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Performance and Visual Art 101: Theatricality and Art


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:

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: Theatricality and Art

Theatricalized exhibition is found at the junction where performance and visual art meet. It is a praxis that combines the essence of performance with the structures of display in museums. A term coined by Georgina Guy, a researcher and specialist in Performance and Visual Art, Guy describes the exhibition as a dynamic context and argues that its environment has allowed performance to blossom and expand (Guy, 2016). The performance traditions meet the theatrical traditions of display within the exhibition and create a "condensation, a means of appearing more intensely, and a conversation of state between the displayed and performed" (Guy, 2016, p. 1). The dynamic between display and performance widens the barriers of what constitutes performance as an art form. Theatricalized exhibition allows performance to move away from the safe and restrictive forms it regularly takes within theatrical structures and pushes the boundaries of contemporary interpretations of performance (Schechner, 2003).

Following the ideas explored in the previous article, Performance and Visual Art 101: The Ontology of performance, the dynamic between display and performance offers fruitful interactions between art and the spectator. Performance, in connection with orthodox museum curatorial thinking and within the context of display, offers new interpretations that reveal themselves in terms of duration and relation to the object (Guy, 2016). Such a dynamic permits the interpretation of performativity in objects, broadening the field for relation and interaction that is often only perceived as possible between body and spectator. Much like a live performance, the theatrical exhibition involves performative transformations and transformations of time and space that dynamically change and offer new opportunities for interaction and artistic expression with artifacts, objects, and paintings.

Image 1: 'Summertime: Number 9A' by Jackson Pollock (1948), is considered an object that captures live work in both its performative style and as documentary of Pollock's painting process.

With the breadth of performance theory expanding, art practitioners and critics face the same challenges in defining the qualities and characteristics of performance that constitute true art in theory (as opposed to what is good art). As demonstrated in the previous article, the real issue is that the phenomena involved in performance are no longer separable, especially within contemporary and performance arts. What is intended by the theatrical exhibition, for instance, is a praxis of different configurations of relations between object and body within various ontologies and formations of display and performance that move interchangeably through the boundaries of what constitutes performance (Guy, 2016). As such, discourses regarding true art rely on its exploration within the boundaries of performance. Where, for instance, elements of theatre intersect and bleed into more abstract and less defined areas of performance. This act of disappearing into each other constitutes the conversation regarding the ideal configuration of elements that allow art to prosper and to affect, or rather to mark, when it fails to meet the standards of its intention. The latter refers to the discourses surrounding performance that concern how performance art lacks truthfulness and ties to reality in every encounter. Art coinciding with the structure and methodology of theatre, such as that discussed in the previous article, is considered a failure of art. Art that is likened to theatre is seen to fail to meet its intention and is a shortcoming of theatre's self-essentializing and reproductive nature (Phelan, 1993). The disapproval of theatre in performance art is widespread and permeates the discourse of performance theory in museums and galleries. Even matters of exhibitions and their objects and artifacts are scrutinized on the subject of their level of theatricality. However, the term 'theatricality' is continuously used interchangeably within museum and gallery display and performance contexts. This begs the question as to what the limits of theatre's influence have in art before it is altogether transformed into something else.

Image 2: A spectator taking in the art around her. Her placement and the curation of the paintings are important to note. Courtesy of the University of Wyoming.

The unconventional rendering of theatricality is what makes the exhibition and live performance key areas of interest. In matters of art, theatricality does not necessarily connote the theatrical, and what is often a general and common observation of theatricality in art is more a representation of performance as an unstable terrain (Schechner, 2003). Loosely defined, theatre is a particular genre of performance-making (Guy, 2016). Theatricality, which references the quality of theatre, is used within art discourses to convey the quality of art or to mark the processes of making. For instance, in the context of visual art, especially within the theatricalized exhibition, it points to the traditions of display that are analogous to that of theatre. Display, which involves imaging, lighting, sound, spatial configuration, and writing, to name a few, are elements found in theatre to influence the visual, aesthetic, and psychological impact of the object/body of attention. These elements consider the dynamics of space and time to render specific contexts and meanings and facilitate relationality between object and spectator, adopting the methodology of theatre.

In the museum-gallery, curation's connotations are rooted in the traditions of display that are concerned mainly with the conservation and preservation of art. Without careful attention, this feeds into the reproductive economy that Phelan speaks of and demonstrates how museums and galleries prioritize the material value of their collections. The issue with this is that theatricality comes to be understood as a negative aspect of art and art curation. In practice, it often confuses the interpretations of the performativity of objects and live performance that relate to true artistic performance values. The emphasis on material value is otherwise recognized as 'objecthood'. A term coined by Michael Fried, an art critic and historian, objecthood is likened to theatre (Auslander, 1997) in that it is used to negate works and displays of art that do not encourage natural and ephemeral relational encounters. Objecthood is when the state of an object is emphasized, focusing solely on its presence, structure, and shape. The idea of objecthood has within itself the belief that object, such as artifacts and paintings, communicate solely their shape or form and are experienced inherently as objects (Fried, 1995). Objecthood retains that no further interpretation is necessary because the object communicates itself through its presence and state as an object.

Image 3: Black Square (1915) by Kazimir Malevich. Minimalist art is often scrutinized for its objecthood.

Theatrical works of art, in this case, are considered non-art, in which their material object status is the primary focus, and they presume and rely on the ideas of uniqueness and permanence (Guy, 2016, p. 5). Theatricality, in this sense, points to how works of art objectify and essentialize themselves, relying heavily on their aesthetic and material status to convey or communicate meaning. The communication the object intends to express is made solely accessible by its performance as an object in its display (a highly curated setting that emphasizes said meaning). Objecthood is a useful example in demonstrating how theatricality can be interpreted within the museum-gallery and speaks to the valuing of reproduction in much the same way that the theatre constructs it. The object placed under specific lighting and spatial contexts to reveal its aesthetic purpose echoes the same aesthetic principles of theatre that construct mood and emotion through the construction of space in a certain duration of time.

Observing a theatricalized exhibition is to map the intersection of processes of performance and display where the latter relies on traditions of theatre such as lighting, space, imagery, and text but resists materiality and works toward creating the possibility for intellectual encounters of live work, through performance's established history of ephemerality (Guy, 2016). It marks an important interpretation of performance that permits objects, and collections of captured live works, to be reactivated and become performative, especially in cases where programs no longer privilege the live moment of the artist's own body in performance so that live works can theoretically exist (Guy, 2016, p. 5). Theatricality in such instances is an interpretation of the influence of the theatrical traditions found in the display that constitute it as part of performance. Theatricality here speaks to the possibility of an encounter analogous to that of theatre, but that moves the object of attention towards a "complex drama of the act of composition" where live and natural performance occurs.

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.

Fried, M. (1995). Art and Objecthood. In G. Battcock, Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (pp. 49-57). New York: Dutton.

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

Lind. (2012). Performing the curatorial : within and beyond art. Sternberg Press.

Phelan, P. (1993). Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. In P. Phelan, he Ontology of performance: representation without reproduction (pp. 146-166). Taylor & Francis Group.

Ridout, N. (2007). Essay: Art & Theatre. (11), 104-107.

Schechner, R. (2003). Performance Theory (Vol. 2). London: Taylor & Francis Group.

Image Sources


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Gina Darwin-Gitonga

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