Art Dictionary

The Art of Performance

Performance

Laura Lima, Man=flesh/Woman=flesh – FLAT, 1997, performed for 12 Rooms at the Museum Folkwang, as part of the Ruhr Triennial 2012–14, 2012; from the publication 14 Rooms, Hatje Cantz, 2014

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In the 1960s and 1970s Performance Art was the hot genre: it promised nothing less than an encounter with life at its most exposed.

 “We didn’t want the seclusion of the theater, where only the initiated ventured, where people saw only abstractions of the world, not the dirty world itself. We chose the motto of the song, ‘Why Don’t We Do It in  the Road?’”  (Vito Acconci)

It was one of the freest, most vital forms of expression that emerged out of twentieth-century art: Performance Art, an artistic performance that replaced durable material products with temporary actions. Who can forget Roman Signer’s poetic Paper Wall at the documenta 8 in Kassel, when, during the art show’s closing event, he exploded thousands of sheets of paper into the air, forming a fleeting sculpture that only existed for a brief moment?

The word “performance” is closely associated with the theater. But instead of the written dialogue and simulated settings found in the theater, Performance Art involves artistic actions that take place in real time in front of an audience. As a rule, some space separates the actors and the observers during the actions; this distinguishes performances from happenings, in which the audience becomes a part of the artistic processes. Thus, performance artists offered an alternative to the primacy of economics and to an archaic concept of expression, which, in their eyes, determined the enjoyment of art and degraded it to the status of a commodity. At the same time their alternatives were frequently combined with social issues.

As a conceptually independent form of art, Performance Art had its beginnings in the late 1960 and early 1970s in the United States. However, it is possible to discern a tendency toward performance in the great avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century. Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists discovered that actions were an effective means of representation, and the focal point became the creative process itself, rather than the work of art and the creative subject. In the 1950s and 1960s happenings, Fluxus, and Viennese Actionism also developed provocative actions, not only protesting against the concept of the museum art object and its value as a commodity on the art market, but also rejecting the concept altogether. John Cage, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni were some of the major artists credited with influencing the later development of Performance Art as a discipline. Direct predecessors included Joseph Beuys, known as the “shaman of the new age,” who enchanted the public in special ways; as well as Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and practitioners of Body Art, who used their own bodies as material for their art.

In Europe Performance Art reached an apex in the mid-1970s. For example, 1977’s documenta 6, curated by Manfred Schneckenburger, devoted a great deal of space to Performance Art. Among the European centers was the Stichting de Appel, an old warehouse in Amsterdam. From 1975 onward, under the direction of Wies Small, it became a leading experimental platform for what was then still a young discipline.

Actions crossed the boundaries between genres; not only did they include elements of theater, but dance, movement, music, sound and noise, literature, photography, film, and video were also incorporated. The main medium was the performer’s body, not canvas and paint. Valie Export, for instance, created her provocative Tapp- und Tastkino (Touch and feel cinema) in 1968 by fastening a Styrofoam box with two openings over her naked breasts, and then encouraging passersby in Munich’s Stachus Square to put their hands into this “movie theater.” In 1971 Chris Burden had a friend shoot a bullet into his arm in his performance, Shoot, held at a gallery in Santa Ana, California. Marina Abramovic has also frequently used her body as the starting point for relentless, artistic self-questioning. In her infamous work, Rhythm 0, performed at a gallery in Naplesin 1974, she submissively exposed herself for several hours to the public, along with instruments such as scissors, knives, and pistols. This resulted in numerous attacks, and finally an injury to the artist. In his 1978 performance at the spa hall in Abano Terme, Scylla and Charybdis, Timm Ulrichs rolled with outstretched arms between two live electric wires in the hall—a tightrope act between life and death.

Never before has art addressed the public so directly. Never before has art and life been so closely associated; Performance Art moved beyond traditional art sites into the most private of spaces.

As an ephemeral, intangible form of art, Performance Art presented a great challenge to gallerists and museums, since documentary photographs and films, or word-of-mouth, could at best give only a mere impression of the sensations experienced at this kind of artistic event. Reenactments are therefore an alternative way of bringing historical performances back to life. For the project Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2005, for instance, Marina Abramovic chose seven groundbreaking performances by artists from the 1960s and 1970s and reenacted each of them in front of an audience over periods of several hours. Due to the problems involved in documenting them, as well as their economic impracticability, Performance Art was less popular on the art market than classic painting. Today, however, museums all over the world are touting the performative arts, as their spontaneity and power create enthusiasm in viewers—whose minds are, in the end, the perfect storage medium.

03.09.2014 Stefanie Gommel

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