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Performance art: weird or wondrous?

Performance art has the ability to polarize views. Even those quite open to conceptual art can lose their nut a bit in response to it. Performance art is the strange love-child of theatre and visual art and at the end you are left with no ‘art object’.

The first time I ever saw a piece of performance art in real life, I was at art school and about 17 years old.  It was in a darkened room, and there were big  piles of spice [or maybe pigment] on the ground. The artist slowly and carefully moved handfuls of the powder from one pile to another. It went on for about 20 minutes I guess. I was totally bemused and I’m pretty sure my reaction was WTF? Are you telling me this is supposed to be good? [Sorry I have no idea who the artist was: let me know if you do.

Since this inauspicious introduction to the art form I have become a lot more open and interested in performance art.

In 2010 artist Marina Abramović performed her piece The Artist Is Present at MoMa in New York. For more than ten weeks, every day for most of the day, she sat fairly still, not talking, looking straight at a member of the public. People would form a queue for a chance to sit with her for a short time, and they would just look into each others eyes. Many people found it an intense and emotional experience. But when you think about it you wonder ,why?  Why does looking into the eyes of a stranger in front of a crowd create such a moving experience? You could ask a friend to sit with you and stare into your eyes. But the thing is most of us just don’t think of doing these sorts of things in our normal lives. This is just s a little example of the power of performance art. It seems to have the ability to make us focus on little bits of our lives we would never normally even notice. The artist has opened a space for something new in your mind.


Above: Marina Abramović performing ‘The artist is present’. Although anyone who had queued could sit with her, in this instance it is her ex-lover, and ex-co-performer Ulay. They famously walked the length of the Great Wall of China starting at separate ends and meeting up in the middle.[And then broke up!]

Ulay  just turned up one day and it was very emotional for both of them. Abramović found sitting with many of the strangers very emotional too. One of the powerful elements of this performance was in its physicality. Sitting still, without talking or moving much, would be rather tortuous and it seems many people who sat with her received that effort as a gift. The sitters became part of the piece.

Photographer Marco Anelli took photographs of people as they sat with Abramović and has put the images together into a book called ‘portraits in the presence of  Marina Abramović.’ Personally I prefer the name of the post I found them on ‘Marina Abramović made me cry’.



Above: two of the portraits by Marco Anelli. You can see more of them here:

Actress Tilda Swinton  will be sleeping in a glass box in ongoing occasional performances of the piece called The Maybe at MoMa throughout the year. Dates will not be publicized, you will just have to be lucky to catch it.


Above: Swinton sleeping in her glass case. Image by Ming Chen Liao

The description of the piece reads ‘Living artist, glass, steel, mattress, pillow, linen, water, and spectacles.’

In response to an article about the piece in the Sydney Morning Herald website, people have said:

  • When my partner tells me to get my lazy butt off the couch, I usually tell her that she does not appreciate a great work of art and should admire the subtle beauty of the reclining human form. I feel sorry for her.

  • Better than a stuffed shark

  • Any crap is classified as ‘art’ these days!

One of the things I find funny with these pieces is how much the public will worry about when the artist will get to go to the toilet.

More comments:

  • I’d like to be paid to sleep too. But maybe not with so many watching me though. Are there any toilet breaks?

  • This is so crazy! Wonderful! but may i ask, what happens when she needs to go to the toilet?

It’s a kind worry I guess, but it also brings the artists back down to earth. Makes them human. Makes you realise its a real person doing the piece not just a ‘star’. This is one of the ways that performance art tends to differ from theater; in theatre you don’t want to break the illusion until the end, but with performance art it is up to the audience to break it, whenever they are ready to walk away.

With this piece you don’t get the connection you do with the Marina Abramović piece. You are not putting yourself out there with the artist. You are actually getting a chance to be rather pervy. The fact that its Tilda Swinton does make you more interested but it would still be very interesting with an unknown artist. You get the chance to stare right at someone while they are asleep, [ although she might only be pretending], and we don’t normally see people asleep up close apart from our loved ones and besties.

Not all performance art  pieces are so serious: I had the joyful experience of see a piece in June 2012 that had already been performed in various other countries: The Dachshund UN by artist Bennett Miller. Quoting the MCA in Sydney where it was on:

‘See 47 specially recruited live dachshunds engage in vigorous debate in this performance work examining the role of the United Nations as a risk management organisation. Bennett Miller creates both a joyful and chaotic experiment and a meditation on the utopian aspirations of the United Nations.’


Above: one of the delegates bitching about a problem.


Above: the dogs seen from above in their ‘UN’ stage.


Above: An elder statesman [or woman]. At its most simplistic, something about the different personalities of the dogs, makes me conscious of the different politics and religions in the world.

It was a very amusing experience. The day I saw it was very wet, so some of the dogs were not there. For me even the missing dog-delegates kind of highlighted the long winded talks that go on in the UN. One dog especially kept barking and it was like some old guy going on and on. Was it the delegate from Burkina Faso? For some reason before I saw this piece I was apoplectic with excitement. It was the middle of winter and pouring with rain but  no way was I going to miss this. Sure I am mad for dogs in general and very keen on the noble sausage dog, but why did I need to see this so bad? I guess it was kind of the mad genius of it. Really very silly but also quite lovely. I love this piece because it reminds me to think big.

I have never done a live performance art piece.  But I am attracted to it because you are involving the audience in your work and your feedback is immediate. You have to be pretty bold to do a piece of performance art especially if its obscure. Be willing to brave the confused faces. And some people get angry when they don’t understand art, so you might have to put up with some shit. But on the upside if you do manage to create a piece that draws people in, it would be pretty rewarding. For me, the pieces that I have enjoyed  are the pieces that broke open  a little chink in my mind,  pieces that showed me a new way to look at something

Many visual artists have never even thought  about performance art as a medium they could explore. But if you are one of those artists who are thinking big, or thinking reactions or thinking commitment to a physically tortuous event, or if you realise you need to involve your own body in a piece, then performance art may be for you.

If you do decide to give it a go, report back and I will happily post it here.

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This entry was posted on March 28, 2013 by in Art and tagged .
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