What’s the Deal With Performance Art?

It’s hard to know where to begin with performance art. It can be such an everything and nothing sort of thing. Still, if I try to narrow it down I would say that it can roughly be defined as a performance of art that cannot be easily classed in with the rest of the repertoire of performing arts. And it’s something that is really interesting, and every so often terrifying.

Now when I say that performance art cannot be classed in with the rest of the performing arts, that isn’t to say that it cannot incorporate elements of the performing arts in it’s sphere of activities, just that when you see a piece of performance art, while it might contain dancing, or acting, or music, you don’t initially think of it as primarily being one of those things. And while performance art is really something that hasn’t existed until Contemporary Art, I think it’s better to think of it as a medium rather than a style, because there isn’t a unity of ideas or motives to performance art in the same way there is in an art movement. There are some themes that frequently crop up, such as a focus on the body, but no strong ideological goals.

The first major type of performance art was the Happening. If that term sounds ridiculously Beatnick and Hippy that’s pretty much because it is. These were popular in the late 50s and the 60s, though they haven’t really gone away, but we don’t always use the same terms anymore. Happenings are a bit hard to describe because each one is different and the general idea is that they are unrepeatable because they focus on being in the moment. Some are more like theater, some are more focused on audience participation. Loosely though, they are about going and experiencing art rather than creating a piece that can be neatly catagorised into the annals and canons or purchased and put on a shelf. There is also an emphasis on a more organic, less structured means of performance that focuses on highlighting what is present in that moment in that space. There is also almost always a level of improv involved. The echos of Happenings can be felt in events like flash mobs and Burning Man.

Performance art started to really come into its own in the late 60s and early 70s. Because I feel like I’ve spent all my efforts on male artists on previous posts in this series, this time let’s look at work the ladies. Hey, this time there are actually a lot of ladies who have work to look at, and who are actually considered some of the biggest names in the art form. Yoko Ono helped get the ball rolling with her Cut Piece, in which audience members were invited to cut the black dress she was wearing off while she sat on the stage. The connotations about abuse against women and the complacency of those in the audience being part of the problem were at the center of the work. Carolee Schneemann’s works were frequently about women’s bodies being transformed from a passive, viewed part of art to an active, participating subject of art. As part of her piece Inner Scroll, she stood in front of the audience naked and read from a rolled up piece of paper as she pulled it from her vagina. In Rythm 0, Maria Abrimović stood passive for six hours as audience members were presented with a table full of items, including honey, feathers, a scalpel, and a pistol loaded with a single bullet and told to do what they like. Among other things they cut off her clothes, stuck rose thorns in her stomach, and at one point the gun was pointed at her head, but it was taken away by another audience member. (I did mention that sometimes performance art terrifies me, right?)

In the 80s, performance art got a little more mainstream. Laurie Anderson’s song “Oh Superman” from her United States performance reached number 2 on British pop charts. It’s a sort of half sung, half spoken song with a heavy electronic modulation of her voice. Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh’s Art/Life: One Year Performance (a.k.a. Rope Piece) also got a fair bit of press. For one year, the two artists were tied together by eight feet of rope, but never touched. The later half of the decade saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union and performance art took off in Russia, Hungary, and other former Soviet states. The 90s saw it gaining popularity in China and Cuba as well.

Perhaps the most recent big to do in performance art was Maria Abrimović’s The Artist is Present which she performed at a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art. She sat completely immobile and viewers could sit opposite her for any amount of time they like as she would stare directly at them in complete silence. A number of famous folks turned out for the performance, which got the media monster interested.

It’s also worth noting that performance art overlaps a lot with experimental film, music, and theater. And of course many performance artists work in other mediums as well (if only because without a tangible art object, it’s a little harder to make money and artists need to eat too). Also related is performance poetry, which is a more text based version of performance art. While both involve performing, performance poetry is considered part of literature, while performance art is part of the visual arts.

And so dear readers, I must ask, what else would you like me to cover? I’m running through my laundry list of things I wish people understood better, so I’m taking requests.

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

7 replies on “What’s the Deal With Performance Art?”

I’m really enjoying these columns!

I’m having trouble thinking of stuff I’d like to understand better off the top of my head. Maybe the complexities of contemporary sculpture work (metal, wood, etc.)? I like a lot of the interesting shapes and the twists and the colors and all that, but I don’t really know why one sculpture is considered great and another isn’t.

I’m glad you like them. I aim to please.

And that is really good, but also rather complex question. Developing a strong critical eye for any movement requires a solid grasp on design fundamentals, which are a bit like grammar in a artwork.  Then there is the ability to convey message with your work, and be relevant. I’d love to tackle this, but it will probably be a two-parter, at least, to cover the groundwork on how to suss out good vs bad art, and then a third on contemporary sculpture itself.

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