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Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Action


Performance and Visual Art 101 is a series of articles that uncovers points of connection between performance and the visual arts, looking at key moments in the history of relations between these forms and giving attention to the current rise of theatrical aesthetics in contemporary arts practice. Art museums are increasingly programming performance and live art events and at the same time, visual artists are looking to the theatre for aesthetics and forms to incorporate into their work. This series will address the on-going influence of the visual arts on performance studies and chart attempts by art institutions to embrace the experiential and confront the challenges that live work poses for museums and curators.

Performance and Visual Art 101 is divided as follows:

3. Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Action

4. Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Experience

5. Performance and Visual Art 101: Participation and Social Practice

6. Performance and Visual Art 101: Curating Performance

Performance and Visual Art 101: Object or Action

Within the realm of aesthetics, there are three main ontologies from which performance claims its origin. In the attempt to trace a rough timeline of performance origins, performance art researchers, practitioners, and critics mark key moments of performance’s history and attempt to evaluate its structural resistance to the chronology and narrative of such histories. Nonetheless, it is helpful to explore performance in these contexts of history: from Shamanism and spiritual practice and the healing arts comes a type of performance that centres and investigates the body (McEvilley, 1969-1998); from the history of theatre, where performance art emerges at the counterpoint to realism (Phelan, 2005); and then a performance art that emerges from the history of painting and materialises through ‘action painting’ from artists like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Arshile Gorky (Phelan, 2005).

In all narrative histories, there is a tension between the narrative, the performance it generates, and the potential future of performance it provokes. Narrative histories hold specific rules and methodologies that constitute what makes it the way it is. Performance-based in the history of theatre, for example, observes theatre as the form of narrative that aims to retell stories of the past and represent a truth through certain modes of telling. The methodology that creates representation in theatre comes from its inherent narrative structure. Performance, born at the counterpoint to realism, originates from this point of the search for the real in theatre, which seeks to embody liveness rather than represent it. This moment is a vital part of theatre’s evolution, as well as for performance, as it continues to expand past the restrictions of theatre’s narrative structure.

Image 1: Olafur Eliasson's 'The Winter Project'. Many of Eliasson's installations are contemporary theatrical performances of the climate problem.

What happens at the moment of performance’s ‘origin’ in narrative histories, such as theatre, is the tendency to be regarded as a matter of consequence. This leads to performance being interpreted as an add-on to the primary interests of the narrative histories (Phelan, 2005, p. 499). The primary interest, the narrative form, becomes a way of accessing performance rather than viewing it as its own enterprise or force of intellectualism. The issue is that the essence and potential of performance are overshadowed and overlooked by the potency of historical retelling and narrative form that includes structuring the real into temporal and methodological boundaries. The focus on narrative is a form of comprehensive telling - a way to distribute meaning in the past telling or history of something (Phelan, 2005). It favors the history rather than the enactment in the present moment – that is, the ephemeral nature of performance - which cannot exist in retelling a story or documenting its performance. As performance is enacted in the present tense, performance lives rather than tells its meaning, while narrative histories describe it later (Phelan, 2005).

The tension between narrative and performance can create interesting potential futures for performance that evolve its capacity as a tool and resource and better its reputation in the art world. As demonstrated in the previous article, Performance and Visual Arts: Theatricality and Art, theatrical methodology inspires the museum’s preference for narrative telling and historical structure in the display. In tandem with the performative quality of the art, objects, and live performances in its care, this creates an act of composition where performance emerges (Guy, 2016). Such performance has been evaluated, extracted, and used to further its potential in the form of theatricalized exhibition. This is an example of performance’s many potential futures that can emerge from within its narrative history. This paradoxical relationship between narrative and performance offers an opportunity to understand the nature of performance further and evaluates the contexts in which it exists. In the display of art, the potential to remain limited in the narrative traditions of the museum/gallery can be remedied through performance-motivated exhibitions, which create new and dynamic forms of display and experience. The trajectory of this potential points to the intellectual and aesthetic limits of performance and marks its failure to completely resist narrative telling where matters of history and narrative are concerned. It begs the question of whether there is a possibility to create performative modes of telling and capturing events of the past retold in the present tense.

Image 2: Ai Weiwei's ' Sunflower Seeds' installation in the Tate Modern. Ai Weiwei is an activist critical of the Chinese Government's stance on democracy and human rights. 'Sunflower Seeds' examines the complex exchanges between self and society. The symbol of the sunflower was ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Performative’ is a term derived from J. L Austin’s speech act theory. Austin is a British Philosopher made famous for developing the theory of speech acts, where ‘performative’ is used to name an enunciation that is not constative (Phelan, 2005). That is, not a putative statement of fact capable of being either true or false, but a speech act that makes something happen. Austin’s account provides an example of the linguistic performative, where he argues that performative speech acts make something happen in the act of utterance: ‘I promise’, ‘I will’ (Phelan, 2005, p. 500). Much like the performative act, when a performative speech act takes the future or past tense, it becomes a constative act and loses its force as action. With performance art, the paradox within the ambition to create a narrative history of performance art is that it eliminates all traces of performance. History and documentation risk missing the performative force of the art it seeks to comprehend by taking a narrative form. Such is the challenge that museums and galleries face when introducing performance into their programs or dealing with performative works within their collections.

The theory of object and objecthood and its place in the museum/gallery has propelled various investigations into what constitutes performance. It has documented various occasions in which artists and art movements have changed the performance trajectory. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, whose paintings fall into the category of performative art that originates in the history of painting, are recognised as one of the forefathers of action painting. A process of enacting history into the present moment and experience of the art itself, works of action painting move past the painting’s objecthood and highlight the act that brought that art into being (Phelan, 2005). Pollock’s paintings, otherwise recognised as “poured paintings”, involve a vibrant and lively composition of paint splashes and brisk hand strokes that distract and move the emphasis away from the component of a completed art object (Phelan, 2005, p. 51).

Image 3: Photo by Hans Namuth (1950). Part of the collection that captures Jackson Pollock in the act of painting.

Jackson Pollock’s action paintings and the narratives they have inspired brilliantly engage all three versions of the history of performance art at play in the same space (Phelan, 2005). They mark the point of departure for the claim that performance emerges from painting (Phelan, 2005) and, in their creation and display, simultaneously involves performance art from the history of Shamanic practice and theatre. Pollock’s painting style can be seen as a ritualistic, shamanic performance, full of references to Native American sand painting (Soussloff, 2004; Phelan, 2005). Pollock’s ability to evoke his process and, therefore, his presence through his paintings offers a deeper interpretation of performance rooted in shamanic/spiritual practice, as he invokes the memory of his process into the movement of the painting. His technique moves the interest in the artwork “from the object to its maker, and more specifically, since the maker’s action is ephemeral, to frozen images of its maker” (Phelan, 2005, p. 501). Through their theatrical exhibition and in the photographs recorded by Hans Namuth in 1950, Pollock’s paintings function as dramatic visual theatre. His paintings and the photographs of his process by Namuth conspire to create a significant event that condenses all three competing narratives of the history of performance art (Phelan, 2005). They are the objects turned into action that propels painting to greater measures and potent relational value.

In Shards Performance of a History Art: of Pollock and Namuth Through a Glass, Darkly (2005), Peggy Phelan offers an extensive and condensed comprehension of how Pollock’s painting technique and Namuth’s photography change the trajectory of performance making, performance documentation, and critique. Phelan details how both practitioners operate within the narrative boundaries of painting history and expand the possibilities for performance for objects through action painting and photographic documentation. Pollock’s painting moves object to action through his technique. His painting comes to us as “present objects”, with densely layered and colourful surfaces that invoke movement and rhythm in the poured paint (Phelan, 2005, p. 502). The “wide-open quality” of Pollock’s paintings makes them “radically open” that pulls the viewer in, in the search for a possible centre (p. 502). This quality asks his viewer to find a way to enter the painting that does not rely on the rules of perspective or narrative coherence, and as argued by Phelan, is what makes his paintings so performative. In being so radically open and having such symphonic quality, his paintings move in common sense with the epistemological horizon of the present tense - enacting liveness that places them in ecstatic suspension – to resist the narrative’s temporal tense by occupying the vivid present (Phelan, 2005, p. 502).

Image 4: Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 14’ painting (1951). A classic action painting, the movement of the piece is performative and experiential.

Namuth’s photographs challenge notions of object and performance by being objects themselves, and Pollock’s paintings extend the possibilities for performance where narrative and history are concerned. Namuth’s photographs capture Pollock in the process of his creation and some of his most famous paintings. The relationship between photography and painting is complex and assumed to complicate or disprove the intention of the other. What is interesting here is how their likeness, which supposedly threatens the other’s existence, “has obscured some of the most radical possibilities inherent in the concept and practice of action painting” (Phelan, 2005, p. 501). Their similarity in sharing comparable objecthood in their shape and optical structure places them under a comparative lens that allowed practitioners to liken photography’s performative potential to that of painting (Phelan, 2005). The condensation of live movement and light that becomes a still object is an attribute of photography that is also true to painting. Photography exposes an aspect of performance designed to enhance the art of photography itself and, in turn, transforms the painting’s relationship to performance (Phelan, 2005, p. 501).

The process in which photography and film become a point of entry into painting is seen in Namuth and Pollock’s relationship and is a critical moment in performance art collection. Namuth’s photographs act as a suspension in time and open a place where a different kind of history of performance art might be recorded. Photographic documentation here brings to light issues with documenting performance, which typically is to capture a fixed historical account of performance art. Instead, in Namuth’s photographs, the subject of performance is captured in such a way that they perform the occasion. Namuth maintains in his work the quality of liveness that is in Pollock’s paintings, and along with the imagery of Pollock creating them, he completes the timeline of action for the viewer. This way, Namuth’s photographs become artfully designed performances (Phelan, 2005).

Performance art has been highly unruly in its relationship to chronology, documentation, media, and politics as it works to unsettle the distinction between subject and object, between doing and telling (Phelan, 2005). The opportunity granted by the collaboration between Pollock and Namuth, photography and painting, inspired a new interpretation of performance. Their encounter “has become the main kernel in the narrative of action painting, some 50 years on”, inspiring a vast amount of potential futures for performance creation, including urging performative modes of writing and documenting performance art. The frozen images of its maker, which are Pollock’s paintings, are emboldened by the photographs and film of his process by Namuth. Pollock’s paintings, which present so much action, are experienced in newer and more profound ways due to being displayed alongside Namuth’s performative photographs. Working together like frames of film, they perform a past, present, and future into the present moment.

Bibliographical Sources

Auslander, P. (1997). Presence and theatricality in the discourse of performance and the visual arts. In P. Auslander, From acting to performance : essays in modernism and postmodernism (pp. 49-57). London: Routledge.

Austin, J. L. (1976). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press.

Guy, G. (2016). Introduction. In G. Guy, Theatre, Exhibition, and Curation: Displayed and Performed (pp. 1-34). Taylor & Francis Group.

McEvilley, T. (1969-1998). Stages of Energy: Performance Art Ground Zero? In M. Abramovic, Artist Body: Performances (pp. 14-25). Milan: Smithsonian Libraries.

Phelan, P. (2005). Shards of a Histori of Performance Art: Pollock and Namuth Through a Glass, Darkly. In J. Phelan, & P. J. Rabinowitz, A Companion to Narrative Theory (pp. 499-514). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Soussloff, C. M. (2004). Jackson Pollock's Post-Ritual Performance: Memories Arrested in Space. TDR: A Journal of Performance Studies, 1(T181), 60-78.

Image Sources


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Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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