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First premise: For over two decades art criticism celebrated second degree representation as the new cool. From the ‘anything goes’ decade of the 1980s to the conceptual re-makes of the not so naughty 2000s, the incubator of the art world has remained clean, preserving the white cube of the modernist museum.
Second premise: The performative is everywhere. The subject (once the individual) performs endlessly, there is no core identity, people act themselves and change according to context. Jacques Lacan famously said that ‘I is always an Other’ as a way of emphasising that we are only ourselves in relation to an Other, or, more forcefully, we are never ourselves.1 In the endgame of postmodernism there is no truth, nothing is essential—integrity is a form of playacting. This makes way for a society of greed, celebrated in the free fall of deregulated capitalism and the collapse of the market.2
Third premise: The avant-garde is dead. Radical art that seeks to change the world is useless; it is not worth trying to produce social commentary or cultural political actions because the market is so powerful that it subsumes all resistance. Capitalism feeds off the margins of society and turns gestures of resistance into aesthetic commodities: transgression is institutionalised.3
Where does this leave live art: an art in ‘real time’? What happens to extreme art when art is complicit in a culture of spectacle? Is it possible after postmodernism to create political art?
Recently, a younger generation of artists has started to look for their experimental mentors. They are looking for those artists who have maintained a commitment to challenging society, politics, systems and institutions. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States there appears to have been a turn towards socio-political engagements by artists, well, at least by some artists. This is evident in the shift towards documentary-style video art and the resurgence of performance art. I say this with a degree of trepidation because in Australia the political in art has usually been ignored and marginalised. Writing in the context of Mike Parr’s Blood Box performance (Artspace, Sydney, 1998) Edward Scheer, reflecting on Australian culture, argued: ‘our bastard cultures need bastard forms’.4 Scheer was writing at 6.00am, he was twelve hours into a twenty-four hour endurance piece. He was the witness scribe for Parr’s performance and this statement emerged from a conversation he was having with an audience member about the skills brought to experimental theatre by directors such as Peter Brook. Scheer said then it was a crude point but it presents an interjection which is important in our national art context where safe art is preferred.
One of my favourite quotes about body art comes from the Italian critic Germano Celant who argued that the artists were trying: ‘to insert a subversive element into the tidy, antiseptic and asexual paradise of art’.5 There was a radical edge to this art that sought to destabilise the museum. The modernist white cube with its clean walls and ‘untitled’ modernist/minimalist works was challenged by a generation of body artists who assaulted bourgeois values and dirtied the museum with messy organic materials and bodily fluids. But body art was not the only performance art. The Conceptualists who came of age alongside the emergence of video contributed in a slightly cooler way to the critique of institutions, especially the institution of art. In terms of establishing the provenance of today’s performance art, it is important to acknowledge the place of conceptualism and its political critique. Art and Language was arguably embracing the death of the author long before it became a popular catch phrase of late postmodern appropriation. And video, which was used by performance artists such as Vito Acconci as a confessional or narcissistic device, was also a medium for performative conceptualists such as Nancy Holt. Fiona Macdonald has recently engaged with this conceptual legacy in her ‘Remake’ project by remaking instructional video works by Vito Acconci and Nancy Holt. (Re)Points of View (2008) is a remake of Holt’s Points of View Clocktower (1974), where four city views (north, east, west, south) were shot from the four windows of the tower. The camera was masked so as to create a circular image which was shot over a specified grid, thus creating a moving circular orb. The views were then shown to four pairs of viewers, selected from Holt’s contemporaries in the New York art world. These people were asked to describe what they saw and this subsequently became the sound track for the video. The inane, inarticulate and bumbling meditations on the views by prominent artists and critics produces an ironic critique of the language of the art world. In Macdonalds’s remake exactly the same instructions are given to a group of colleagues but in her version the artists discussing the views, this time of a snowy mountain side, are themselves video taped. We hear the description but never see the view itself, instead we witness the breakdown of communication; in Macdonald’s terms the failure of the relation. Thus three decades after the ‘original’, the remake presents a different but similar critique of the art world.6
The parallel history of video and performance art and the interrelation of the two mediums continues to be pertinent in contemporary practice and is particularly relevant where artists are using video not to ‘document’ live action but as a part of the performative medium itself.
Much of early performance and body art action does not transcribe well into a museum context. This is because much of it was made outside the museum in alternative art venues, rented industrial spaces or private studios. These alternative art spaces in the 1960s and 1970s were often fly-by-night venues or short-lived artists’ collectives. Today we see similar enterprises as new and emerging artists create alternative spaces to exhibit their work.
In the 1960s and 1970s the idea was to resist absorption into the bourgeois market. To make art in ‘real’ time and space. To create an experience for the audience, who were often unsuspecting: on the street, caught out and unaware that they were an audience for art. The Happenings were often vigilante demonstrations and participatory events which were said to be anti-art; later this was re-articulated as a dematerialised art.7 These works tried to bridge the divide between art and life by making art out of everyday occurrences, or using everyday life and its rituals as the fundamentals upon which to build art and/or collapse the divide between art and popular culture. In contemporary practice relational aesthetics has revisited some of the concerns of art and life but there does not appear to be a clear political platform. However, different strategies are required for different times and although some may argue that events staged by Flash Mob are apolitical there is evidence to suggest that these events are the Happenings of the twenty-first century. They certainly draw the public’s attention and often engage people in participatory activities. Big Butch Billboard (2009) was created by Deborah Kelly as a homage to the 1989 billboard Maria Kozic is Bitch. A young spunky dyke mimics Kozic’s pose beneath the text ‘Mahalia Jones is Butch’. It was displayed with portraits of ‘butched-up’ supporters at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
In the 1990s I argued that much of the performance art of the 1970s reinscribed a heroic avant-garde position for the artist and presented sexuality in terms of instinct, stressing the biological impulse or animal ‘nature of man’. Following Freud, I argued that this was apparent in sadomasochistic works where the infliction of pain tended to underline super ego restraint (father, language, law) over the body.8 Although I was critical of the positioning of this work in the avant-garde canon, I was also compelled by it because it seemed to me that it pushed the boundaries of civil society and the modernist museum. Furthermore, the use of the artist’s body, especially in extreme practice, was (and is) a kind of psycho-social therapy that can only really exist in art. What has happened since is that the gender divide has collapsed in some respects in performance art. The 1990s saw feminist scholars retracing their steps in an attempt to account for extreme abject work by women. There was, and still is, a rekindled interest in the works of Melanie Klein due to her analysis of early childhood and the violent fantasies that she uncovered there. Mignon Nixon’s essay ‘Bad Enough Mother’ traces this interest in Klein in the 1990s with a series of case studies which consider the aggressivity towards the mother.9 Add to this more than a decade of analysis into male subjectivity and one comes to the conclusion that works by male artists that could once have been seen as avant-garde and heroic could now be seen as examples of what Kaja Silverman has termed ‘phallic divestiture’.10 Parr’s Malevitsch: A Political Arm (2002), where he literally nails his good arm to the wall of the gallery in an endurance piece over two and a half days, is a compelling example. For over three decades Mike Parr has been the voice of extreme body art in Australia. The female protagonist in the field is Jill Orr. Although Orr has endured physical discomfort, she has not inflicted pain on her body. Both artists present works which explore the psycho-social by putting their bodies on the line, and in the 1990s and 2000s they have both refined the political aspects of their work. This has made their work resonate for a younger generation who are looking to performance as a means to create radical art. In The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters - Goya (2002), Orr, dressed as a medieval butcher, wove together tons of bloody carcasses from the abattoir into human and animal forms. Mike Parr’s Close the Concentration Camps involved having his lips and eyelids sown shut in a gesture of empathy with refugees who had sown their lips together in an act of protest against their treatment in Australia. Both performance actions were powerful and provocative works that insisted that art matters.11
In 2005 the performance duo Fiona McGregor and AñA Wojak, under the name of senVoodoo, conceived Arterial as a three channel video and later a live performance.12 Two women shrouded in white, their faces and bodies covered, walk towards one another very slowly. It is a Butoh walk—each measure is slow. They walk on a white ground, they spill their own blood: drop, splat, drop. It is devastating but at the same time beautiful. The women eventually come together but they do not touch, wary of contamination; they turn away from each other, facing into the path of their own blood.
The shroud is both virgin bride and oppressed victim; it appears as a white burqa. The mix of codes presents a powerful dichotomy. There is a lot of blood spilt and some of it is bad, contaminated blood, from a Hepatitis C body and it is split with the clean blood of another, who at one time has been the lover.
senVoodoo started performing in Sydney clubs in the 1990s, did not get much traction in the art world, then took the performance to Wojak’s homeland—Poland. Subsequently, McGregor wrote a kind of road show story about this—Strange Museums: A Journey Through Poland—which is both an artist’s travelogue and a compelling story about performance art.13
Blood in our time is a dangerous medium. Amidst war and real death, detention and persecution, blood is spilt. How can artists enter into this realm and make a point? Make a difference? McGregor performed solo in You Have the Body (2009)—the event was a performance for one. The visitor arrives at the venue, her hands are bound and she is hooded, she cannot see. She is lead by an attendant through a space: ‘turn left, turn right, walk ahead’. She arrives at a destination, she is unbound and told she can take the hood off as the attendant leaves the room. I take off my hood. McGregor sits before me in her underwear, her legs are bound to a chair, her hands free and her lips sewn shut. Her eyes penetrate my gaze. Do I speak? She cannot.
I began this short essay with three premises, all fairly negative injunctions concerning the agency of the subject, and asked whether it was possible to create political or resistant art after postmodernism’s deconstruction of the subject. In i‑ek’s thesis, following Lacan, it is possible but it is almost impossible to approach. Here the Real is excess and the excess is the subject.14 The postmodern and/or poststructuralist attempt to get rid of the subject and what s/he stands for—‘radical negation, the dimension of death drive, and so on’—is an attempt to ‘get rid of this disturbing excess’.15 The notion of the death drive as a force within subjectivity resurfaced in the 1990s and 2000s when ‘the body’ came back on the art world agenda. The excessive, abject body was then the body in question. In the United States, Paul and Damon McCarthy’s Caribbean Pirates (2005), a directorial participatory mayhem made for video, created simulated but abhorrent violence on screen as a political retort to late capitalism.16 In Australia, Mike Parr returned to performance art with some of his most compelling assaults against the state. Blood Box (1998) is a clear example of the ways in which the death drive can be presented as an assault on the Name of the Father. More recent performances such as Malevitsch: A Political Arm and Free the Concentration Camps (both 2002) are powerful reminders that the agency of the subject is alive and well in radical performance art. As Amelia Jones makes clear in her analysis of body art, the male artist is the lynch pin of art historical mythology and the works from the 1970s are easily categorised as a continuation of misogynist heroism. However, it is also possible to see this earlier work as a major break down of patriarchal myth and a performative divestiture of the phallus as symbol.17
After suffering through the conceptual sludge of apolitical postmodernism, performance art is enjoying a quiet renaissance in Australia and around the globe.18 This renewed interest in performance has its parallel in video art. There emerges a tripartite focus across live actions, conceptual investigation and video, and how these mediums interact. This is evident in performances which are made for video where there is no ‘live’ audience in ‘real time’; re-make projects where artists either re-stage their own early works or other artists re-make iconic performance works from the 1960s and 1970s. The re-makes—like performance on/for video—are often remediations where an ‘original’ performance is re-made in another medium: this medium is usually video. One of the issues that has engaged art historians and theorists over the last ten years is what could now be called the ‘liveness debates’. There are those who believe that the presence of the artist before an audience (in ‘real time’) constitutes the essential quality of the performance medium.19 Others believe that the idea/content of the performance event can survive remediation, and that this is important in terms of preserving the historical record—otherwise how can we continue a critical, historical dialogue?20 And there are those who recognise that remediation, especially through video, is presenting a convergence of media which is symptomatic of the culture in which we live.21
1. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, Norton & Company, London and New York, p.23.
2. For a cultural studies analysis see Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham, 1991.
3. These speculations and the foundations of this essay were originally published in my ‘Thinking Performance Art’, a catalogue essay for ‘Once More With Feeling’, Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Faculty of the VCA and Music, The University of Melbourne, 23 April-23 May, 2009, curated by Meredith Turnbull.
4. Edward Scheer, ‘Mike Parr: Blood Box 6/9/9’, in Nicholas Tsoutas (ed.), Mike Parr Blood Box, Critical Issues series 10, Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Woolloomooloo, NSW, 2006, p.46.
5. Germano Celant, ‘Dirty Acconci’, Artforum, November, 1980, p.79.
6. (Re)Points of View was first shown at Optica: Un centre d’art contemporain, 15 March–19 April 2008. It was later shown as part of the larger ‘Remake’ project at The Faculty of Art & Design Gallery, Monash University, January 2009.
7. See Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Six Years: The De-materialization of the Art Object, Studio Vista, London, 1973.
8. Anne Marsh, Body & Self: Performance Art in Australia 1969-1992, Oxford University Press, Australia, 1993, pp.96-140 and ‘Body Art, In and Against Itself: A Psychoanalytic Reading on Narcissism and Aggressivity’, Agenda: Contemporary Art, vol.1, no.2, 1988, pp.7-9.
9. Mignon Nixon, ‘Bad Enough Mother’, October, vol.71, Feminist Issues, Winter 1995, pp.70-92.
10. See especially Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins, Routledge, New York & London, 1992.
11. I do not have the space here to do justice to these works. I have written about Orr’s work in ‘Blood and Death: The Recent Body Art of Jill Orr’, Art Monthly, no.158, 2003, pp.22-23. For a lucid critique of Parr’s works see Adam Geczy, ‘Here, There, Nowhere, Dead: Performance Art and the Cybernetic Involution’, in Nicholas Tsoutas (ed.), Mike Parr Blood Box, pp.8-30, op. cit., and Adam Geczy and Mike Parr, Bleed Bled Said, Power Publications, Sydney, 2003.
12. The video was conceived as part of the Residency Program at Performance Space in Sydney in December 2005. In 2006 the live event toured in Poland. In 2008 the work was performed live at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide where the video installation was also shown.
13. Fiona McGregor, Strange Museums: A Journey Through Poland, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, WA, 2008.
14. Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Žižek, Polity/Blackwell, Cambridge, 2004, p.80.
16. For documentation see Paul McCarthy, La La Land, Parody Paradise, with contributions by Elisabeth Bronfen et al, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, 2005.
17. See especially, Amelia Jones. ‘Dis/playing the Phallus: Male Artists Perform their Masculinities’, Art History, vol.17, no.4, December 1994, pp.546-584 and Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity, op. cit.
18. Although I have begun and finished with critical comments about postmodernism, it must be recognised that there is no homogenous postmodern position, nor is there a homogenous modernism. Each has its radical cohort.
19. For a compelling argument see Peggy Phelan, ‘On Seeing the Invisible: Marina Abramovic’s The House with the Ocean View’, in Adrian Heathfield (ed.), Live Art and Performance, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, pp.16-27.
20. See Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediated Culture, Routledge, New York and London, 1999. Also Anne Marsh, ‘Performance Art and its Documentation: A Photo/Video Essay’, About Performance, Still/ Moving: Photography and Live Performance, Department of Performance Studies, University of Sydney, No.8. 2008, pp.15-29.
21. See Fredric Jameson, ‘Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious’, in Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham, 1991, pp.67-96.
Dr Anne Marsh is Professor of Theory in the Faculty of Art & Design at Monash University.