Performance Art. Shlomit Shaked

Performance Art
Shlomit Shaked

What is Performance?

Performance is an artistic act that bestows presence on the artist within society. It is a living art executed by a solo artist or a group of artists in real time. The audience sees it either as a stage performance or as an artistic object – a kind of voyeuristic glance into the creator’s kitchen during the execution of a work.1 Performance is therefore the composition of a representational and visual process, whose length can range from a few minutes to many hours – an event that the artist and audience experience simultaneously. In contrast to the artistic object (painting or sculpture) judged by the final result, Performance is measured by the process itself, with its nature varying from esoteric performance to grandiose production with many participants; from a one-off spontaneous performance to one needing intensive rehearsal; from an intimate, personal statement to a sociopolitical act; from an entertaining show to a provocative and radical act shattering various taboos.

The Hebrew translation of the term "Performance Art" maitzag combines aspects of the word for art object mutzag and performance hatzagah. And indeed, the Performance comes from a general cultural concept that sees the various arts as complementary languages. Performance artists draw their material from different disciplines – literature, poetry, theatre, music dance, architecture, painting, video, installation, film, etc. to activities (from the banal to the extreme) taken from real life – and uses them in a wide variety of combinations. The passage from medium to medium can take place in a spontaneous manner, and often the movements and thought process are not committed to a specific form, language, to artistic style.

Performance art and interdisciplinary theatre are so close to each other that the border is blurred; in fact, Performance is heavily influenced by the theory of Antonin Artaud who expanded the meaning of the concept of theatre.

Similar to accepted concepts in the field of interdisciplinary theatre, Performance art permits the merging of different disciplines and is not committed to a plotline or narrative, and sometimes refutes and negates logic. It seems that all the attempts to define this pliable concept, which redefines itself every time anew, are predestined to failure.

On Performance Art 2

Performance art is considered the avant-garde of the 20th century, as marking the break with the old in favor of the new. The performances from the beginning of the 20th century and later on in the 1960s protested the status of painting and sculpture as sole basis for artistic practice; they disagreed with the tendency to relegate the role of artist to the traditional concept of artist-object-museum, and appealed against the dominant focus – the museum – by choosing to act, on the whole, separate from it. Artists examined their ideas through performance, and only later expressed them through the creation of objects. They asked social and political questions and examined the limits of human experience in performances that fed off their worldviews. Even though Performance art is not seen as a central player in the definition and dictation of the direction of art, at the moment of crisis it has also been its reaffirmation.

During the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the performance arena was a place where powerful emotional events would take place, ones that would draw the viewer into the "happening" or ritual whose nature could be enlightenment or incitement. Ceremonies from the Middle Ages such as the Passion plays come to mind, or public spectacles such as fantastical victory parades, or allegorical events. The writing and direction of extravagant spectacles are also attributed to Renaissance artists. So, for example, the artist Caravaggio designed a fictional battle that demanded the construction of a temporary architectural structure for an event held at the Pitti Palace in Florence, which was flooded for the occasion. In the 15th century Leonardo da Vinci dressed the spectacle artists who were acting out "Heaven" as planets. Their role was to act out different versions that characterized the Golden Age. In the 17th century the baroque artist Bernini directed spectacles according to scenes that he had written, including realistic flood scenes, he also designed the costumes and built architectonic elements for the shows.

The colossal nature of the spectacles described above also characterize the huge productions of the late 1970s and 1980s, especially in New York. Performances leaning toward popular media marked a turning away from anti-establishment ideology adapted by the Conceptual artists of the 1960s. The artist Robert Wilson held spectacles that lasted up to twelve hours, which were characterized by operatic excess. He collaborated with composers, choreographers, filmmakers, and plastic artists. The performance "Einstein on the Beach" lasted for five hours, and included, amongst other things, fantastic backdrops of towers on the seaside, a train station, a surreal castle, electronic music, blinding lights, and so forth. Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s late performances used the media to protest media ruses. The grandiose performance "USA" lasted for eight hours, and included visual and musical stories heard via robotic voices and sounds, and though a wide range of multimedia; thus connecting the performance to popular culture.

Spectacles such as these were also influenced by the performances of Futurist, Constructivist, and Dad and Surrealist artists – avant-garde movements from the beginning of the 20th century – and also by the bizarre events held by the Italian and Russian Futurists. For example, the latter, under the guidance of the poet Mayakovsky held the grandiose parade "Moscow is Burning" in the circus. Using the character of the circus, it recreated the bloody events that occurred following the proletariat demonstrations that overran the Winter Palace in Moscow. The monumental tendency also characterized the multimedia performance put on by the Surrealist, Francis Picabia – "Relâche" ("Tonight There will be no Performance"). Appearing in this nightmarish and scandalous farce were, amongst others, men in ballerina’s costumes, spotlights that briefly focused on representations such as a naked couple that seemed to come from Cranach’s "Adam and Eve" (Duchamp played Adam). During the intermission there was a screening René Clair’s film, including a scene that followed a funerary procession through the streets of Paris. The film ended with the fall, shot in slow motion, of the coffin from the carriage, exposing the grimacing face of the corpse. Events such as these brought Performance art to a dead end, only to revive and reinvent itself.

Performance artists active in the late 1950s and 1960s challenged the spectator to reexamine the limits of art and to expand its definition. Materials such as butter, honey, felt, and dead rabbits were used as metaphors in Joseph Beuys’s performances, which included dramatic acts of a symbolic and therapeutic nature. His ideas regarding social sculpture were expressed in long conversations that he held with the audience in sociopolitical and other contexts. Beuys believed in the ability of art to change our daily lives. The performances of the blue monochromatic artist Yves Klein, included the creation of a sculpture that "disappeared" and left an empty space – he released a thousand and one balloons into the air. In another performance he turned the bodies of his models into living paintbrushes, after being dipped in blue paint, they were dragged across the canvas; the artist who dragged them was dressed in an evening suit and was clean of paint, the surrounding audience watched the event. Another artist, Pierro Manzoni, chose to ignore the canvas and paint, and to concentrate on form and the role of the body; he signed his name to a naked body and gave the person a signed certificate stating the authenticity of the work of art. In other performances he sold the artist’s breath in balloons which he had inflated, he also packaged his feces in tin cans and sold them the local market for their weight in gold.

Artists turned to the body as artistic material. Performances held in the 1960s by artists such as Hermann Nitsch or the Viennese "Aktion" group dealt with physical violence as a cathartic process. They used accessories imbued with magical power connected to pain, blood, and death. According to Nitsch, he wanted to use his actions to release the instincts of aggression that were repressed and silenced by the media. In his performances a sheep was hung upside down and slaughtered; its slashed belly filled buckets with blood and guts, which were poured over naked men and women. The concept of art as therapeutic catharsis characterized Marina Abramovitz’s performance from the early 1970s, during which she invited the audience to abuse her body for hours on end. In an attempt to negate his masculinity, Vito Acconci burnt off his body hair, dealt with his nipples and hid his genitalia between his legs. Chris Burden choose to play with death by placing himself in personal physical danger – for example, he asked his friends to shoot him in the right arm, or lay down on a busy Los Angeles street wrapped in canvas. Burden hoped to change the history of representation of the danger of death in art.

Different in spirit were the performances of the "Fluxus" group, since the early 1960s defined and led by the artist George Maciunas – the group was anarchist, anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, and anti-bourgeoisie. It was made up of New York musicians, performance artists, poets and writers. The performances were held in a wide range of places – from private homes and galleries to Carnegie Hall. The artist Yoko Ono invited the audience to cut off bits of her clothes with scissors, and to take the bits with them, in order to protest the potential violence of the spectator toward the artistic object – the artist’s body; she also wanted to examine the woman-society equation, and the topic of trust. The sculpture Robert Morris examined, amongst other things, different kinds of confrontation between the body and space. Dressed in white and wearing a rubber mask that duplicated his face, Morris arranged white panels in geometric shapes in the minimalist space. When the panels were moved, a nude woman lying on a couch posed as Manet’s "Olympia" was momentarily exposed. The artist’s apathetic manner emptied the nude of her erotic meaning, and turned her into a immobile volume confronted in space by a mobile volume.

Live homages became a frequent weapon against the conventions of established art. During the 1970s, there was a paradigmatic change in the concept substitute for the marketable art object, was at its zenith. The Performance, which was then at its best, implemented similar ideas. Spaces dedicated to performance art sprung up in international art centers. Museums funded Performance festivals, universities taught the history of Performance and magazines specialized in the subject. Through it, artists inhaled conceptual and formalist ideas on which artistic practice is based-Performance can be seen but not touched; not only is it not marketable, it does not leave any traces behind, and in contrast to Conceptual art, it reduces the level of alienation between artist and spectator.

Today, Performance art often takes place in spaces that allow reasonable access to the public. It is networked into the apparatus of distribution and conservation. The museums no longer hold the monopoly they held until the mid-1980s. The decentralization of the art scene has destabilized the status of museums as sole focus for the exposure of art to the public. Performance has become the historical art catalyst in the 20th century. In order to reach the infrastructure of the movements mentioned in this text, it is recommended to look at the documentary material of the Performances that began during that period.

1. To paraphrase Elizabeth Jaffe from the catalogue "A Week of Performances" that was published following the event held in Bremen, Germany, 1978.

2. For an extensive historical survey see: Roselee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to Present, Thames and Hudson, 1988.

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