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WTF is… Performance Art?

Marinca Abramovic's “The Artist is Present” (2010) at MoMA (image via zimbio.com)

You may have heard that James Franco and Lady Gaga are performance artists, that their careers themselves are art objects built up over a lifetime. You may also believe that your Uncle Bob farting the alphabet is performance art. And maybe it is! Really, it’s up to you, there’s no quick and easy chart to tell what is performance art and what isn’t. Nevertheless, there are a few guidelines to follow when defining performance, in the context of the medium’s history as well as its current practice. Despite what you’ve heard, there are good reasons that getting carried into the Grammys in an egg isn’t really an act of performance art.

If we were to assign performance art a single defining characteristic, it would probably be the fact that a piece of performance art must be centered on an action carried out or orchestrated by an artist, a time-based rather than permanent artistic gesture that has a beginning and an end. Documentation of the performance might live on forever, from photos and artifacts to full video documentation, but the performance itself is ephemeral. If you were lucky enough to be in the audience, then what you witnessed was the true work of performance art. The rest of us are just seeing the leftovers, iconic as they may be.

Joseph Beuys, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (1965) (image via wikipedia.org)

Though art historians often cite Futurists and Dadaists among the first performance art practitioners, performance art first came into being as a discrete movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with early practitioners including artist-shaman Joseph Beuys, Fluxus artist Yoko Ono and  “Happenings” creator Alan Kaprow. Yet just because these artists pioneered performance art doesn’t mean they only created performance pieces. Performance art isn’t defined by the artist’s career, but rather by the individual piece — a painter can make a performance and a performance artist can make a painting. Early performance pieces were very interdisciplinary events, mingling music, sculptural stage props, immersive installation and music. Kaprow’s 1959 “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” “involved an audience moving together to experience elements such as a band playing toy instruments, a woman squeezing an orange, and painters painting,” according to the artist’s 2006 obituary by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter.

Other performances were more austere. Bueys’s 1974 “I Like America and America Likes Me” saw the artist stay in a gallery space for three days, wrapping himself in felt and sharing the space with a wild coyote. A piece of performance art doesn’t even necessarily need to have an audience; it just has to happen. Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta‘s performances, many involving human figure-shaped depressions dug into outdoor landscapes, now only exist as photographs. No one was witness to the work save the camera and the photographer. Yet the photograph isn’t the art object; it’s actually almost incidental to the original act.

It’s the action that’s the art, not so much the physical result,” says performance art curator and performance-only Grace Exhibition Space co-director Erik Hokanson. “A lot of times there’s little or no result other than what you walk away from the piece with thinking or feeling.” Another example of this would be German artist Anselm Kiefer’s early pieces in which the artist photographed himself giving the Nazi salute in landscapes around Europe. The photos are powerful, but it’s the act that reminds us of the still-sharp memory of Nazi Germany’s expansion through the continent. Notes performance artist and curator Peter Dobill in an email, “Performance art … exists only within the time it is created, but is often viewed in perpetuity through documentation.”

Vito Acconci, “Seedbed” (1972) (image via portlandart.net)

The idea of performance versus document has come into sharp relief as performance art has asserted itself as a medium. When a performance is documented and the resulting work becomes an art historical icon, should the photographer or the performer get the credit? A recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition asked the question. But again, performances don’t need documentation to be effective. A successful performance is “all about how well the artist is able to convey their idea,” Hokanson says.

So ask yourself: does Lady Gaga’s egg “performance” provoke any deeper thoughts about the act itself? Does playing at an alien-shaped piano in Alexander McQueen boots create any abstract symbolism? Does farting the alphabet have a lasting meaning beyond its ephemeral existence? Probably not.

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Some Iconic Performances:

Joseph Beuys “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” (1965)

Chris Burden’s “Shoot” (1971)

Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed” (1972)

Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” (1975)

Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” (2010) (seen at top)

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Yet despite this list, building a canon of performance art is kind of an ironic task. The ephemeral quality of the medium itself defeats the normal process of building an art history — that is, putting objects in a timeline, comparing them, re-examining them decades or centuries later. Performance art’s true fruition only comes about once, and only for a certain set of witnesses. How can critics and scholars then look back on them in analysis? The answer is with difficulty. Controversy swirls around the idea of re-staging performances — can an original piece of performance art be recreated, or should it be recreated? Marina Abramovic confronted these questions in her 2010 MoMA retrospective, for which she trained actors and performance artists to reenact her own iconic performances. The artist has also re-staged historical performance art pieces in her own versions with “Seven Easy Pieces” in 2005.

Still, as performance art matures, we will continue to fight over how best to preserve it. And that’s probably the biggest issue confronting performance art as a discipline — how do we keep the sand from falling through our fingers as critics, writers, students, curators and artists?

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