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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:

1. Performance and Visual Art 101: The Ontology of Live Performance

2. Performance and Visual Art 101: Theatricality and Art

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 it