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Performance Arts Can Be Either High Art or Just Having a Laugh

Street Performance Art - George Chernilevsky

This art-form is an event by an individual or group, who create something approximating to art, but as a living performance, as pure fun or with a message.

Not sculpture, painting, nor pure theatre performance, it’s a mixture, of no fixed time, in an unusual or unexpected place. It might play to a random audience, like shoppers, or people in a park, and the relationship between performers and audience is crucial to make the event.

Mime artists on little boxes in summer resorts or festival fringes heavily made-up like robots or characters from movies or sci-fi fantasies, constitute performance art. Falk Richwien from Germany beheaded two rabbits at a gallery in 2006, claiming he wanted people to break from a supermarket culture and reconnect with their primitive hunter-gatherer instincts. Animal welfare organisations were outraged.

Definitions of Performance Art

Although performance art can include regular activities like theatre, dance, and circus events (juggling, gymnastics, contortionists, fire acts), it’s usually accepted that performance art is more experimental, cutting-edge and controversial. It grew out of visual arts more than performing arts. Sometimes the artist’s own body/experience is an essential part of the installation or conceptual event.

Damien Hurst formaldehyde-pickled sheep and cow in glass cases, and Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and stories of her sordid past have become part of the cultural artistic landscape. British artists Gilbert & George have demonstrated nowadays artists are equally entertainers and creators of 2D and 3D art. They dress up, paint themselves, turn themselves into works of art by reinterpreting existing works. And as, like all performance art, it’s fleeting and momentary, the performance recording (photo, video) becomes the new work of art in itself.

Exhibitions of Death

Displaying the bodies of Uday and Qusay, sons of Saddam Hussein in 2003, was not performance art. Madame Tussaud began her eponymous collection by making wax moulds of the guillotined heads of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. Is such grisly display properly called art, even when it becomes the Chamber of Horrors?

German scientist Gunther von Hagen has created a macabre display of 25 human corpses and 175 body parts preserved by what he calls plastination, arguing that we understand the living through examining the dead. He has a skinned male body crouched over a chessboard; a horse-rider with his skull chopped in two and a horse frozen in mid leap. There is a bisected body of an eight months pregnant woman, with her womb open to reveal the foetus. Controversial, shocking, clever maybe; but is it art?

Designed to Shock

People often assume David Blaine’s stunts of being frozen in a block of New York ice, suspended in a cage near London’s Tower Bridge, holding his breath for nine minutes are illusions, not performance art. Fellow American Spencer Tunick has persuaded thousands from Barcelona, Paris, Helsinki, Newcastle to be photographed naked in mass hordes on bridges and roads, in what he calls ‘installations’.

Chris Burden built a reputation for extreme artistic performance. He locked himself away for five days, crawled through broken glass and got others to electrocute him or kick him down stairs. Performance art: designed to shock. His most famous was 1971’s Shoot, in which an assistant shot a .22 calibre hole through his arm; and 1977’s Trans-fixed, in which his hands were nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen, as if he were latter-day Christ.

Wake Up and Hide was a 2007 installation piece staged in Matt’s Gallery in East London, in which video clips and technology gave visitors the unnerving experiences of finding people leave as they enter a room. This was designed to disturb rather than shock or outrage. The perching on the empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square during 100 days in 2009 saw 2400 people picked randomly from 35,000 applicants, each bask in an hour of fame. Exhibitionists, cranks and artists found audiences of the curious, the media and the jealous for this performance art.

Bruce Lacey was a madcap artist, performer, inventor and all-round British eccentric who appeared in the 11 minute silent slapstick comedy film, The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film of 1960. Starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, it saw Lacey in a scene playing a gramophone record by running around a tree stump holding the needle in a groove. It’s reputed to have influenced Monty Python’s Flying Circus later.

More recently, Chinese artist Wang Qingsong sat in Selfridge’s London shop window surrounded by an art installation of symbols of popular culture in a pool, commenting on the global hunger for retail therapy. Similarly, in 2006, in a storefront at 112 West 44th Street, Manhattan, two performance artists invited passers-by to write inner secrets on paper which was then posted on the window. The range of confessions that the public was happy to reveal anonymously was enormous, from bizarre to horrific, from unbelievable to mentally worrying.

But that is the beauty of performance art. It can be a form of mind-games, or pure entertainment. It can be extreme or mild, street theatre or full-on political activism; people can be entertained, amused or insulted, according to individual taste.

First published at Suite 101, 19 April 2010.

Photo: Street Performance Art – George Chernilevsky

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