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.

But if performance art is all, or even partly, about denying the market, how do performance artists make a living unless they happen to marry a Beatle? The answer is the same as for the vast majority of artists who don’t make a living from their work: they do other things. They teach, they have part-time jobs as care workers, waiters, shop assistants and archivists, and they muddle through on a patchwork of residencies, bursaries, commissions and exhibitions.

Nevertheless the market, in all its guises, is very difficult to escape, and performance also emerges in video, photography and the ephemera of the event. Following the self-imposed destruction of everything he had ever owned in Break Down, Michael Landy steadfastly refused to sell the sacks that contained his shredded life, despite intense pressure to do so. In other cases, however, a video or other documentation can be all that remains of an event, and presents an opportunity to bring it to a wider public.

Loop Art Fair, which takes place in Barcelona every May, is dedicated to selling video art, and it is interesting to see the ways in which gallerists package video to create an object to sell. Intriguing anomalies emerge. A film that can be downloaded from the internet, or that costs €30 on a compilation DVD from, for example, talentsvideo.com, could be sold to a museum or collector for €25,000; the higher price gives the purchaser permission to show the work publicly. The collector and the museum are also subscribing to the idea of supporting the artist in making their work by buying it.

All video art is not simply a record of performances, but with both video and performance there is the continuing problem of quality.

Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery in London, says in the current issue of Frieze Masters magazine that “the art form I don’t relate to – I’d put it more strongly actually – is video because it seems to me so often merely to be an incompetent form of film, made with the excuse that it is untainted by the professionalism associated with the entertainment industry. I’m not very impressed by conceptual art nor very often by performance art.”

He’s right, of course. There is a great deal of bad video and bad performance art about, and Niamh Murphy, an organiser of next week’s Dublin Live Art Festival, agrees. One of the problems is that with painting and sculpture, the market plays a large part in deciding what is recognised as art and what isn’t, and has been fundamental to developing a consensus around art for centuries. Subtract that system and you’re left with the network of curators, collectors and museum directors. Take them away too, because a great deal of performance can’t be collected, and you’re left with personal judgment.

Another issue Murphy highlights is that performance has to be tested in front of an audience, so experiments and failures can be very public.

There is also the matter of personal embarrassment. It can be acutely uncomfortable to be faced with a naked man covering himself in mud, as Nigel Rolfe did, or in mustard, as Paul McCarthy did, or with a woman slowly ripping the fabric from her costume, as in the work of Amanda Coogan. But consider that heightened sense of self-awareness, and of facing things that you may otherwise tend to avoid, as part of the experience, and you’re on your way to realising what performance art uniquely has to offer.

Some of it is also great fun. Aideen Barry’s Flight Folly (2010) saw the artist attach 16 remote-control helicopters to her white silk dress. At the touch of a button, the helicopters took off, slowly raising the artist’s skirt. Escapism? Freedom? Remote-control sexism? It may have been all of these things. It was also a wonderful moment, which may not even have had a point at all, and that can be one of the best things about contemporary art, whatever form it takes.

On public view: Memorable moments in performance art

Yoko Onomakes the emerging performance art famous. In Cut Piece (1964), she asks audience members to cut her clothes off until she is naked. Bed in for Peace documents her honeymoon with John Lennon

Chris Burdenis shot in the left arm by an assistant from a distance of five metres in Shoot (1971). In Trans-fixed (1974), he is crucified on the back of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Vito Acconcimasturbates under a New York gallery floor for eight hours a day in Seedbed (1972).

Marina Abramovicperforms her first piece, Rhythm 10, in 1973, using the “game” of trying to stab between splayed fingers with a knife to explore the limits of mind and body.

Alastair MacLennanwalks the streets of Belfast clad in black, veiled in polythene, and with a dartboard hung from his neck in Target (1977).

Michael Landycatalogued and then destroyed everything he had ever owned in Break Down (2001). The event took place in a former CA department store on Oxford Street in London.


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