Performance Art

In a sparkling new mall in Jamaica, Queens, there is a gallery, Crossing Art, that is very worth attending, with pieces by Cui Fei, Li Shan, and other notable artists (primarily Chinese and Chinese-Americans) and perfect air conditioning.

McCorkle and I went out to Crossing Art to participate in A-Lab Forum called “Queering the Bodies,” for which the blurb ran:

“QUEERING THE BODIES revolves around issues and concerns about the body as a tableaux, interface, canvas, and/or agent for artistic creation. Participating artists explore notions of identity, gender construction, and social representation in relation to the physical or virtual representation of the body image. This month’s forum presents artists who use the body as canvas, as user interface (UI) or as a metaphor for the exploration of territory(ies) within their work(s) and general practice in contemporary art. ”

It turned out that a discussion of bodies can’t help but encompass the whole of “performance art” as such. The other artists on the panel were:

Matthew de Leon
Christen Clifford
Alison Ward
Genevieve White

Genevieve White we knew from the PERFORMANCY FORUM where she showed a video in May of her project “33 Balloons“. She went to school (The New School) with Matthew de Leon, and Meghann Snow (who will be performing as part of the July 2 PERFORMANCY FORUM). These three artists are perhaps a good indication of where performance art, as part of the visual arts industry, lives in the hands of artists born in the mid ’80’s (like myself and McCorkle). Durational, pre-invested with symbolic or representational meaning, body-conscious, and often slightly comedic, either via repetition or overt theatricality, the work has a “contained” feeling, which perhaps stems from the art industry’s constant battle to make performance art a consumable product in the same way that a painting or sculpture can be, or perhaps as a continuation of performance art’s birth from action/conceptual work. As a slightly older artist, Alison Ward’s work contains elements of this also, for example her video piece during which she devours 30 cupcakes as they appear, at first delighted and eventually hiccuping (in a squeaky electronically modified voice) with helplessness and despair: repetition, action-as-symbol, self-abuse. However, Ward, dressed in a pink costume, bridges this kind of durational performance with narrative/theatrical performance art, which lives on the line between visual art performance and theater. In particular, Ward’s work exists in a universe of characters and environmental unity (as does de Leon’s) that is also very much a part of contemporary performance art (witness Ryan Trecartin, Tamy Ben-Tor, etc) and references a type of universe and characters that exist in one of the primary current aesthetics (western/rural, fairy tale/Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and Murakami would be my top votes for most popular). The piece that Christen Clifford (who is a NYFA Fellow so I was familiar with her work) showed was a kind of homage to Carolee Shneemann’s 1975 Interior Scroll. Clifford said that she was interested in embodying Shneemann’s rage and relating it to postpartum depression and anger, not performing a parody of 1970’s Feminist art, but rather working to feel inside it. This is getting into a whole other post (which would be mostly about Marina Ambramovic at MoMA this year and re-behavior etc) but in relation to this general post about “where we are” (with which I am obsessed) I believe that Clifford’s piece demonstrates a definite re-evaluation of the role of performance art, especially in terms of EMOTION, in terms of the artist’s subjective/private emotional impetus, the desired emotional response from an audience/spectator (which Hector asked us about) and in terms of theatricality, and mode of expression. Clifford’s piece culminates in the smashing of child-related items, cribs, baby buggy, etc, with a metal pipe. This overt emotional action in contrast with White’s expressionless inflation and bursting of red balloons actually was not that great, I mean they did not seem that different; both actions spoke to the usefulness vs. destructive capabilities of emotion and likewise (consciously I think) to the emotional spectrum inherent to performance as a medium.

I guess this is where I found the subject of the forum most pertinent, the body vs. its content, and the body vs. its implications, indicators, and index. The “queer” body is one that has no normative, permanently adapted state, but one that shifts its identity and form to communicate, to express, to describe, although at a certain point a person (I) balk at so much deconstruction and bandying-about and re-definition of words, though it all delights me.

Well, we know why performance art is important, but here are my top three (out of 26) reasons why performance art is a crucial part of industrialized cultures (I won’t speak about non-industrialized cultures or “pre” and “post” as if time is linear) this is mostly for theater people, art people, you’ve heard all this already:

1.) Art History 101: It is not a commodified object, no matter how hard it is pushed in that direction. As a temporary, experience-based product it can be monetarily consumed only as documentation or ticket to the show, not possessed. This is a stone in the tooth of all-masticating capitalism, which keeps it Outside to a certain degree and perhaps allows a bit more “objectivity” to its commentary.

2.) The relationships between the subjective/private experience of the artist in performance and in creation/planning of it is contrasted to the shared/public experience of the performance as a product, which creates a contextual filter for all and any content that reminds us that we are separate selves, and that we are not separate selves. This paradox needs to be constantly recognized as it holds the access point to the reason for human consciousness (ability to make decisions for the future in consideration of both the self and the species).

3.) Despite its loose boundaries and “anything goes” manifestos, the medium “performance” has one of the tightest dialectics in the arts today and is perhaps the only artistic field that has really tied itself theoretically to and constantly examined itself in light of contemporary philosophy, political science, other social sciences scholarship, and more. Like theater, performance art is about people (in terms of depiction AND subject matter, if you can find a piece that isn’t, please let me know) and is therefore interested in minds, bodies, thoughts, feelings, words, imaginations, actions, etc, etc and often analyzes these in detail, unifying art and thought in a way that I feel is extremely culturally sustainable. As such, performance art remains in a state of constant experiment, testing what it means to be human and testing complex ideas about what it means to be human. Hypotheses are all very well and good, and so are images and emotional bursts, but performance can test hypotheses against emotion, to see if they feel true.


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