Performance: Live Art Since the 60s
by RoseLee Goldberg
A reason for the ever-widening interest in performance art is the fact that the decade of the '70s, the nascent years of performance, is now history. Scholars and curators are directing their scrutiny on this period, only to discover overwhelming quantities of performance material from the years when conceptual artists with their elegant intellectual propositions all but obliterated the urge to make objects of any kind. At this time performance art was flourishing in the form of actions, body art, and large, opera-scale events. The only tangible substitute for an art of ideas, it provided a direct line to artists for small groups of avant-garde followers, in artist-run alternative spaces that were then in their heyday. Examining this material, contemporary historians are finding sources for the many strands of formal and aesthetic sensibilities of the '80s and '90s. The '80s fascination with the tools and meaning of media, for example, emerged directly from the teaching studios of some of the most intellectual conceptualists of the '70s, while their early use of photography as a medium of straightforward record, blossomed over a twenty-year period into the high-gloss finish and art-directed naturalism of the late '90s. Historians are also discovering that the body – as a measure of space, of identity and narrative – so central to the art of the '70s, now pervades the art and scholarship of the late '90s.
Provocation is a constant characteristic of performance art, a volatile form that artists use to respond to change – whether political in the broadest sense, or cultural or dealing with issues of current concern – and to bring about change, in relation to the more traditional disciplines of painting and sculpture, photography, theatre and dance, or even literature. Performance art never settles exclusively on any one theme, issue, or mode of expression; rather, it defines itself in each case by responding provocatively. It rarely aims to seduce its audience and is more likely to unravel and examine critically the technique of seduction, unnerving viewers in the process, rather than providing them with an ambiguous setting for desire. It can sometimes be ridiculous, sometimes grotesque, and now and then frightening. Some performers aim to expose the roots of taboos and of fears though their work. Others have induced fear. Others have caused hour in those watching.
It was in the 1960s that an increasing number of artists turned to live performance as the most radical form of art-making, irrevocably disrupting the course of traditional art history and challenging the double-headed cannon of the established art media – painting and sculpture. Performance has attracted very different practitioners, but they all believed in an art of action – in creating works in which the audience was confronted by the physical presence of the artist in real time – and in an art form with ceased to exist the moment the performance was over. Their actions, more often than not, were provocative and ironic, and they were frequently responsive to the political and socially transforming developments that raged around them. The events that they directed sparked with the creative energy of explorers in new realms – of sensory perception, behavioural psychology, emancipated sexuality, metaphor and theatricalisation. The ramifications of their deliberately anti-formalist methods of art-making became as widespread, and as radical in the world of art as the social revolution that we call "The Sixties" proved to be for the world at large.
Theatre, Music, Opera
Radical American and European theatre of the 1950s and 1960s was deeply influenced by the innovative theatre directors from earlier in the century – Vsevolod Meyerhold, Konstantin Stanislavsky and Jerzy Grotowski. But it would be avant-garde artists and musicians, not theatre directors, who would trigger a rethinking of the very nature of performance.
The avant-garde art world of the 1960s was a strong magnet for those in theatre seeking a break from the psychological approach both to the audience and to acting that had been prevalent in the '50s. New York City in the late '60s – an event in itself, according to Spalding Gray who arrived in 1967 – was a boom town of alternative theatre groups which took their lead from the latest experiments in the art and dance worlds.
It was clear that this new performance-art theatre had nothing whatsoever to do with even the most basic of theatrical concerns: no script, no text, no narrative, no director, and especially no actors. "No Previous Theatre Experience Necessary" read an advertisement for Robert Wilson's The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969). Instead, focus was on movement, "more like dance" Wilson said; on images, which washed the stage like hundreds of blown-up movie stills; and on time, which might be stretched as long as twenty-four hours to allow the eye to absorb the richness of the visual details distributed across the stage.
It was Wilson's collaboration with composer Philip Glass, however, on the opera Einstein on the Beach (1976) that would have a pan-European influence. It premiered in July 1976 at the Festival d'Avignon, and was afterwards performed at the Venice Biennale. Both the action, which was slowed down in parts as to be almost imperceptible – "it gave you time to think" – and the imagery, which was on the scale of city buildings – "a theatre for the eyes" – were indelible visual and visceral sensations for all who experienced it.
Einstein on the Beach became the model of a new Gesamtkunstwerk with its storyboard of non-sequitur scenes, a libretto made up of numbers and solfège symbols and sung by singers untrained in opera and performing mostly from the orchestra pit, with Glass's signature electronic music rendered in cycles of repetitive phrases. It not only left a school of visual theatre in tis wake, but also inspired many contemporary composers, who, in the next fifteen years, took Einstein on the Beach as an inspiration for their own inventions.
The Body: Ritual, Living Sculpture, Performed Photography
In the early '60s, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono and Shigeko Kubota, among others, insisted on the body as the main locus of ideas about art. Provocative, disturbing, elemental, their often nude or partially nude performances in the artists' own lofts or alternative galleries were charged with meanings that functioned on both a visceral and intellectual level. On the one hand, viewers were transformed, willing or not, into voyeurs, sucked into a vortex of contained eroticism surrounding the performers. On the other hand, many viewers quickly understood the intended ironies of the various surprising and sometimes shocking gestures.
Although it would take almost thirty years of feminist scholarship to unravel the very different uses of the body by male and female artists of this period, and properly to credit these women artists for their pioneering and highly considered examination of the body as a measure of identity, taboo, and the limits of masculine/feminine emancipation, their belief in the body as prime, raw material, opened numerous territories for artistic investigation. By the '70s, so many artists had turned to incorporating their bodies in their performances, that the term "Body Art" was broadly applied to a great variety of work.
Body Art was a laboratory for studies of all sorts, from the psychoanalytical, to the behavioural to the spatial and perceptual. While the term "body language" was widely used by the media to refer to the signals that people unconsciously made to one another with their bodies, the academic community referred to "power fields" – social psychologist Kurt Lewin, described the waves of psychological tension rippling through any inhabited space.
Shoot (1971); Trans-fixed (1974)
Burden's unforgettable dramas were shocking in their literalness. In Shoot he actually had a friend shoot him in the arm from a distance of 15 feet. Burden claimed that all those in the gallery where this took place were implicated in his act of self-inflicted violence through their failure to intervene. Performed in Los Angeles, a few miles from Hollywood's studios of make-believe, Burden's real act, with real blood and acute pain, seemed to probe the distancing effects of cinema with its overloaded violence.
In Trans-fixed, also shocking in its realism, Burden was nailed through the palms of his hands to the roof of a Volkswagen; the car was pushed out of the garage, and remained in the road for two minutes with engine running of full speed, "screaming" for him. The work can be read as representing the sacrifice of people to automobiles in a city of motorways. These sensational events had a tremendous impact on other performance artists, in part because they emphasised the absolute reality of performance art over other forms of drama in theatre. As iconic images, they seem to transcend the acts themselves.
Performance, Politics, Real Life
It is against a background of political and intellectual battle for cultural change in major cities across Europe, Japan and the United States that performance must be viewed. Rich in metaphor and symbolism, these early performances were a reaction to a decade in which the traces of post-war trauma were slowly erased by expanding consumerism on both sides of the Atlantic. They were also an extension of Dada and Futurist gestures, which deliberately blasted traditional art academies and forced art into the domain of public confrontation.
Since the mid-'50s, artists' actions had taken place sporadically in cultural centres around the globe, but by the end of the decade, the sheer number of such events was evidence of an important and growing tendency.
By 1960 there were regular festivals of performance in most European cities. Usually collections of independent actions, they displayed little of the collaborative exchange between artists of different disciplines that was so inspirational for many American artists.
Through the '70s, the work of radical artists of the '60s continued to exert great influence on the next generation of performers, who were just as intent on the connections between art and everyday life, between art and psychology, and between politics and the aesthetics of action.The range of work produced at this time was enormous – from the elegant and eloquent work of Arte Povera in Italy, to the unyielding political symbolism of British and Irish artists in the '80s. Performance as metaphor – a means of articulating broader cultural spasms from shifts in political or economic strata rather than focusing on personal concerns – was a particular male preference, and the artists who emerged from eastern Europe at the end of the '80s added many examples. Disturbing and curiously suspended in time, like visitors from another place, their performances alerted viewers to the continuing fragility of human life in the frame of world politics, all but forgotten by those who lived through the affluent '80s when performance, as monologue and media parody, came as close as it ever has to standard entertainment.
Artists of the '90s use performance as a critical evocation of everyday life, now an extraordinary mix of visual languages and value systems. Threaded through with technology as much as with the traces of spirituality of their own invention, contemporary performance artists force us to confront our won particular moment in time, and to attempt to name it.
Coyote: I like America and America likes me (1974)
Committed to the idea that art has a capacity to transform people – socially, spiritually and intellectually – Beuys created what he called "social sculptures". These might include lectures, collaborative protest actives, or symposia on art and politics. For Beuys Coyote was a metaphor for the tragic decimation of the Native American peoples (who respected the coyote) by the early European settlers (who despised and shot it). Beuys spent a week "in captivity" with the wild animal in a New York gallery.
Romeo Castelluci / Societas Raffaello Sanzio
Horses, a donkey, the corpse of a goat, and unforgettably shaped humans made up Castelluci's nightmarish rendering of this classic tragedy. Slow-moving and three hours long, the visually amazing installation included contraptions circulating blood-red liquid through overhead pipes and ominous-sounding wind machines.
7 Streams of the River Ota (1994)
Lepage's eight-hour epic of life at the end of the twentieth-century was a collage of tableaux vivants, film, slides, operatic singing, kabuki, banraku puppetry, and traditional acting so true-to-life that certain scenes achieved a level of excruciating hyper-realism. Canadian-born, raised bilingually, and trained in drama, Lepage glided his elliptical narrative between East and West, past and present. The low horizontal platform with washes of brilliantly textured cloth and celluloid colour gave his stage the quality of Cinemascope. Variously timed – from the recitative pace of storytelling to the urgency of fast forward – and with a cast of nine performers, 7 Streams of the River Ota was Lepage's third major epic, following The Dragon's Trilogy (1985) and Tectonic Plate (1988).
Cut Piece (1964)
Trained as a musician and composer, and immersed in the Zen beliefs of her native Japan, Ono described her events as "a dealing with oneself", in contrast to the "get-togetherness" of most Happenings. She moved easily between the aesthetics of both East and West, travelling regularly between Tokyo and New York, where her Canal Street loft was a performance space for artist-firends Yvonne Rainer, Ornate Coleman, Jonas Mekas, Ay-O, and others.
Cut Piece, was an example of Ono's ability to move viewers to surprising actions, and at the same time disturb their sense of self and of others. She kneeled on stage in the traditional position of Japanese women, with a large pair of scissors placed before her. Throughout the performance, members of the audience approached and cut off her clothes, piece by piece.
It caused quite an outrage back then. Interestingly, she did not like many of the other performance artists, allow the audience to strip her bare. I assume (maybe I am wrong) that this has something to do with her Japanese background. In her generation, people were probably not comfortable with getting naked for 'art'. Or perhaps she was just not ready. Yet I doubt if nudity is necessary in creating a powerful performance. It might be just to fulfil human's voyeuristic nature.
Variations on Discord and Division (1984)
"My work often refers to hostile realities, war, destruction, but it is not localised, it refers to conflicts all over the world," says Hatoum of her unstructured performances that are usually a response to a specific site and a particular moment in time. "I want to remind the audience that there are different realities that people have to live through." Variations, about forty to fifty minutes long, was performed in Vancouver. The entire space was lined in newspapers; dressed in black with her face covered in an opaque stocking mask, Hatoum tried to scrub the floor, but smeared it instead with red-stained water.
Reading about her work made me want to create something political. There are so many things happening around the world that need our attention, countless of issues that we can explore, understand and respond. Variations is very simply-structured, yet the image of it is very striking.
Moments of Decision/Indecision (1975)
In Britain, Germany and Austria in particular, an aspect of '60s performance was its penchant for violence – both as a tool for individual catharsis, and as a form of aggressive public protest against Cold War politics and the war in Vietnam. British artist Stuart Brisely drew together influences from the Viennese Actionists and the political events of the early '60s in the USA, as well as his reading of R.D. Laing's radical psychoanalytical texts, to create powerfully original performances of his own. Moments of Decision/Indecision took place in one large room, lasted six days, and dealt with sensory deprivation that increased throughout the day, as Brisley drenched himself in white and black paint to the point that he could barely move or see. It was unusual at that time for being performed behind the so-called Iron Curtain (it was presented at Galeria Teatra Studio in Warsaw), and Brisley's futile attempts to climb the walls of the room built up increasing feelings of frustration and helplessness in the watchers.
Time Rocker (1997)
Robert Wilson, Lou Reed and Darryl Pinckney
Time Rocker was the third in a triptych of spectacular pop operas loosely based on nineteenth-century texts, and created for the intensely physical actors of Hamburg's Thalia Theatre. In this theatrical extravaganza, Wilson used H.G. Well's The Time Machine as a launch pad for his startling visual imagination, inspiring rock pioneer Lou Reed to created sixteen songs that are both memorable theatre-music and charged-rock and roll. Like The Black Rider, based on Carl Maria von Weber's folk opera Der Freischütz, and Alice, a reworking of the Lewis Carroll story, Time Rocker is a theatrical work "made for the eyes".
What I really like about his work is that he does not try to recreate in detail of a scene, but really focus on the lighting, the colours and the mood. The simplicity of his designs creates a space for the audience to fill it up themselves, or another way of explaining it, not to distract them from the actual performance on unnecessary details.
De val van Mussolini (1997)
Paul Koek and Hollandia / Dick Raaijmakers
A former gasworks in Amsterdam was transformed into a make-belive 1930s film set for this work by the Hollandia Theatre Group, known for performing in unusual settings and for using music as the starting point for highly collaged productions. Original steam engines and old motorised equipment provide both visual and aural effects, while electronic music, collapsible sets, and the mechanised movements of performers, suggest a futurist narrative. For Koek, a percussionist, theatre beings with the sound of the human voice. "I very much want to make musical theatre," he says, "but without music. Only with words that become music."
Aktion Eindhoven (1983)
Nitsch, after seeing a show of Abstract Expressionism in 1959 in Vienna, wrote that e "immediately understood all the implications of this phenomenon". He identified the expressive process of pouring paint with his ideas for a dramatic, emotionally driven, non-literary theatre, mingling Catholicism, Romanticism and Dionysian myths. His first performance developed from a series of action paintings in 1962.
In a long white shirt, he was tied to a wall as if crucified, while Otto Mühl poured blood over him. Nitsch's actions, his Orgies Mystery Theatre, with its cacophonous music and the carcasses of sheep or bulls, became increasingly complex. In the early days, the police often stopped the deeply unnerving events; thirty years later, they are watched with the reverence accorded to art works of historical significance.
It is interesting to know that this piece of performance had the police interfered a couple of decades ago. It really makes me wonder, how did the public's attitude towards out of place, grotesque and disturbing performances, or simply an art work, change so much over the years? And also, why did it change?