangerous of humiliating tasks for very low wages. For his piece Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours (2000) at the P.S. 1 Center for Contemporary Art in New York, he asked someone to live behind a wall in the exhibition space for 15 days, 24 hours a day. An even more degrading piece was 160cm line tattooed on four people, which he made in 2000 for an exhibition in Spain. Four drug-addicted prostitutes were hired to get a simple line tattooed on as Sierra’s work is understood as an exploitative and cynical gesture, it is in fact a highly critical reaction to the hard realities of the capitalist system, particularly in Latin America where money can apparently buy anything. The wall of a gallery pulled out, inclined sixty degrees from the ground and sustained by five people was presented in 2000 in a gallery in Mexico City. A wall was taken out of its place and, over five days, four workers held it up for five hours, at exactly 60º from the ground, while a fifth worker made sure that the inclination was correct. Each of the workers received around US$65.
I wonder how the accusation of his works being exploitative of his performers could ever stand. His 'controversial' works are aimed to reveal the difficulties of capitalism. The very act of paying his performers little amount of wage to do dangerous and humiliating tasks is what I think the highlight of his work. People criticise him yet acquiesce in the unfair reality of the world. It is interesting how taking an issue that is actually common around the world, put it in a gallery, and suddenly it causes an outrage.
Narrate / Withhold
Modernism declared that narrative had no place in the visual arts. But every work of art tells a story, even if it's only the story of its own making. Each artist in this room explores the storytelling capacity of art. Some present complex and carefully planned storylines, performed by the artist, by others, by the viewer or by a combination of all three. Others offer cryptic fragments that encourage us to complete and enact the narrative in our own minds.
Balkan Baroque (1997)
Since the early 1970s Belgrade-born artist Marina Abramović has been at the forefront of performance art and has defined, probably more than anyone else, the force of this particular medium. In Balkan Baroque, which she presented at the 1997 Venice Biennale, Abramović connected the tragic story of the civil war in her native Yugoslavia with her own personal history. Next to a three-channel video installation on which one could see her father, her mother and herself, the artist sat among thousands of bloody beef bones. She scrubbed the flesh off the bones for five days, six hours a day, while singing, almost hypnotically, songs she remembered from her childhood. Many aspects of Marina Abramović's work come together in this visually stunning piece – the body-based works she produced at the beginning of her career, the endurance performances she did in the late 1970s with her partner Ulay, her work in theatre and her interest in sculpture, installation, video and narrative, which forms her most recent body of work.
Setting a Good Corner - Allegory & Metaphor (1999)
The American artist Bruce Nauman is generally considered to be one of the most important artists of the second half of the twentieth century, working with a vast diversity of media, styles and concepts. The core of his work lies in his desire to challenge traditional notions surrounding his discipline, often the dematerialisation of art objects or the opposite practice, making the immaterial material. His work with performance, which is closely related to film, has been crucial to generations of artists working within this medium up to the present day. One of his earliest pieces is Fishing for Asian Carp (1966), a perfect example of early minimalist performance. Gnomon went to a stream together with fellow artist William Allen in order to fish for a carp. The film was to last exactly as long as it took Allen to catch the first fish, a little under three minutes. In a similar vein is Setting a Good Corner, a 59-mintue video showing the artist setting the corner of a fence on his property in New Mexico. As with Fishing for Asian Carp, this piece starts with an idea for an action – the 'setting of a good corner' – of which the execution ultimately determines the length of the film. In a clear, documentary style recorded with a static camera, the film shows all the actions that need to be performed in order to put up the corner of a fence – the digging of holes, the setting up of the poles, placing the wire, and so on. That Nauman seems rather an amateur at the business of fence-setting becomes clear at the end of the film when, instead of credits, the voices of his neighbours can be heard commenting on his method of putting up the fence.
Performing the Object
We tend to think of a sculpture as a static thing, perhaps placed on a plinth like a public monument or positioned on the ground like a minimalist structure. But all the artists here challenge this traditional idea by making their objects perform in various ways. Some take everyday items and transform them into art by changing the original function or by displacing them to unlikely contexts; others use them as triggers for actions to be executed by the viewer. A number of artists question the permanent nature of art by producing short-lived or ephemeral pieces, while some even turn themselves into the living, performing objects of their work.
The Flying Steamroller (1996)
Since the early 1970s many of Chris Burden's works have dealt with situations of violence and danger, in which he often forced the audience to witness an apparently life-threatening act. His Shoot (1971), for which he asked a friend to shoot at him in a gallery space from a 15-foor distance, is today among the classics of performance art. Burden did numerous performances, all carefully documented, which saw his body being either stabbed, cut open, electrocuted or drowned. In the early 1980s, Burden began to become increasingly interested in objects. He started to translate his actual physical presence within the performances into sculptures or monumental installations, carrying out actions by stressing the performative element inscribed in them.
The Flying Steamroller is among the best-known works of this period. Burden created a device, similar to a merry-go-round, which would make it possible for a 100-ton steamroller to lift off the ground and fly though the air in circles in front of an audience. The aspect of physical danger, in the possibility of an accident, has similarities to Burden's early stunts but here the artist switches sides and no longer puts himself in danger, but rather his audience.
The work of Robert Morris has strong connections with the new dance movements of the 1960s which developed around artists such as Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer and other members of the Judson Dance Theatre. Influenced by what he saw and experienced in the realm of choreography, Morris began, like Forti in dance, to work on ideas that took the human body and its measures as the source for most of the works – in Morris's case, from the 1960s onward, mainly pre-minimal sculptures based on his own body measurements. For Untitled, he created a wooden box, not unlike an inexpensively fabricated coffin, made exactly to his proportions, and he placed himself vertically inside it. In so doing, the artist, has he put it, 'performed' the box.
Provoking the Everyday
For some artist, the city is one large and open studio, in which the materials and ideas for art can be found everywhere. They not only gather inspiration from the flow of urban life but also present their work in the public space of the street, disturbing the daily routines of all those who encounter it. Their interventions may be subtle and barely noticeable, their provocations question the norms and conventions of the city and propose alternative visions.
Following Piece (1969)
Turning from poetry to visual art, and later from visual art to architecture, Vito Acconci belongs to a group of artist who in the early 1970s set out to transform the relationship between audience, artist and public space. Iconic first gained notice though a series of performance executed in the late 1960s and early ‘70s (he stopped doing performance in 1974). Best known in Seebed (1972), for which he masturbated under a ramp constructed in a gallery space while fantasising about the audience above him. Following Piece is one of his earliest performances, executed in 1969. The piece was carried out in various locations in Manhattan over a period of 23 days, and brought together the artist’s interest in issues such as the dichotomy of the private and public, the relationship between the personal and the collective, and the space that controls those states.
Catalysis III (1970)
Adrian Piper’s performances from her Catalysis series (1970–71) are among the classics with regard to artistic interventions into daily life. Piper’s provocations and direct confrontations with the public took place in museums, department stores, buses and other public arenas. The series is based on a number of disruptive activities, predicated on the presence of the artist and designed to challenge behavioural norms within society as people are confronted with various forms of discrepancy. Piper understood herself to be a ‘catalytic agent’ within the public sphere, causing change but not changing herself. She would get onto a full subway car during rush hour wearing dirty, bad-smelling clothes, or walk on the street or sit on the bus with a towel stuffed into her mouth, or go into Macy’s department store wearing clothes painted in white while carrying a sign saying ‘Wet Paint’.
It could be a fairly audacious idea at the time. However, over the past few years we have seen a influx of 'social experiments' and 'pranks' on the internet, using absurd or disturbing staged situations to test and reveal human nature. This, for me, raises the question of the definition of performance art, despite it being, in the first place, difficult or even impossible to define. But what qualifies performance art? Can those social experiments and pranks also be considered performance art?
The Performer Is in All of Us
If al the world's a stage, then each of us is a performer. These artists take this thought and present works in which ordinary people, members of the public or the audience attending an art exhibition become the main protagonists of the piece. Sometimes the artist aim simply to capture the roles and rituals of our daily lives; at other times, they create situations and scenarios that invite us to behave in certain ways. In these cases, the spectator becomes not a passive observer but an integral part of the creative process, enacting and completing the work and revealing the artistic potential in all of us.
Light Wall (2000)
Light Wall, by the German artist Carsten Höller, was originally conceived for the exhibition 'Synchro System' at the Prada Foundation in Milan. The exhibition title refers to the artist's desire to create a synchronicity between the audience and the exhibited objects. The exhibition consisted of several large installations and objects, three of which suggested a form of experimental circuit. Entering the main space of the gallery, the visitor was confronted with the Light Wall, a large installation that incorporated more than a thousand light bulbs going on and off in a precise rhythm, producing a tranquil, hallucinatory effect. The idea of synchronisation is most obvious in this piece: our brain activity synchronises with the frequency of the blinking lights, thus generating phenomena such as colour vision and trace-like states of mind. The party though the exhibition continued with a completely dark passage approximately the metres long, a transit into a different sphere, directing the visitors into the bright Upside Down Mushroom Room, in which, as the title of the piece suggests, everything was upside down and, moreover, out of scale, with huge mushrooms, up to three metres tall, rotating on the ceiling. As the German psychologist Baldo Hauser said about the artist, 'Höller produces a very peculiar state of mind, something near to a loss of orientation, a kind of perplexity of not knowing what to do, a reduced ability to manoeuvre while, at the same time, experiencing joyful, happy, self-sufficient, purified and introspective feelings.'
Séance de Shadow II (1998)
During the 1990s Dominique Gonzalez-Foester created various spaces and rooms, designed to be activated by the audience's presence so that the viewer would become a part of the work. With many of these installations, the artist set out to expand the perception of the visual arts to include both a temporal element and the viewer's experience. The intention was to fill the exhibition space with time and specially created atmospheres, rather than with objects or materials, so that the room is understood as a form of narrative space. For Séances de Shadow, industrial lamps with motion sensors project silhouettes of the viewers onto the walls, which are painted in the same deep blue as the carpet that covers the floor. The blue walls and carpet generate a cinematographic feeling that evokes the early ages of film-making. This primitive form of projection amplifies the viewer's immersion in the process of creating the situation before them. But Gonzalez-Foester wants not only to transform each viewer into an actor; she wants also to suggest an exploration of space and time and its visual construction.
I do like the idea of the audience as a performer. Performance art always gives people the stereotypical impression of a provocative act of an artist, naked, bleeding, injured or covered in mud or blood. I believe more investigation and experimentation in the psychological or physical alteration by environment is needed.