By Weronika Kocurkiewicz
Performance art, or living art, is considered to be the most radical medium and is generally acknowledged to have revolutionised and shaped the way we perceive art today. Despite this, it still struggles to be accepted. Why this should be so is debatable, it could be because of the ignorance and indifference of established art media, or that people find it too controversial, viewing it as something that is simply too difficult to comprehend. This lack of attention is unfortunate, as performance gives vibrancy and a true experience of art itself. In a time in which there is a high tendency of labelling, defining and classifying within society, performance art remains independent, unexpected and shocking in a way that cannot be easily categorised.
Laurie Carlos perfectly encapsulated the complexity of the medium as “the one place where there are so few definitions”, which empowers artists to express their reactions to contemporary political, social or personal issues in a more emphatic way than vigorously splashing paint on canvas or constructing a piece of sculpture to symbolise their viewpoint. This revolt began in the1910s when Dadaists performed irrational concerts and festivals in galleries, cafés, and other unconventional locations that disorientated the public. In the 1960s this concept had further evolved into a more provocative form. It benefited from aperiod of social and political upheaval where exhibitionism, nudity and profanity were a popular form of expression by many artists such as Karen Finley, Carolee Schneemann and Yoko Ono.
In a time in which there is a high tendency of labelling, defining and classifying within society, performance art remains independent, unexpected and shocking in a way that cannot be easily categorised.
Most recently it has become a powerful tool used by artists to distinctly manifest their fury on inequality between men and women. The most recent example of this is of a French performance artist, Deborah de Robertis who was arrested on 24 September 2017 for exhibitionism in front of the Mona Lisa (c.1517) at the Louvre while shouting through a megaphone: “Ma chatte, mon copyright!” (My pussy, my copyright!). On 18 October, she was pronounced not guilty as it was understood that her intentions were solely artistic. However, according to the article on Hyperallergic, museum authorities asked de Robertis to delete photographs of her performance in front of the Mona Lisa from the internet. She stated that this request clearly showed that The Louvre was more concerned about the painting and its reputation rather than exposure of “pink female flesh”. Undoubtedly, the idea of exposing in front of the most famous work of art in the world brings a powerful message questioning the position of conventional forms of art and women in the art world. The backlash de Robertis experienced from the establishment suggests that art world is still constrictive and artists have little choice but to focus on traditional mediums rather than challenging manifestation, which in this case, reinforces the problematic positioning of women in the history of art.
Apart from the rebellious character of this form of art, it is worth mentioning the ephemeral nature of living art which undoubtedly distinguishes itself from more traditional forms. It ceases to exist the moment it ends and can no longer be seen but imagined; only photographic evidence can provide a hint of what happened, which does not necessarily evoke the same emotions as watching it live. Furthermore, nothing in the performance happens twice, so the viewer is always expecting the unexpected which brings a sense of excitement and mystery to the whole spectacle. The viewer’s response is essential for the completion of the work, thus becoming performers themselves.
There are many great artists that have shocked and astonished their audiences with controversial performances, most notably Marina Abramović, whose work explores the physical limits of the human body. Her most famous work Rhythm 0 (1974) in which she let herself become ‘an object’ for six hours beside 72 other ‘objects’ on a table, and she encouraged visitors to use them on her body. In a video from the Marina Abramović Institute, she mentioned how fascinating it was to see the visible change in human nature as they were given freedom of choice during that performance. They went from ‘decorating’ her with various objects like roses and jewellery, to more extreme cases like scarring her with knife, taking her clothes off and giving her a pistol with one bullet as if to challenge her to pull the trigger. Marina Abramović was fascinated by the public’s transformation of morality during those six hours and she noticed that they were visibly vulnerable and scared afterwards. In summary, this intense performance showed how easy it is for a person to become an object that could fulfil people’s darkest desires.
The viewer’s response is essential for the completion of the work, thus becoming performers themselves.
The true beauty of performance art can only be understood when one has the opportunity to see it live. I recently went to see an exhibition called Breathing In Breathing Out which composed of six live performances by six artists at Green On Red Gallery in Dublin. The atmosphere was extraordinary – I was surrounded by people in complete silence with only footsteps to be heard from time to time as artists moved around the gallery, between visitors. Each performance was unique and words fail to adequately describe how I felt while I was watching. One thing that I am certain about is that I was heartbroken when the performances ended as I wished I could linger on those moments a bit longer, the drawback to this medium in general.
This constantly evolving medium challenges the canon of art through its provocative nature with no sign of slowing. It is an artform that excels in its use of contemporary issues as inspiration and encouragement of the public to reflect on them. There is a strong case that this is a significant missing piece in the study of art history that will need to be addressed in the years to come.