Joseph Beuys “I Like America and America Likes Me”, 1974
René Block Gallery, New York
Photo: Caroline Tisdall (c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY



“What historians omit from the past reveals as much about a culture as what is recorded as history and circulates as collective memory.”
—Lea Vergine, Il Corpo Come Linguaggio La “Body-art”

é storie simili (The Body as Language: Body Art and Similar Stories), 1974)

There are many aspects of Art History that have vanished from the records, or simply never appeared there in the first place. While there has been a great deal of rediscovery, re-evaluation and writing on the absence of women artists from the annals of Art History, what is not so well discussed is the part performance and live art has played in many vanguard movements.

While Francis Picabia, for example, is well known for his Orphist and Dadaist work, few are aware of his commitment to performance. So much so, in fact, that he wrote a ballet, titled “Rel’che”, with a score by the composer Erik Satie. Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and the director of Ballet Suédois: Rolf de Maré were amongst several other collaborators. Originally planned for presentation on 27 November ‘24, one of the performers fell ill and a sign with the word “Rel’che” was erected (Rel’che means ‘no performance tonight’). The crowds, thinking it was another Dadaist hoax, departed. However, those who returned on 3 December were astounded by the spectacle they witnessed.

“Rel’che” was presented in two acts, with a film screened during the interval. The film, titled “Entr’acte” (meaning intermission, or “between acts”) was scripted by Picabia and filmed by Rene Clair. The opening shots were of Picabia himself dancing on tiptoe, while wearing a gauze skirt and false beard. Slow motion scenes continued with a chess game and funeral procession at the end of which the coffin falls open to reveal a grinning, un-dead corpse. The beginning of the second act of “Rel’che” was marked by the performers breaking through the end credits of the film.

Many now focus on the collages, paintings, and assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg, while the details of his collaborations, with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham are often only briefly discussed. Rauschenberg’s performance “Pelican, 1963” was created in a skating rink in Washington, with Rauschenberg and Alex Hay on roller skates and dancer Caroline Brown dancing en pointe; film of this performance exists but is very rarely screened. Slowly, historians are managing to uncover the lost facts and one could go on by listing names and noting their forgotten performances, but there are many other questions that arise from this “once seen, oft forgotten” scenario.

Museums and galleries are spending more time and money on the presentation of performance works documented on film and video and smaller galleries are choosing to present “in focus” exhibitions of video art and/or performance documents. (Lisson Gallery: “15 Artists Working with Film + Video”, Tate Modern: “Performing Bodies”, Anthony Wilkinson Gallery: “I Am Making Art”, Atlantis Gallery: “My Generation: Twenty Four Hours of Video Art”). The question is, however, are documents of performance a valid way of re-presenting the live event?

Without doubt, most of the larger museums and galleries retain a product/object orientated policy with regards to acquisitions or sales—this tacit exclusion may, of course, be so embedded in bureaucracy as to be easily ignored, or perhaps unconscious or invisible. Many performance artists, therefore, might feel obliged to create, at the very least, photographic works arising from their performance—Gina Pane for example, who, although using photography to document her work, admits that the single image contains “zero” degrees of significance (ibid).

If one were to take this to the extreme however, it would not be a huge leap to suggest that some performers might end up concentrating more on the documentation than the live event and one cannot blame them. Dispersal of their work through film and video has been central to the promotion of the work of performance artists since methods of recording the moving image were invented—in the ‘60s and ‘70s many artists, particularly women, relied on the use of film to distribute their work as so few established galleries seemed keen to provide a platform or showcase for them.

Choreographer Lloyd Newson and his company DV8 created a controversial stage performance based on the life of gay serial killer Denis Neilson, “Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men”. It played to packed houses during its tour and, in ‘88, the performance was finally re-worked as a film in collaboration with director David Hinton. The breath-taking result used the highest possible production values—particularly pertinent as so many performance artists have now come to realize that little can be well articulated through a badly made recording of an event.

Shown on ITV’s South Bank Show and again some years later on Channel 4, the film of “Dead Dreams . . . ” has been seen by a television audience of many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands across the globe. For that audience, the work may only appear as film, and the live event will remain an unknown experience. However, the film is a dramatically different experience as the camera often moves as if it were one of the dancers—various angles, close-ups, tracking shots all combine to produce an effect that no audience member sitting in an auditorium could ever have.

This notion of the loss of experiential effect is also apparent when assessing what could be considered to be less obvious performance. Richard Serra, throwing molten lead into the corner of a German gallery in ‘96, must have been a highly charged and dangerous atmosphere, but also a very theatrical performance event. Even taking into account Roland Barthes’ suggestion that a single photograph may contain an emotional shock that breaks through and extends beyond the surface of the image (the punctum in Barthes’ Camera Lucida, ‘81) one has to accept that the photograph cannot fully communicate the actual experience. This also leads us to wonder how many performances, recorded for posterity, where actually as dramatic as they might appear. One iconic image of Joseph Beuys, during his performance “I Like America and America Likes Me” (Rene Block Gallery, New York, ‘74), is an extraordinary photograph of a “wild” coyote tearing at Beuys’ felt wrapped body. On viewing the documentary film of the event the animal appears remarkably docile and the savage tearing could easily be described as playful—a game that Beuys happily took part in.

Of course, no document, no matter how well produced or technically advanced, can equate to the experience of a live event. The direct, unmediated relationship between the viewer and the performer is an essential part of a live action. We must not ignore also the two roles, that of performer and of audience member, often taken on unconsciously by the latter, can very easily be broken. Ron Athey, a highly controversial artist created an outcry during a performance at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis in ‘94, when, having cut symbols into the flesh of one of his performers he proceeded to use paper towels to make prints of the symbols from the cuts. The towels were fixed to a line and suspended above the heads of the audience. Breaking the invisible boundary that separated his extreme performance from the relatively safety of the audience was the final taboo and, after extraordinary hyperbole in the local press, his actions led to an investigation by the National Endowment for the Arts, a court case for the Walker Art Center, and a retraction of funding for Athey. The direct, physical relationship to the performer, particularly one as contentious as Athey, the venue, its smell and temperature, the anticipation and excitement generated by the audience all contribute to the overall effect of a performance.

While it is considered Conceptually problematic to restage live performances a number of very well known and highly respected artists are interested in recreating what they see as ground breaking works. Mikhail Baryshnikov, in conjunction with The White Oak Dance Project, is planning to re-stage innovative work from dance history by artists such as Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer. Artist Marina Abramovic, one of the very few performance artists to have ever presented work at the Venice Biennale (“Balkan Baroque”, ‘97), has considered re-staging Chris Burden’s performance, “Transfixed”, ‘74, during which he was crucified on the roof of a car. It is clear that, for her, this process would be related to a sense of distancing—removing herself, as a creative source, from the performance. A distancing too for the audience, as they would be separated not only spatially, but temporally, in regard to original place and context (Performance Research Journal: On Risk, Vol 1 No 2 Summer, ‘96).

One artist who has successfully taken on board the problems of re-staging is the academic, architect, curator, and performer Adrien Sina. His one day event titled “Tragédies Charnelles” was organized around the publication of his journal La Mazarine #12 and #13. Although much of the presentation of work during that day was on temporary video screens, Sina also made sure that the experience of the venue added immensely to the event. Held at the Chateau de Pommery, 40m below ground, in caves used to store champagne, viewers where drawn through a series of theatrically staged, vaulted rooms where their experience became ritualized. Moving from the most visceral aspects of live art to performance mediated by technology, Sina managed to successfully present new performance, re-stage work and present documentation in a thoughtful and provocative way.

Museums and galleries of course, may not have the luxury of being able to select and define a space so precisely as Sina has done. For many years, museums have been seen as repositories of art and, in as much, are the guardians and to some extent authors of the “History of Art”. If they are unable (or unwilling) to take on board performance, should we be concerned that this most ephemeral of art forms has no formalized record. As it seems almost impossible to adequately record a live event, should we even try? If enough historians and academics record their personal experiences, in the form of texts and publications, at least a note of the event may remain. Then, perhaps the sense of loss at having missed what appears through someone else’s words to have been a ground-breaking performance, may prompt us not to miss many others, expanding the audience for live art and in some way maintaining its momentum as an art form.

There is, and always has been of course, a dedicated but comparatively small audience for performance art. One can assume that this may partly be the result of practical issues—thousands can pass a painting in a day but only a limited number can be present at a performance (except perhaps in the case of living sculptures such as Stephen Taylor Woodrow’s “The Living Painting” as part of “The Living Art Festival”, Riverside Studios, London ‘86 and, of course, those of Gilbert & George). However, if live art is to gain ground in its struggle for validation by the art establishment then it must expand its audience and attract those who would otherwise only address themselves to static art forms.

Hal Foster, in his book The Return of the Real (MIT Press, ‘96), suggests that since the advent of Minimalism there has been a strong tendency away from representations of the real through illusion, for example by the use of pictorial space. He proposes that the real cannot be represented, it can only be repeated: “If some high Modernists sought to transcend the referential figure and some early Postmodernists to delight in the sheer image, some later Postmodernists want to possess the real thing” (Foster, ‘96, p 165). Rebecca Schneider, in her ‘97 book The Explicit Body in Performance makes a similar point in discussing the more violent aspects of some body art: “Something very different is afoot when a work does not symbolically depict a subject of social degradation, but actually is that degradation, terrorizing the sacrosanct divide between the symbolic and the literal”. (Schneider, ‘97, p 28)

Perhaps as we move into the twenty-first century, our bodies are becoming more and more linked to technology. When our thrills come through video games and our homes, food, clothes, and sex are bought over the internet, perhaps there is a slowly emerging backlash that requires/desires the “real” thing.

How does the curator communicate the immediacy of a performance, the direct relationship between performer and audience, when the actual event may have taken place many years before? How does the performance artist manifest a live presence in the museum or gallery, where procedures are in place to deal with more traditional media? This is the challenge that artists and curators are presented with. How are we to redress the balance of a history that is once seen, and unless very well documented, probably forgotten?

Answers on a postcard . . .

Adrien George

London, England