All the world’s a stage: performance art past and present

 Paris  |  22 April 2015  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Emerging in the early 20th century and reaching its peak of popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, performance art has long been a tool for artists seeking to break with artistic conventions, to deliver a more direct and powerful form of expression, and, in many cases, to transmit a strong political message. In terms of definition, however, performance art is not easily pinned down. Encompassing a wide range of practices, and often incorporating elements of other art forms such as dance and theatre, the line between performance art and other artistic practises is often blurred. In the simplest of terms, performance art is defined as a form of multidisciplinary visual art performed live to an audience. Though many feel that the 1960s and ’70s heyday of performance art has passed, the iconic performances and artists of this period continue to have a lasting influence on contemporary visual arts, whilst performance art remains an important medium for many of today’s artists looking for an antidote to the increasingly commercialised art world.

Yet, with auction prices reaching new heights and hoards of new art fairs springing up every year, is there a place for a staunchly anti-market art form in the contemporary art scene? And as institutions and collectors begin to take notice of the importance of performance art, will they succeed in preserving the iconic works of performance art, or are these intrinsically ephemeral pieces destined to fade into obscurity or to persist in the form of secondary material, as empty husks of their once powerful and arresting live performances? AMA explores the complex history of performance art, and examines the questions that surround the past, present, and future of this radical discipline…

The birth of performance art
Though the origins of performance art are most often traced back to the avant-garde artistic movements of the early 20th century, a number of scholars have contested this judgement, citing Renaissance Italy, and even Ancient Greece, as homes to the earliest forms of performance art. Indeed, the public “stunts” of the Greek philosophers Antisthenes and Diogenes, the latter of whom was known for walking around in broad daylight carrying a lamp, and claiming to be in search of “an honest man”, would not be out of place amongst the wide-ranging performances by 20th and 21st century artists. Likewise, the Italian itinerant poets and minstrels who travelled the country during the Renaissance, publically reciting their poems, are reminiscent of the early examples of performance art in the 20th century, for example the poetry recitals and performances that took place at the Cabaret Voltaire. Nevertheless, whether or not such works would rightly be classified as “performance art” in the contemporary sense, it is clear that the roots of the modern performance art tradition are to be found at the turn of the 20th century, when artists from the multi-disciplinary movements of Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism began to make use of performance as part of their artistic practice.

In 1916, Hugo Ball and Emmy Hemmings founded the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich’s Holländische Meirei tavern, which was to play a crucial role in the development of performance art. Frequented by pioneers of Dadaism, the Cabaret Voltaire hosted raucous and experimental performances such as poetic recitals, performances of avant-garde musical compositions, and live painting. Likewise in Italy, members of the Futurist movement staged public readings of their manifestos, even before the first ever exhibition of their paintings, which is often cited as an early example of performance art. Slightly later, and further afield, the Black Mountain College in North Carolina was an important influence on performance art. Founded in 1933, the college was centred around an interdisciplinary approach to the arts, numbering notable figures from various experimental and avant-garde artistic, literary, and musical fields amongst its faculty members. Particularly influential in the development of performance art, both during their time at Black Mountain and elsewhere, were the composer John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham, who were formative influences on the likes of George Brecht and Alan Kaprow, the latter a key member of the Fluxus movement.

Early examples of performance art
In the 1950s and ’60s, a growing number of artists turned to performance art, seeking a dematerialised art form that eschewed the market and offered a more direct means of communication with audiences. Artists such as Yoko Ono, Wolf Vorstell, Bruce Nauman, and Alan Kaprow began to incorporate performance into their work, Kaprow coining the term “happening” to describe a new art form combining a diverse range of practices, in which artists would experiment with body motion, recorded sounds, and spoken texts in live performances enacted to an audience. The content of such performances was most often planned in advance, though artists often left some scope for improvisation. In addition to Kaprow’s own performances, other New York-based artists that took part in the “happenings” included Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, and Wolf Vorstell. Often radical in content as much as form, performance artists of the late 1960s and ’70s were notorious for their boundary and taboo-breaking practices. Particularly shocking to audiences of the day were performances such as Vito Acconci’s 1972 Seedbed, in which the artist lay under a slanted platform which visitors were invited to walk over, masturbating whilst relaying his own sexual fantasies using a microphone, a radical and disturbing piece defying society’s sexual norms, and in Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot, in which an assistant shot him in the left arm with a rifle from a distance of 5 metres, and Trans-Fixed, in which the artist lay on the bonnet of a Volkswagen Beetle car with his hands nailed to the car as if being crucified.

Politics and performance art
Since its inception, performance art has always had close ties with political dissent and activism. For many a vessel for anti-establishment political messages, performance art was a natural fit for female artists of the 1970s who sought to undermine the patriarchal structures oppressing women. With the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, artists such as Barbara T. Smith, Carolee Schneemann, and Joan Jonas were amongst the foremost performance artists, gaining notoriety for performances such as Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, in which the artist stood naked on a table and pulled a scroll from her vagina, reading the feminist discourse written on it aloud. In addition to the feminist performance art of the 1970s, other politically-minded artists made use of performance as a means of political protest, including Joseph Beuys and Chris Burden, who both used performance art to protest US imperialism and the Vietnam war.

Political performance art was far from confined to the USA, however, with a strong following in the Eastern European capitals under Soviet control in the mid-to-late ’70s. Cities such as Budapest, Kraków, Belgrade, Zagreb, and Novi Sad were all home to burgeoning performance art scenes, with artists such as Orshi Drozdik, whose “Individual Mythology” series criticised the patriarchal and authoritarian Soviet government. Likewise, in Germany and Austria “actionism”, the German term used to denote performance art, took off with the Vienna-based group Wiener Aktionismus, which included prominent performance artists Gunter Brus, Herman Nitsch, and Rudolph Schwarzkogler, and was known for its shocking performances that often featured extreme violence and self torture, expressing what members believed to be man’s destructive nature. Though performance art arguably saw a decline in the 1980s, with the increasing commodification of art and the booming art market, in the 1990s performance artists from South America, particularly Cuba and the Caribbean, in addition to those from the Far East, began to gain recognition on the global art scene. In China, artists such as Zhang Huan, a key player on the underground performing art circuit since the late 1980s, pushed the boundaries of performance art with works including Huan’s 1994 12 Square Metres, in which the artist sat for an hour in a dirty public toilet covered in honey and fish whilst flies swarmed around him.

Performance art today
In recent years, performance art has been regaining popularity amongst a younger generation of artists. Though diverse in their practices, today’s performance artists are characterised by their multidisciplinary approach, which often incorporates elements of choreographed dance and theatre, challenging preconceptions of what may be considered performance art. Choreographer and theatre director Alessandro Sciarroni, for example, blurred the lines of theatre, dance, and performance art in his piece Folk-s, in which dancers performed a traditional, and highly repetitive Bavarian dance, known as the Schuhplatter, to an audience in a theatre, continuing until the last audience member decided to leave the venue. Other artists to mix together performing arts with performance art include French dancer and choreographer Jérôme Bel, whose experimental pieces such as his 2001 The Show Must Go On, are often termed “non-dance”, straddling the line between entertainment and performance art.

Like generations before them, today’s performance artists continue to employ the medium as a vessel for political messages, in some cases leading to high-profile brushes with the law. One such example took place in 2012, when five members of the Pussy Riot collective staged an intervention in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, shouting, dancing, and playing guitar in protest against the national church’s continued support for the president Vladimir Putin. Three of the performers were arrested as a result of the performance, entitled Punk Prayer, and two remain in jail to this day, despite uproar from the international community, who have called for them to be freed. More recently still, high-profile Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera ran into trouble with the law after restaging a 2009 performance piece in which the artist invited members of the public to speak freely for one minute with a microphone in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, on 30 December 2014. Though no formal charges have been pressed against the artist as yet, her passport has been confiscated, preventing her from leaving the country.

Performance art in museums and fairs
Yet, despite such cases, in which performance art maintains a firmly anti-establishment stance, it has nonetheless gained increasing institutional recognition over the last three decades, and recent years have seen some of the world’s major museums incorporating performance art in their collections. London’s Tate Modern, for example, has featured both live performances (included as part of its 2012 Tate Tanks project) and secondary materials pertaining to performance art, with an extensive collection including photographs, documents, and other items relating to performance works by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Rebecca Horn, and many other major performance artists. Another major step reflecting the growing institutional interest in performance art, was the Moma’s retrospective of Marina Abramovic, arguably the world’s leading performance artist, which took place in 2010, and included a live performance in which the artist sat completely still and silently in a chair for 750 hours, with audience members invited to take up a chair opposite her. The exhibition attracted around 7,000 visitors per day, including a clutch of celebrity admirers such as James Franco.

Moreover, performance art appears to be gaining traction in the arena of the art fair, an increasingly important sector in today’s art world. In recent years, art fairs such as Frieze London have dedicated special sections to performance art, whilst other major fairs have featured performance pieces either as part of gallery booths (for example Miriam Goodman Gallery, which presented Tino Seghal at Frieze New York) or as part of supplementary events programmes. Unsurprisingly, performance art has found even greater success in non-commercial fairs and festivals. One such fair is Performa, a non-profit biennial founded by RosaLee Goldberg in 2004 with the aim of providing performance artists with a platform to showcase their work on an international scale, and educating audiences about the history and legacy of performance art. The first biennial devoted exclusively to performance, Performa grants artists a unique opportunity to create without commercial constraints.

Performance art and the market
Despite this growing support from fairs and global art institutions, however, performance art does not easily slot into the art market, an increasingly powerful force in today’s international art scene. With its anti-commercial and anti-market roots, performance art has always been a means for artists to create un-saleable work, that exists outside the market in the form of a concept or experience, and it is this very quality that often attracts artists to performance. But what of the performance artists hoping to make a living through their work? And what of collectors who hope to own a piece of performance art? At first glance, the answer is a relatively simple one: they cannot. The vast majority of performance artists support themselves via the sale of work in other media, or, in the cases of the very most successful performance artists, through selling paraphernalia such as photographs, whilst collectors must, in the main, content themselves with secondary materials. There are, however, a number of performance artists experimenting with new avenues by which to sell or transfer works to others. Tino Seghal is one such example; rather than simply selling photographs or films of his performances, the artist gives buyers in-person instructions on how to recreate the pieces. According to the Tate’s head of performance art, Catherine Wood, when the museum purchased Seghal’s 2002 This is Propaganda, “Tino instructed [Wood and curator Jessica Morgan] how to produce the piece”, adding that the Tate is able to loan the work to other institutions by passing on the instructions.

Another option on the cards for today’s performance artists is to legally protect the content of their works, as Nancy Spector, deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, explains. “I think a younger generation might begin to copyright their performances” says Spector, adding “I can’t imagine artists from the 1970s, who were anti-market, retroactively copyrighting material. The work of Chris Burden lives on through his sculptural relics but he does not allow his works to be re-enacted. Vito Acconci, meanwhile, made videos and photo-text pieces. Each artist has a different set of guidelines.” Veteran performance artist Carolee Schneemann is of Burden’s view, assuming that “none of the 1970s pioneers want their pieces re-performed,” whilst by contrast, contemporary performance artist Marina Abramovic is more than happy for performances to be restaged, provided that the artist’s permission is sought, likening performances to a musical score.

It would seem, therefore, that there remains a clear difference between the attitudes of today’s performance artists and those of the ’60s and ’70s towards recreation and ownership of works, with the former paving the way to a freer approach to performance art. But whilst Marina Abramovic may claim that performance art represents “the end of material culture and the commoditisation of art”, with an increasingly powerful art market and new and novel means of capturing and selling performance art springing up, the anti-market roots of performance art are at risk of disappearing. Today’s performance artists are, therefore, faced with a difficult choice: to embrace the institutionalisation and commercialisation of their art form, or watch their creations fade into obscurity… Whichever they choose, it is clear that performance art has established its place in art history as a radical, experimental, and boundary-pushing art form, and, with a younger generation of artists reinventing the medium, one that shows no signs of slowing.

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