First steps in appreciating performance art

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From Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
  • From Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present
Earlier this autumn I spent a few weeks reading about the German director Werner Schroeter in order to write about Facets's retrospective of his film work. It was probably the longest period of time I'd ever spent thinking about performance art, and I came out of it feeling barely capable of writing about it competently. Last week I was reminded again of how little I knew when I reviewed the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, which also concerns the medium. Performance art seems to operate in a unique aesthetic language; and though it's technically more immediate than any other art form (there's no canvas, script, or musical instruments separating artist from audience), it can be the hardest to assess. At one point The Artist Is Present recounts a piece made by Abramovic and her former partner Uwe Laysiepen called The Lovers, in which each one walked across the Great Wall of China starting from opposite ends; the moment at which they passed marked the end of their 12-year romantic and creative partnership. By what criteria do you determine the value of that sort of thing?

The Abramovic documentary does a decent job explaining what performance artists set out to do, providing lay spectators with enough context to judge it for themselves. As the movie presents it, performance art exploits the intimate shared space between artist and audience so that everyone involved might confront aspects of corporeal existence. It's worth noting that a crucial difference between performance pieces and traditional forms like painting or literature is that the latter are designed to be preserved for future generations while the former exists only when it's performed. (It's also different from theater, in that the piece derives much of its meaning from the performers' physiognomies; you can't talk about remounting it as you would a play.) More than any other art form, it requires an audience for its very existence: a book still retains its meaning when nobody's reading it.

Perhaps it's for this reason that some spectators assume all performance art is pretentious or self-indulgent and reject it entirely. To be honest, pretentious and self-indulgent are the first adjectives that come to mind when I encounter a piece I especially dislike. In another work discussed in The Artist Is Present, Abramovic and Laysiepen stood naked in the narrow corridor of an art gallery, facing each other less than a foot apart. Gallery patrons would have to squeeze between their naked bodies in order to get through. Well, who hasn't experienced that at a frat party? I suppose there's value in having to touch the naked bodies of two strangers, but it's ephemeral and one can find it in vehicles other than art.

I find myself responding more positively to performance pieces wherein the thematic concerns aren't so abstract. Since watching Schroeter's performance-art documentary Dress Rehearsal, I've often thought about a short piece presented near the end of that movie. In that work a man and woman would embrace, then a second man would separate them, unhinging their bodies as though taking apart a piece of machinery. The trio repeated these actions with increasing speed until they looked like clockwork; finally, the lovers achieved such a frenzy that they didn't need the intervention of another party to separate. What a succinct illustration of how internalize social order—and how universal. The performers rooted this process in intimate physical interaction; it didn't matter whether the process in question represented communism or capitalism or nothing at all. Anyone could recognize the feeling these bodies communicated.

My favorite film to incorporate performance art remains Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie, which features an extended sequence with Otto Mühl and a group of artists who called themselves Vienna Actionists. In this scene, the group (playing denizens of a revolutionary compound that kidnaps the movie's Candide-like heroine) set a communal dinner, only to destroy it with all sorts of infantile behavior, including induced vomiting and urinating on each other. If you've seen this sequence, chances are you've never forgotten it. I, for one, have never seen so many nominally sane adults appear to abandon their sanity so completely. Makavejev's film is a grand-scale meditation on the promises and limitations of liberty; the actions of Mühl and company represent a certain end point, a state of mind in which free will is no longer an ideal but a nightmarish curse.

From Sweet Movie
  • From Sweet Movie

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