Articles

WTF is… Performance Art?

by Kyle Chayka on May 24, 2011

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.

* * *

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)

* * *

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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  • Anonymous

    well, LG in the egg brings to mind Beuys being carried into the gallery on a stretcher, so, there’s that.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      But Beuys’ performance didn’t end at being carried into the gallery on a stretcher. I daresay if that was the whole thing, it wouldn’t really be remembered. I don’t think Gaga’s act is performance art because it doesn’t have any purpose besides heightening drama for a concert or a TV appearance, it’s not part of any greater artistic action.

      • Anonymous

        art doesn’t have to be good to be art. if i paint a really bad painting it’s still a painting, and still art. when lady gaga performs, she’s creating art, whatever your or my opinion of her. the egg thing was part of her performance. i guess we could decide whether it’s performance art or one of the performing arts. in any case, invoking jb to say something is or isn’t art–when ‘everything is art,’ even wearing a hat–seems funny, and maybe charming.

        • Anonymous

          Absolutely. In the traditional performing arts a bad play is still a play, whether it is the script or the performance (or both) that made it bad. A poorly conceived performance art piece might be very bad indeed, but does it make sense to say it isn’t performance art?

          Of course for something so vague as performance art, policing boundaries can be very important to maintaining the concept. The reason Duchamp’s Fountain was controversial in visual art isn’t because it’s obviously not art, but rather because there was no reason it wasn’t art, but its existence challenged the whole idea of art. The traditional purveyors of performance art might naturally and correctly fear that the amount of fame and money behind personas like Lady Gaga might drown out other ideas of what constitutes performance art, or that they might cause performance art to be viewed as an empty category.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=633763788 George Heathco

        Considering Gaga’s insistence on being “born this way,” I would say that being inside of an egg certainly has some sort of greater implication than just pre-concert hype, as obvious as it may be. “Greater artistic action” is just an elitist phrase that means nothing more than “my tastes are better than yours.” While I don’t particularly care for Lady Gaga, I also don’t like my local press telling me what I should and shouldn’t consider art.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          Calling something elitist sometimes means that you just don’t want to think hard, learn history or listen to people who study things closely. I’m surprised you’re not more angry with pop stars who think every time they leave the house it’s art.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=633763788 George Heathco

            I think plenty hard about the art and music I indulge in and I know the history pretty well. I just don’t find it fruitful to assume that every pop star shares the same motivations and ill-informed opinions of higher artistic concepts.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            George, I agree with you but we’ve been covering Gaga for a while. Our argument with her is specific. Check out this post: http://hyperallergic.com/3352/lady-gaga-spencer-tunick-terence-koh-francesco-vezzoli/

            I think someone like Bjork and David Byrne has a much more sophisticated idea of art and seems to understand the differences between things and don’t make declarations that make them look silly. Did you read Gaga’s article in V magazine? Pretty embarassing. http://www.thebdjournal.com/2011/05/13/lady-gagas-first-magazine-column-is-as-annoying-as-you-expected-imposters/

  • mab macmoragh

    Last year, prior to the MoMA performance, in The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow: I know that it’s all a state of mind Eva and Franco Mattes reenacted Abramović’s iconic performances (among others, including those of Chris Burden, Yves Klein, and Gilbert & George) as simultaneous recursive durational “synthetic performances” in real life with Abramović looking on, and in Second Life®, again with Abramović looking on via large screen monitor in real time for several long days.  Was this performance art?  It seemed the questioning of the process itself was more important than the answer. (more info)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=34602373 Lauren Kl

    If lady gaga wants to make art (as opposed to perform) she could probably find a less soul crushing way to do it than to create pop culture mash-ups for one of the least visually and culturally literate audiences ever. I guess it’s good for record sales though that most people don’t even know what you’re “referencing” and say things like “i heard lady gaga is a hermaphrodite” because she wore a man’s suit one time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=660111509 Anya Liftig

    Interesting Article about the Lady Gaga as Performance Artist Here:
    http://theotherjournal.com/2011/05/23/gaga-a-gogo/

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