Monday, October 3, 2011

Day after: some musings

Performance art, like music and dance, is distinguished by its lack of an art object. Unlike painters and sculptures, once the performance art event is complete there remains no trace of it, except in the memory of those who were there to witness the performance.

Artists like Vassan Sittiket and The Turner Prize use accessories during their work. But the viewing of a piece of broken glass from Arti Grabowski’s (or Pancho Lopez’s) performance is not the same as the viewing of a painting or a sculpture. The shard of glass is a trace, a souvenir that links us back to the art event. It is not an art object in itself.

The shard of glass or the grain of rice is incomplete and static. Outside the moment and context of the performance, as our memory of the art event fades, the small power of these objects also fades. Soon they fall back into the wash of the day-to-day.

So where is the art in performance art?

As I am sure you have noticed, the photos of Hua (Phoebe) Jin the photographer for the festival and the videos of Elisha Burrows the videographer are particularly strong. Both do beautiful work. This is important because their documentation of the Live events is often all that remains after the show.

Over the course of the festival, I saw that the photos, the video and the brief descriptions of performances in the blog had a powerful transformative effect upon many of the performances, changing sometimes difficult viewing experiences into something more intense, more beautiful and easy to consume. Take for example Anna Syczewska’s piece, the hour-long arc-welding session.

For the live audience in the gallery at Vivo, the piece was long and physically grueling. After we had seen the first spike welded to her shoe, was it necessary to stay and watch the process for the next nine? The blinding light, the fumes and the music pushed most people out of the gallery to the bar and onto the street.

During that hour however, Phoebe and Burrows captured moments with striking effects and stunning beauty. For someone who was not in attendance, looking at the photos and the edited video, reading the few lines of text describing the action, their reaction might be “Wow! That looks incredible” or, “ Sorry I missed that show”.

Watching performance art is a bit like hiking up a high tree-covered mountain. For hours and hours the hiker climbs up the trail under a thick canopy of trees seeing nothing more than the rock-strewn path. Sweating under the heavy load of a pack, scrambling and stumbling, plagued by mosquitoes and deer flies, the hiker dreams of the end of the climb, imagining the crest of the mountain is just up ahead around the next switchback. When at last the hiker reaches the crest and looks out at the surrounding countryside spread out beneath, the view is magnificent. But after a few minutes rest, eating an energy bar and enjoying the splendor, it is time to climb down through the dense forest again.

The photographer, the video editor and the writer of these events create an abstraction of the performance, reducing an hour of difficult exertion into a couple moments of pleasure. In this reduced concentrated and form we can consume the experience, shooting it back like our morning de-caffe latté with soy.

Sometimes in moments of exhaustion, one asks oneself whether or not a postcard of the gorgeous view from the top of the mountain would be just as fine and aesthetically fulfilling as the hours long slog needed to climb to the viewpoint.

The problem with this shortcut is that the art in performance art takes place at a particular moment, in a particular place. The art is the phenomenon that takes place as the viewer witnesses the performance. The performer’s actions elicit a set of thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the viewer, a communication. If you are not physically there to witness and experience that communication, it’s a bit like getting a post card from Mazatlan in the middle of February.

“Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.”

It is just not the same as two weeks lying on white sand under a blazing sun.


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