Why Performance?

January 21st, 2005 · No Comments · Writing

The recent interest in the Chris Burden/UCLA controversy has gotten me thinking again about why it is that we do what we do. It doesn’t take much of an introduction to 20th century art history to stumble across some of the more disturbing aspects of performance art. The history of performance art crosses all spectrums, [be forewarned before following these links] from live animal butchering to all manner of bodily manipulations and exploitations, to quests of endurance and the ability to withstand pain, to sex acts in all possible manifestations, to ritualistic spiritual exercises, to public deviance and law-breaking and taboo-busting, and the list goes on and on. [The selected links are off the top of my head, not at all encyclopedic.]

If you can think of an example of something that can’t possibly have been done, it probably has been. Chris Burden had himself crucified (nails through his palms) to the hood of a VW Beetle, shot in a gallery, and stuffed into a school locker for 5 days (not all at once: those were three separate events). Vito Acconci experimented with picking random people and following them for an entire day, documenting their every move. Orlan has been using plastic surgery to alter her own appearance in ritualistic surgical performances; she’s aiming for monstrous. I could site a hundred examples of performance art that makes even art world devotees shudder.

The question I’ve been asking myself lately is why are we interested in associating ourselves with this branch of visual art, when neither one of us is a fan of 90% of the visual art-based performance out there?

In the 1940s, John Cage said that art would eventually end up on stage. He had identified a trajectory that Pollock and others had initiated, and it is easy to connect the dots from action painting to body art.

Performance art’s inevitability is obvious. As is the inevitability of its supersession by a return to more traditional media and methods. All things old are new again, see the recent Undiscovered Country show at the Hammer for examples of current, largely figurative, and often pretty, contemporary paintings.

Even if it weren’t for the blood-and-gore history of performative work, we might question the media simply for the fact that its day has largely come and gone. Right?

Perhaps we might, if it weren’t for our love of avant-garde dance and theater and contemporary architecture.

Visual artists have largely explored the fundamental territory in performative works, but the incorporation of movement, dialogue, text, research, space and composition in visually-based performative work is still under-explored. It is in the melding of those elements, rooted in the rich possibilities of collaboration, that we are captivated.

There is nothing more interesting than other people — this accounts for the historical preference for figurative artwork. Most 20th century performance art is about one person, and specifically, about the body itself. The work we are interested in making holds personhood in high regard, and is keenly interested in the sociological and psychological make-up of people as individuals and as a community. We have found that the best arena for exploration of this kind is in large-scale performance installations.

It is also our love of collaborating with one another that keeps us interested in performance installations. The work we do is accommodating of all of our areas of interest, and takes the expertise and interest of both partners to accomplish. Murray is a sculptor and installation artist, an accomplished builder and craftsman, an architect and engineer, a draftsman, a planner, a visual master, a colorist, a technologist, a video artist and photographer, and a performer and dancer. I am a writer and poet, a text artist, editor and researcher, a historian, a project manager and account balancer, a caterer, grantwriter, costume designer, casting director, people manager, and a conceptual artist and a musician. We both traverse in each other’s areas with the intention of gaining mastery. Together our talents are ideally suited for the work we do.

Although to claim performance art as our media places us in the context of artists we don’t necessarily feel kinship with, we choose to align ourselves with the transcendent power of Pina Bausch‘s dance performances, Robert Wilson’s theater works, with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s community-building public work projects, with Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk’s experimental music and performance works, and Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Cage. With the lyrical Ann Hamilton, a personal favorite, and with the Japanese artist collective dumbtype, and many others: see our list of influences for more.

Live performance is a powerful medium, filled with communicative possibility. To close the door to its artistic development is tantamount to the historically inaccurate claim of painting’s demise. Performance too can move past the early stages of its development and into a future full of profundity and lyricism. We choose performance because we want to be an integral part of that development.

Category: Writing

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