Why the first martyrs weren't performance artists

The performance art of the 1960s and ’70s transformed acting into religion, writes Donatien Grau: pain, blood, and semen – they were doing it for real. The younger generation of performance artists are rejecting this heritage: their return to narrative is a way out of the mind-body dualism.

Performance rules. Its reign has invaded everything: it has invaded museums, such as, iconically, MoMA and the Guggenheim in early 2010, with Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present and Tino Sehgal’s Our Progress. It invaded Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s Map Marathon in October 2010 in London, where nearly 50 per cent of the contributions were performances. It has even invaded fashion shows, with more and more designers, such as Riccardo Tisci, expressing a feeling of “melancholy (inside) of fashion” as they think of the moment when fashion exclusively addressed fashion people and was merely and absolutely a way of finding the more adequate, inventive and beautiful clothes for the selected few and, in particular, the aristocracy. Today, fashion is a performance, and performance loves fashion.

Everyone implicated, closely or in a looser way, in the artworld simply cannot question the reign of performance. Some, such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist, explain it as a “desire for non-mediated experience”. After all the years of video and installation, in which the artist wasn’t actually present and could not experience firsthand the reception of his or her production, the new ideal would be to feel directly and immediately the interaction between art and its viewers. Indeed, performance, whose name most artists don’t even accept, has become part of our lives. Even American pop icon Lady Gaga, in a somewhat Warholian way, seeks to introduce the age of “pop performance art”.

Since performance has become so fundamental in contemporary artists’ DNA, the critic could be tempted to accept it as an existing, unquestionable reality: performance just is. Hence, it would be relevant to analyse in which direction it goes, and not where it comes from. The future of performance would matter more than its past. That perspective appears to be fairly easy and, to say the least, comfortable: one would not have to focus on history, and on the very problem of the birth of this genre – would that be the age of the manifesto? The age of “happenings”? Seemingly, the obscure future appears clearer than the definition of the past.

But this should in no way be a reason to forget about it: as RoseLee Goldberg rightly pointed out, it is from the origins of performance that we can understand its evolution. The more contemporary vision, which makes the 2000s the very momentum for performance, and assigns this revolution to a “desire for non-mediated experience”, even if it is true, which it is, does not necessarily render the longer-term movements that have lead to performance becoming the adequate form for this desire.

Now that performance has become such a profane form of art that we find it everywhere, we may sometimes forget its religious roots – we may forget that performance is the closest to emulating the medieval mysteries – that it is, in its original representations, very close to the idea of “incarnation”. It is this reality that is worth analysing today, not from a purely historical point of view, but from a more current, contemporary stance. The performance Adel Abdessemed put on in Rome, documented through a video produced in 2010 and entitled Dio, attests today the meaning of the very origins of what he calls an “act”: the artist had a group of men, including the director of the Villa Medici, Eric de Chassey, who had invited him, carry a cross and follow a certain route through the city, as if they were Christ on his way to the Golgotha. By doing so, Abdessemed referred to the context that had been offered to him for his art, but, also to the premises of his own creation: he related to them in a somehow literary and paradoxical manner, by connecting the prodromes of Christianity to the ones of his art. Simultaneously, he transformed the solitude of Christ into a crowd of cross-carriers, shifting the feeling of sanctity to a sense of mass. That said, the general feeling of younger artists is less and less a religious one. Who would think that the many performances enacted in New York each day attest in one way or another to the power of the Church? Such a sentence sounds ridiculous. But it isn’t actually that laughable.

It is common knowledge that some of the first performances considered as such, from the late 1960s and early 1970s, came from a situation in which Christianity more or less prevailed. From Marina Abramovic’s tradition in the Communist and formerly Orthodox Balkans, to Vito Acconci’s Italian Catholic milieu, the biography of many of the artists involved show signs of a religious background, even if, as in Joan Jonas’ case, it is mixed with the discovery of other cultures and artistic productions. Obviously, knowing that fact, it becomes clear that performance could have to do with some of the principles on which the Christian religions are based. One of them being the body/mind dualism: the fact that the spirit, or the soul, is imprisoned in the body and has to dominate its own jail in order to make its own assumption a reality.

In many ways Marina Abramovic’s practice could be interpreted as the physical and artistic expression of such a belief. In particular the statement, that she has reiterated many times, that she doesn’t care about the audience would make perfect sense in such a religious framework. When the aim is to rule over yourself, and if this self-control, or to put it more adequately: this self-domination, constitutes a work of art, the sacrality and perhaps the sanctity of the performance relies on the very magic of it. To say it more clearly, the “prestige” in the artwork lies in the fact that the artist’s soul/spirit/mind can be stronger than pain or any body-related inconvenience or difficulty. As such, the suffering of the artist appears to be nothing other than the renewal of martyrdom – which is actually the key to the work of an artist such as Gina Pane. And maybe a daring statement would be to say that the first performance artists were martyrs themselves…

Such a statement would in fact be incredibly wrong. Indeed, what makes the artist an artist is that his or her body/mind dualism is not defied for the sake of God, but to serve art. This difference is key, and it made creation the only religion. Would performance be the final achievement of Mallarmé’s theory, which was based on the principle of “art for art’s sake”, “l’art pour l’art”? As such, art would become the final transcendence, to which the offerings should be given. Hence, the 1960s and early 1970s was the time of a reinterpretation of Christianity in the frame of contemporary art. The very idea of something happening “for real” makes all the difference between performance art and theatrical performances. On a stage, the body and the mind are trained to fake – they are trained to convince and to persuade that what is faked is real. And the act of lying for the sake of art, one should remember, has always been very harshly criticised by the Church – actors were not allowed to be buried on sacred ground. So the performers were actually in a certain way transforming acting into religion: they were doing it for real. Pain, blood, semen were real. So one could relate this very “antimodern” way of conceiving the materiality of art to the condemnation of actors in the seventeenth century: they were bad, because they were lying. Performance artists are good, because they’re not lying. Gina Pane, when she re-enacts the Passion of Christ, suffers for real. So the fact that their acts follow the clear rules of religion – what happens is real, even if it is a miracle, especially if it is a miracle – makes their art something disturbing, unique, and miraculous in its own way. Hence, there would be a connection to identify between the dualism mind/body and the actual reality of things happening.

The German philosopher Fichte once said: “you only exist as long as you defy someone else”. It therefore appears clearly that every attempt to redefine performance by the younger generation has found its roots in the process of contradicting the heritage from the 1960s, 1970s and even early 1980s. All the strategies chosen by more current views on that form can be analysed through the lens of “non-Christianity”, or “post-Christianity”. It would be easy to take just a few examples in order to prove that point: Francesco Vezzoli, for instance, uses in his productions many elements from the theatrical world. It is a very important aspect of his work, indeed, in performance according to the former conceptions, that pain is real. Blood is actual blood. Masturbation, sperm, everything happens for real – and that has created a very important gap with theatre where everything is metaphysically fake. Connecting theatrical practices to performance art has contributed to the “blurring of art and life”, as Allan Kaprow would state in another context. Staging Sei personnaggi in cerca d’autore in a place such as the Guggenheim is a provocation, and ruins the idea of a clear distinction between both worlds. Vezzoli’s recent adaptation of Le Bal in Los Angeles attests such a tension: through performance he attempts to reach, again, the religious and sacred origins of theatre. But his attempt has to do with lies and fakery and it is indeed on self-conscious fakery that his art is based. Lying, but being aware of the fact he lies, makes his words, in a certain way, true and accurate. Vezzoli is the master of illusion, of the miracle in the age of stars and consumerism.

Tino Sehgal, in his more philosophical conception of art, also locates the issues in another pattern: having other people actually perform in his work isn’t a way for him to relate to theatre since he is more sensitive to choreography. From a purely visual point of view his works are obviously close in some ways to choreography in that they are perfectly mastered and the role of everyone is clearly monitored through the will of the absent, and yet present, artist, who rules over and plays with everyone’s mind. A piece by Tino Sehgal is an experiment in mind-control: while not being a philosopher himself, he is interested in having scholars participate in his works, whose spirit he can seize for the time of the performance. By invading it, he makes his production an amazing cosa mentale, as Leonardo da Vinci would say. But, at the same time he seems to go beyond the mind/body dualism through the intervention of somebody else’s body submitted to his own rules.

Finally, a third perspective can be added: the narrative and discursive form of performance that has the favours of an even younger generation, that of artists Alexandre Singh, Tris Vonna-Michell and Simon Fujiwara, who perform as storytellers. Storytelling is interesting insofar as it appears to be mostly a product of the imagination and could be presented as another way of questioning the solutions to avoiding the abyss of dualism. As Alexandre Singh once said: “I just want to tell stories”, and the very concept of storytelling embodies everything, not seen from the point of view of the body, or in the intellectual perspective of the spirit, but as the expression of dreams. Indeed, relying on the presence of language and speech represents another strategy to challenge the duality: on the one hand the artist is physically present, as he is telling the story. But on the other hand the nature of this presence is in itself of a different form as if it were a “physical” performance: the body isn’t involved as such, as an instrument of discomfort. It is the source of the artist’s voice.

When one actually thinks of the manner in which the body was involved in the acts from the 1970s, it would be easy to see how much it was in order to create a sense of unease in the context of artistic and social, hence political, provocation. As the British playwright Howard Barker once said: “I’m aware that nakedness is a shock, of course it is, and it’s a disturbing element of social interaction”. Nudity and any sexual act that is produced can be seen, in one way or another, as an attempt to create a particular feeling for the viewer, and sometimes even to shock. By doing so, the artist proves very clearly that they follow the ancient pattern of dualism: the body is shameful and the soul has to besiege it. Of course we think of Marina Abramovic’s first works but, in a way, even the one she presented at MoMA manifests such a tension: looking at the viewer for hours expresses the fact that the body is a medium which conveys her mystical strength. It finds its place in the middle of a three-element-action of viewer, body, soul. The existence of such a division explains why Abramovic has insisted so often on the fact that she doesn’t perform for the viewer, but in front of them and with them. As a matter of fact, the viewer is the justification for the performance her body and mind accomplish. But what matters in the end is what’s happening inside of the artist herself.

At the same time it is important to understand the evolution in Abramovic’s art: from the very literal interpretation of the mind/body dualism she has moved into transforming her body as a medium of interaction. As such, she is indeed modifying the general pattern of interaction.

That said, the new generation of storytellers adopts a less provocative stance: instead of using the body to provoke physical discomfort, they prefer the magic of narrative discourse. An easy way to justify that would be the social impact of the age of pop culture – at the end of the day, naked bodies aren’t as shocking as they once were. Indeed, in the post-1968 Europe and in the post-Woodstock United States, it might have been seen as incredibly daring to masturbate in front of people or to have them walk close to your naked body – and it was daring indeed. But now, in the age of pop culture and of sex-TV, it just doesn’t mean anything anymore. Some may even have compared this form of art to TV itself, raising the issue of identifying whether performance would have been a first sign of a TV-world-syndrome. By telling stories, these artists refuse the schema of physicality being a pattern for renewal. They belong to the age of “post-post”: when nakedness is everywhere, discourse appears to be the current form of resistance. From a certain point of view, this reinvention of speech as the expression and the vivacity of art-making could be interpreted as a way out of the body/mind dualism.

Indeed, by using the body as a medium to convey their own voice, hence their inspiration, they appeal to something beyond any dichotomy, something that would relate to creation as a whole. The voice and the story is the transcendence of dualism: it trespasses the limit of duality to reach another domain still unexplored. The domain of inspiration.

In 1980, just before he died, Roland Barthes wrote a fascinating article entitled This Old Thing, Art, which appears today to be so incredibly relevant: art could appear as something “ancestral”, something that has to do with what happened before us and that we cannot know. But, at the same time, the process of art-making is renewed each time an artist wants to fit into its needs. Performance artists, even when they don’t refer to it, even when it seems totally absent from their world, are desperately taking sides in this fundamental schema of body/mind dualism. The current reinventions of performance, which explains why it may well need a new name, all mark attempts to design new forms that would make clear that acts, if they’re not only about defeating the sensitivity of the individual, cannot be treated exactly as theatrical performances. Let it be through sacrality, through philosophy or the word, most artists today are trying to go beyond this starting point, to which they nonetheless always relate.

As a footnote, one should take into consideration the fact that the influence performance art has is conveyed through this image of something happening “for real”. When the theatre director Angélica Liddell uses elements of performance it appears on stage in the form of utter suffering. At the very moment when artists are moving away from that dualist pattern, the rest of the world appears to discover it. Seemingly, artists are still at the avant-garde.

Published 6 May 2011
Original in English
First published by A Prior Magazine 21 (2011)

Contributed by A Prior © Donatien Grau / A Prior Magazine / Eurozine

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