Trace: Performance and its documents

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
22 February - 6 October 2014

There has been a revival in performance art and ephemeral practices over the last twenty years and, as a result, we are seeing exhibitions in major museums and galleries across the world, which engage with performance and its histories.

The critical dialogue surrounding performance art’s ‘liveness’ has produced a compelling context within which to exhibit the ‘traces’ of ephemeral events. Scholarship in the field has been debating the insistence on presence, which dominated earlier manifestations of the genre. Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) curator, Bree Richards says: ‘It seems obvious with performance that “you really have to be there” to get the story right. Yet, if performance is only ever about “presence”, what are we to make of the traces it leaves behind?’ This is the crux of the debate that has been most lucidly played out between Peggy Phelan, who champions the ‘ontology of performance’ and Amelia Jones, who insists that we can read performance through its traces. The scholarship has inspired artists and curators to seriously consider the performance document and what it entails. In terms of history, the record of the event is what persists. These are the documents that future audiences and scholars examine in order to reconstruct the original event. But more interestingly, this reflection on the trace has generated works that investigate the notion of the document itself, and we are finding artists making traces of events that never occurred. 

Bree Richard’s exhibition at GOMA brings together various forms of ‘documentation’ of site specific, performative and ephemeral practices from the gallery’s collection, some of which have not been displayed by the gallery before. Whilst there are some key American and European artists (Carolee Schneemann, John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman, among others), there is also a strong component of Asian artists which highlight the institution’s commitment to collecting from the region, notably via the Asia-Pacific Triennial (including Song Dong, Ai Weiwei, Zhang Huan and Qin Ga). The Australian contingent is refreshing with a mix of established and emerging artists (such as Stelarc, Mike Parr and Brown Council). There was also a series of commissioned performances and site specific works by Kerrie Poliness, Agatha Gothe-Snape and Michaela Gleave.

The curatorial strength of the show is in its investment in the document as a trace of the real and the imagined. There are photographs, video and documents, such as artist’s books and statements, but Richards is careful to navigate away from the anthropological seduction with the ‘objects’ of performance which we have seen elsewhere. There are no ‘relics’ in this exhibition. No objects that were used during performance that would gain the quality of an original aura and, arguably, attain investment value in the art market. In doing so Richards situates her exhibition in concert with the challenges posed to the museum by much ephemeral practice. Her inclusion of This is Barbara Cleveland (2013), a video document of the artist’s work by the Sydney-based collective, Brown Council, is at the heart of recent debates and clearly demonstrates how younger artists are interrogating the concept of the document. In this case Brown Council creates an oeuvre for an artist who may never have existed.

Getting into the spirit of the hoax, Mike Parr recounted his memory of Barbara Cleveland during his keynote lecture for ‘Trace Live’ a day of events held in conjunction with the exhibition. 

I knew Barbara Cleveland she was born in 1945. I was born in 1945. I can remember her coming around to my house … but she was a man then called Blue Feather … she used to sit at the end of my bed and sing songs from Broadway musicals. Sing songs that he thought she had written. She was really famous in Sydney and she had different personas. She was also known as Noelene Evans and she did a very famous work as Neil Evans in which she ingested tapeworm eggs. And then, as Barbara Johnson she did a scarifying piece in 1973 at Central Street in which she appeared before an audience and appalled them by unzipping the fly of her jeans … and [she] slipped out this large white, plaster penis … and everyone was appalled, I was going to perform this for you today but I couldn’t find a marital aids shop nearby … And, I thought what a great performance instruction: ‘put a dildo on the table’. I wish I’d included that piece in 150 Programmes and Investigations

The investment in the document as record of the real is dismantled in this instance. This is a work that challenges the museum and its desire for originals. For Brown Council it is also a feminist intervention into art history, a way of reinserting the works of great women artists. It is a clever ploy and in this context it underlines the conundrum of presence and complicates the notion of the trace, for here we have a constructed persona. In 1980 Barbara Cleveland is quoted as saying: ‘Everything is a symbol, a sign, a costume, a voice’. In 2014 GOMA purchased This is Barbara Cleveland for their collection.

Brown Council, This is Barabara Cleveland, 2013. Single Channel HD Video, 16'42". Written and directed by Brown Council. Original score by Lucy Phelan. Sound and video by Elliot Hughes.