Putting on a show: what good is performance art?
Can a man shred his belongings and a woman chop up her clothes in front of an audience and call it art? And is it okay to justify bad video by saying you’re refusing to commodify your work, asks GEMMA TIPTON
A MAN DRESSED in a crisp white shirt and black trousers flings himself into the muddy waters of a peat bog; a couple spend their honeymoon in bed, inviting the world’s press to join them; and a trio of women gently drool down their fine blue silk dresses. Of all the art forms, performance can be the hardest to understand. Attracting confusion and derision, or simply ignored, performance – and its close cousin video – might sum up all that’s wrong with art that is, at its worst, esoteric, pretentious and deliberately difficult.
But when a performance artist, Spartacus Chetwynd, and a video artist, Elizabeth Price, are shortlisted for the Turner Prize, perhaps it’s time to start taking more notice. And with Remnants showing the work of Amanda Coogan, Dominic Thorpe and Aideen Barry at Ballina Arts Centre, and the Dublin Live Art Festival opening on Tuesday, it is possible to explore what goes on when art happens in front of you.
Performance art, or live art, began at the turn of the last century, with Dada, the Futurists and events at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich exploring how art could be made to do something different. Fast-forward a decade or two and the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning saw a painting as a record of the processes of its making. What you see on the canvas – the gestures, marks, lines and splashes – are as much about the mental energies of the artist made physical as about creating the perfect, finished product.
The idea of product became key to performance in the 1960s and 1970s, when performance artists, as well as land artists, tried to find ways to make art that the market couldn’t commodify. Alastair MacLennan, a performance artist based in Belfast, has spoken of his dislike of art as “cultural real estate”. Politicising that refusal of capitalism was part of the impetus behind gestures such as Yoko Ono’s Bed in for Peace, her honeymoon with John Lennon.
As the form developed, artists started to investigate the limits of what the human mind and body can endure. It also saw the making of art in which both artist and audience can experience an empathetic connection. Most painters and sculptors seldom get a sense of how members of the public feel when standing in front of their work, and, working alone in a studio, they don’t get a chance to feed off that energy as they make their art.