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Performance Art

By Wilson, Martha | Art Journal, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Performance Art

Wilson, Martha, Art Journal

(Some) Theory and (Selected) Practice at the End of This Century

There is no agreement as to where, when, and why performance art was invented. I take this as an opening to advance my theory, which has appeared gradually to me through the murk over the last two decades, during which time I have established and piloted Franklin Furnace. While viewing the exhibition Futurism & Futurisms, presented in 1985 at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, I realized that the beginning of performance art might be fixed in that moment on July 8, 1910, when the Italian Futurist painters and poets threw eight hundred thousand copies of their broadside, "Against Passeist Venice," from the clock tower above Piazza San Marco onto the heads of law-abiding citizens.1 The Futurists claimed Venice was "a great sewer of traditionalism"; a physical confrontation ensued, and, in my view, performance art was born.

Contemporary performance art still exhibits the traces of this art-historical moment in the following ways: Performance art is composed of (often confrontational) ideas; it takes place in "real" time; and the body is its irreducible medium, the locus where text and image intersect. Confrontation is apparent even in tamed, pay-your-money-sit-in-chairs performance art being practiced at this end of the century. In my experience, performance artists are not the kind of people who wish to be discovered working in garrets but, rather, hope to change the world. (Never mind that artists have had little impact upon the political/social/economic/philosophical life of the twentieth century; if they don't shake you by the lapels, they will go mad.)

Performance art in my view is the opposite of theater, which holds, according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "the willful suspension of disbelief" as its objective. Performance art has raided literature, music, dance, and theater traditions (while theater has borrowed from performance art conventions), spreading confusion; but in general, performance artists remind their audiences: There is no artifice here; this is happening now, in "real" time. Because it is embedded in the body, performance art takes time itself to be its primary subject. Tehching Hsieh's yearlong worksduring which he, for example, lived in a cage, lived outside, punched a time clock every hour, was tied to another person; and did "no art"-place the body's expenditure of time at the center of the idea. (Now he is involved in a meditation that implies the twentieth century and the Judeo-Christian era as time frames; it will end on his birthday, December 31, 1999, when he turns fifty.)

The body is the new art medium of this century, "discovered" by way of the text by visual artists. I believe the avant-garde visual artists of the early part of the century were inspired by a poet, Stephane Mallarme, whose poem "Un coup de des jamais n'abolira le hasard" of 1897 was widely discussed. A dealer on the scene, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, declared, "It was only after 1907 that the poetry of Stephane Mallarme, in my opinion, exerted a powerful influence on plastic art, an influence that was combined with Paul Cezanne's painting. It was through reading Mallarme that the Cubists found the courage to invent freely."2 Surely, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti ripped off Mallarme when he produced his Parole in liberti (Words in Freedom) manifesto of 1912 (fig. 1). And Hugo Ball acknowledged that the starting point of sound poetry and other experiments at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich was with Marinetti's manifesto, "which took the word out of the sentence frame (the world image)."3

What was so great about "Un coup de des"? It cast words in various point sizes on the page, transforming the page into visual art space, and it freed the reader from prescribed linear order, conferring the possibility of multiple interpretations. Finally, its subject (a throw of dice will never eliminate chance) and form were congruent-as the body is the source and form through which ideas are created.

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