Performance Now

QUT Art Museum, Brisbane
6 December 2014 – 1 March 2015

Showcasing performance works made since 2000, ‘Performance Now’ was curated by RoseLee Goldberg, a renowned authority on performance art history and author of the influential Performance Art, From Futurism to the Present (1979). On entering the exhibition one’s expectations were unsettled by the dominance of screen based art — in many ways this could have been mistaken for a video art show. 

Without doubt, the key attractor to the exhibition was the chance to see work by the acclaimed grandmother of performance art, Marina Abramović, who has been pivotal in bringing about a resurgence of interest in the form. Ironically titled, Seven Easy Pieces (2005), Abramović’s work is presented in the form of video documents on seven screens in a semi-circle. In a typically unforgiving and tortuous endurance, Abramović performed a gruelling seven hours per day, over seven consecutive days at the Guggenheim Museum. Her works re-enacted six seminal works from the 1960s and 1970s: Bruce Nauman (Body Pressure, 1974), Vito Acconci (Seedbed, 1972), Valie Export (Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969), Gina Pane (The Conditioning, 1973), Joseph Beuys (How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965), and her own work, Lips of Thomas (1975). The seventh and final work was her newest performance work, Entering the Other Side (2005). The re-enactment of these raw and highly provocative pieces not only tests the artist’s own will and endurance, but recontexualises the works — onto a female body, in an established art museum, as prolonged endurance pieces and outside of the cultural and political structures from which the works originated. 

A large body of the performance art generated in the 1960s and 1970s was a direct reaction against the object orientated art market. What remains today of many of these seminal performances are only traces and vestiges, which can never be experienced in their original context. The conflict between the ephemerality and permanence of performance art continues to this day, however in the age of hyper media, disappearance is harder to attain. The raw and threadbare ethos of some performance art has previously made it attractive for artists in their embryonic experimental stage. However, for Goldberg, performance art is a discipline in transformation, becoming a kernel out of which a more ‘solid’ art is realised, in the form of video art, installation or multi-media art. This transformation away from the ephemeral is not only a legacy of the greater availability of new media, but also a result of the re-appraisal of performance art history, which has spurred a frenzy of remediation and re-enactment. For purists, however, this transformation represents a departure and a loss of the form’s distinguishing character of presence, and the authenticity of the body in a space at a certain time. 

The approach to media documentation for performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s was largely rudimentary, an ‘as is’, unedited, point and shoot style. The artists in ‘Performance Now’ markedly contrast with this approach — employing sophisticated techniques of cinematic editing, shot sequencing and musical soundtracks — all of which rely on techniques which detract from a live experience. The process of remediation generally responds adversely to works reliant on intensity, presence and context. Other works were enhanced through a capacity to emphasise, condense and layer particular view points. 

Clifford Owens’s Anthology (score by Nsenga Knight) (2011) presents two large format photographs, before and after, from which one gleans that a white pigment exploded into the surrounding space — the sound impact, the danger and the possibly startling sensation are all but drained by this choice of remediation. Israeli filmmaker Yael Bartana’s Mary Koszmary (2007) or Nightmares, the first in a trilogy, makes ample use of sophisticated film techniques. In the film, a young, bespectacled fictional political leader calls from within Warsaw’s crumbling and empty Olympic Stadium, for the return of Polish Jews. Nandipha Mntambo’s Ukungenisa (2008) a short digital video, is also located inside an empty and abandoned stadium. Mntambo brazenly steps into the centre ring and takes on the masculine bullfighter’s ritualised poses, wearing an elaborate cowhide costume, merging instincts for both offensive and protective action. 

Surreptitiously filmed inside multiple IKEA stores, Guy Ben-Ner’s Stealing Beauty (2007) plays out domestic melodramas about masturbating in the shower and the differences between love, theft and property. Deliberately crude in its approach, shoppers drift through mid-scene, all set in the idyllic maze of sofas and kitchenettes, the price tags still attached. 

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy No. 2 (2008) deconstructs a Beethoven classic, oft employed as an empowering humanist anthem. Allora & Calzadilla take a literal interpretation of the avant-garde technique of ‘inside piano’, cutting a fifty centimetre hole inside the body of the piano, through which the pianist then plays the keyboard, wrong way round. This is startling enough, until you realise that the pianist is also pushing and moving the piano across the gallery space while playing. 

The only live performance work was by the Brisbane duo Clark Beaumont (Nicole Beaumont and Sarah Clark) at the exhibition opening, entitled Reenactment of the time Nicole saved Sarah (2014). The performance re-enacted a real-life hiking misadventure — when Sarah lost her footing, Nicole saved her from catapulting down a steep rock face. The pair played out the event on a faux inclined rock slab, extending the duration of what would have been only seconds to almost an hour. Sarah’s fear of heights and their sweating and trembling bodies negotiating both space and intimacy, on a precarious ledge, drew comparisons with their performance Coexisting (2013) for ‘13 Rooms’. 

It remains to be seen whether performance art will be subsumed by other media, or if it will continue to maintain its distinctive characteristics. For many, the appeal of performance art is its reaction against hyper media. The Abramović dictum of ‘no clocks, no watches, no phones… silent like a desert’ embodies this perfectly well. 

Clifford Owens, Anthology (Nsenga Knight), 2011. Two digital prints. Courtesy of On Stellar Rays. Collection for Sharing and Learning. 

Marina Abramović, Seven easy pieces, 2005. Seven screen installation, colour, sound. 7hrs. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelley Gallery, New York.