Performance Art, Not the Art of Performance

Performance Art as a movement and style is a somewhat hazy area for definition in the language of art. When asking a non practitioner or academic, the response usually points to the most familiar direction: theatre. Desperately, you try to find words to describe to them that yes what appears to be theatrical is not theatre as the level of concept behind the piece goes beyond any sort of script, the site specification means it can never (mostly) be reproduced, bought, or re- exhibited, and there is little room for traditional narrative. But when it comes to handing out technique terms to the arts, Performance Art has been neglected. Even the word ‘Performance’ is spread out thickly as an adjective across multiple disciplines, making its meaning almost generic.

Trinidadian performance artist Michelle Isava outlines a version of the term, stating:

“I usually define performance art by what it is not: it is not theater and it is not dance although it does use the body. It is important for me to do that because in the development of the arts in Trinidad & Tobago people tend to have a clear reference of theatre and dance through our rich folk traditions. However it must also be those things because our folk traditions are an important aspect of our history in which as a people we were able to create a voice through reclaiming an identity using the body; this is also crucial if we are to understand performance art in a historical and local perspective and truly claim it instead of borrowing it. At the moment it is something more ephemeral- something being created so it is and is not anything but once we realize how richly performative our culture is we will know that we are in a fertile space for performance art…Performance art in the Caribbean does not have to fit any mold or definition once we can clearly see the performative qualities of a transformation taking place. New media is fluid in this way and so photography can be a performance, an opening of an event can be a performance….”

This provides a localized relevance to Performance Art. Being an underexposed medium in the region, Caribbean viewers appear to find it hard to engage with or interpret Performance Art other than in the sense of theatrics. This could be due to a combination of the conservative nature of Caribbean people when it comes to art, as well as the lack of a formal Art History curriculum to provide a background on the origin of the movement.

Performance art first surfaced arguably during the brief art movements of Dadaism and Futurism, which were founded on questioning the perception of art and society at the time. For example, the Dadaist Hugo Ball in the early 20th century would present his ‘sound-poems’ to audiences, taking apart words and exhibiting them phonetically rather than for their meaning, deconstructing the function of language, as a demonstration of his dissatisfaction with the structure of society. However, it wasn’t until the Conceptual Art era of the 1960s-1970s that Performance Art really came into a medium of its own. Some notable artists to emerge at this time were Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys and Gilbert and George. Nauman highlighted the often repetitive nature of the relationship between body and object, through his monotonous works such as Eating My Words from 1966-1967, where he is depicted continuously spreading jelly on bread letters.

British duo Gilbert and George viewed their everyday life as an art form, and so incorporated this theme in their performance pieces, effectively constructing live self portraits, claiming every action they carried out is an art piece. Joseph Beuys took on a more holistic approach through his performance pieces, drawing on the Dadaist principles of re-defining the boundaries of art. For example, in his work How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965, the audience were prohibited from entering the gallery space where Beuys performed, rather, they had to view through the windows. Beuys then preceded to explain in hushed whispers to the carcass of a hare a series of artworks on display. The concept of the artist as a Shaman (spiritual, inverted self) also resonated with Beuys, a concept which Michelle Isava said she connected with in relation to Annalee Davis’ use of the term for Barbadian artist Joscelyn Gardner’s work White Skin. Black Kin. Speaking the Unspeakable. It would appear this sense of introversion as inspiration, the desire to self transform rather than perform, crosses cultural barriers when it comes to performance artists and is a key aspect of the work produced in the Caribbean.

Joseph Beuys ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’ 1965

In the contemporary Caribbean art scene, Venezuelan Sandra Vivas as well as Michelle Isava seem to be the fore runners for Performance Art. In her own words, Vivas sees her works as “a sort of contemporary pastiche that deals with the irony of things from our daily lives, the questioning of certain ideas taken for granted…” This ideology can be seen in a recent performance work of hers, Bolero IV from 2008. In this piece, Vivas encircled herself in a ring of liquid fire, ritualistically using a spoon to draw the ring with the gas. Then she preceded to light it, and inside the burning entrapment, she sang “Rien de Rien”. The conclusion of the performance was Vivas extinguishing the fire. This work could be viewed as depicting woman trapped within the definitions of gender roles, the lyrics of the song roughly translate to “Nothing at all…it never happens to me”. The extinguishing could be seen as Vivas liberating herself from these roles simply by exhibiting and questioning them. Another interesting piece was her 2006 work XYZ carried out at the Galeria de Arte Nacional in Caracas. During this performance, Vivas was sat at a typewriter, typing paragraphs on a long sheet of paper which was then passed over her head and to her husband who sat behind her at a second typewriter and edited the material. This was interpreted as a commentary on the censorship of the Venezuelan press. However it could also be viewed as a type of oppression for women, that the woman’s thoughts must be edited by a man before they are deemed acceptable. Universally it seems slightly patronizing as well, in the visual of the material literally going over both of their heads, perhaps suggesting that the Venezuelan people are oblivious to the censorship.

Sandra Vivas ‘XYZ’ 2006

Michelle Isava’s work appears to demonstrate the correlation between her space and anxiety. This is seen in the performance piece Why Did You Go So Far? from this year. In this performance, Isava begins by being trapped between a sheeted bed frame which has been fixed vertically to a window sill. She proceeds to remove the white sheet from the frame, and reveals herself wearing a white child’s dress. The next section of the performance sees her attempting to escape from between the frame and window, whilst periodically chanting ‘Emergency’. Finally, she frees herself from the contraption and slides down onto a pile of white feathers collected on the floor. However, she seems unable to retain any balance in her freedom, and her attempts to stand up continuously fail. In the end, she covers herself with the white sheet amongst the feathers. Inside the cage, she is in full control of her limbs and desperate to escape. Once escaped however, she finds that she is no longer able to communicate function through her movement, and so the paradox is revealed: If we escape from our stereotypes, our heritage that cages us, are we, as Caribbean people, still able to function and communicate some sort of identity? Or do we just suffer from a different version of our anxiety?

Photography and video are crucial to the preservation of Performance Art, something which makes the pieces accessible to a vast range of audiences and a beneficial tool for the exposure of the medium to the Caribbean. However, the best way to view a performance piece is in its original space. For Performance Art is not a commodity of entertainment, it is not meant to be distributed or applauded at. You wouldn’t applaud at a painting, so likewise, a performance piece should be engaged with on a conceptual level. It is Performance Art, after all, not the art of performance.

©Natalie McGuire 2011

2 thoughts on “Performance Art, Not the Art of Performance

  1. Annalee Davis says:

    Natalie, I noticed this morning a posting in fb about the newly formed Dance and Performance Institute just next door in Trinidad. It is an is an “international community of dance and performance artists, a forum for exchange, and series of programs on contemporary dance & performance.” Hopefully when Michelle Isava, who you wrote about in your recent article comes up to Barbados for the FRESH MILK event next week, she can tell us more about this space… expanding our awareness of what’s happening right next door, here in the Caribbean. This is important for us to understand so that our references will broaden beyond Beuys (who is seminal for contemporary practitioners everywhere) to include Caribbean references which will resonate differently for us.

  2. Shola says:

    Hey Natalie – had a look at this and the other websites. Great stuff, I like! Keep it up and best of luck with progressing art in the region.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.