October 19, 2006

Performance Art:
Recreation or Emulation

Performance art, which gained dominance as an art practice in the 1970’s, was definitively about duration and presence. The performance act is time based certainly, and thus expresses itself in the duration of those actions by the performer(s), and our focus is on the physical body (presence) of the performance artist(s). The fact of the art object’s superfluity was already in the discourse, as stated in theoretical propositions laid out by Lewitt, Kosuth and other conceptualists. This paradigm shift from “commodity objects” to a dematerialization of those objects may have been a factor in the move to performance by many young artists during this era.

Marina Abramovic was one of those original performance artists of the ‘70’s generation and she is practicing her art today. Her "Seven Easy Pieces" performance project undertaken at the Guggenheim Museum last year represents the most visible project of “re-interpretation” of what can only be termed archival performance art “pieces.” What I would like to discuss here is the conflicts that will undoubtedly arise in future re-enactments of previously performed works that were time-based in a specific place, encompassing a particular presence, and existing within a long-past socio-economic and political episteme.

First, some background. In the Dialogue with Heidi Grundmann conducted in 1978, Abramovic says:

". . . no documentation can give you the feeling of what it was, because it cannot be described, it is so direct, in the documentation, the intensity is missing, the feelings that were there. And I think that that is why performance is such a strange thing – the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment and afterwards you don’t have anything, you have only the memory."(1)

Operating presumably from “memory,” but fortified with photographs, video footage and “eye-witness” accounts, Abramovic sought to recreate some of the 1970’s era performances, a “greatest hits” collection, if you will, of vintage Acconci, Beuys, Export, Pane and Nauman performance pieces (with two of her own for good measure). For brevity’s sake, I will only critique her recreation of the infamous Seedbed piece, for it is the most revealing divergence from the original performance work and the “particular presence” of Vito Acconci.

Acconci’s 1972 performance, in which he surreptitiously “planted” his “seed” beneath a wooden platform built into Sonnabend Gallery, was an invasive yet hidden ritual. The visitors to the gallery could not see his actions but they heard him on speakers in the space as he masturbated. He referred to the visitors as “my aid. . . my fantasies about them can excite me. . . the seed ‘planted’ on the floor, then, is a joint result of my performance and theirs.”(2)

The obvious distinction between Acconci and Abramovic is one of gender, which clearly validates the original ’72 performance as more worthy, as the “planting” of semen is biologically impossible for Abramovic. Her “cover version” of Seedbed, then, is a travesty, purely reliant on the sensational and voyeuristic modalities that performance has now become. The ’72 piece was clearly not about achieving orgasms, so why would Abramovic chose it to replicate in ’05? Where Vito negotiated the dangerous terrain of sexual power and threat, Marina’s Seedbed seems relegated to the realms of soft-core arousal and empty spectacle.

After Abramovic’s week of performances, in a public dialogue at the Guggenheim monitored by Nancy Spector, a question was raised about “the perhaps insuperable difficulty of preserving a performance’s meaning in a totally different social and political context.”(3) It was noted that Abramovic appeared to “bridle” at this query, and possibly that is “the tell” that would suggest to us that Abramovic had not fully considered all the implications of this performance-appropriation series. For if she sought to emulate the performance pieces, to actually “strive to equal or excel”(4) the earlier works with her re-presentation of them, then she was ignoring her own dictum that “the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment.”


1. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 759.

2. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, 1984, 408.


Rebecca Jones said...

Abramovic's performance work "redefines" the art as something ephemeral, time-based, site specific, and based around the dematerialization of the art object. I think that doing a "cover" of a performance piece opens up questions and issues about the work's site specificity and ephemerality but at the same time reasserts these as it's characteristics, which is what's interesting about it. Abromovic's statement about "see[ing] the whole process and the disappearing of the process at the same moment", I don't think make this "cover" any less within the constructs of her definition, but rather make it on the next level of questions.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Becky: Performance art is inherently “ephemeral,” and related to duration and presence. Thus, Abramovic’s “covers” of earlier works do not “redefine” the works but instead contradict the original conceptions of each piece in terms of the respective “time-based” site specificity. I fail to see how one can “reassert” these principles at the same time that one “questions” them.
If we consider Abramovic’s re-interpretations of previous performance artworks as “covers,” or a different “take” on a work by another performer, then we are equating the documentation of performance, i.e., photographs, video, instructions, as malleable substances that can be “performed” endlessly like a kind of “music.” Music is an experience of sound (excluding the physicality of the musicians who are playing) that requires the mind and ear of the listener to “complete” the experience. Moreover, music relies on memory to become “art,” whereas one of the strengths of performance art is its limited essence as an action taking place at a particular time and within a particular place.

Shanthi said...

Performance art seems so personal and internally fulfilling to the artist, I wonder where the viewer comes in? The setting and movements are there to see. But, if it is the internal mindset at that moment the artist is after, what role does the viewer play as he doesn’t get the full “intensity” of the performance? But then does he get it through other media?
Marina Abramovic: “In that moment you are absolutely doing what you are doing, but you don’t think, you are not separate any more from your own idea.” Does this mean that creating any kind of art is a performance art? When an artist is painting or creating a sculpture, he gets lost in the process, and when the piece is finished, all he has is the memory. Isn’t the finished piece similar to a video recording or photographs of the performance? Or if the artist is video taped while working, would that be considered a performance art?
I enjoyed reading Vito Acconci’s essay. It seemed like a M.C Escher work in words, with the steps going around and back to the starting point.
Chris Burden(there seems to be some kind of connection between his name and the kind of work he does): His thought about his art being an inquiry is ok with me, but the risks he takes with his life is not easy to understand. Also, if “inquiry is all what art is about”, wouldn’t the definition of an artist include scientists and other inquirers?
I haven’t watched a “real” work of performance art. So, please explain.

joyce said...

the whole time i was reading the chapter 8 readings, the topic of gender was impossible to ignore. but then i thought of a reading on acconci's performances from last year that was actually about acconci transforming himself between genders continuously.

shanthi: carolee schneeman said that the viewer in a performance piece was "visually more passive" compared to looking at something still. but they are more active physically because they keep having to looking at movements and the body in an environment. i have only been to one performance piece and i wanted to stay to see what kept changing; and it was also empowering to see a female performance artist . i hope that answered at least one of your many questions! :)

jackie said...

Joyce: I agree with you when you say the issue of gender is impossible to ignore when reading about the performance art of the 70's. Some of the men, mainly Acconci, seemed to make art that put a female viewer in a sugjugated position. The piece would never have had the same presence if the roles were reversed. When Abramovic recreated "Seed Bed" I feel as though she was making more of comment on gender in art, rather than Acconci's original intent. Burden's performances ooze masculinity, as he was constantly questioning/testing the endurance of his own body, for most of what he did was self-inflicted. The female performance artists of that time relinquished control of their own bodies to the viewer, who inflicted the "happenings" on to them. One thing though, how is the viewer visually more passive?

Shanti: When you were talking about the artist's experience in making a performance piece, I really cannot see any distinction from other artists. I think the conception to finished "product" (i.e. finished sculpture or end of performance) is all apart of the artistic process. But I don't think that you can relate performance art to other visual arts that you're talking about, because much of performance art denies the art object completely. The duration of time is thought of in completely different terms.

joyce said...

Jackie: Carolee Schneemann was describing how in her performances, or she calls it her "painting-constructions", the viewer is overwhelmed with movements constantly changing and it's different that viewing a piece of still art because: the viewer has the choice of how much time to spend responding to formal elements and content while viewing paintings and sculpture. in performances, its sort of more physical in the participation involved.

Shanthi said...

Joyce and Jackie: Thank you for the comments. I am a self-taught artist and installations and performance art have been two topics that seem hard to understand as medium of art. What these artists are writing about is something I am able to understand, more in the workings of the mind (the psychological aspect) than in the definition of art. I am able to accept or agree with the idea of the importance of space and time versus the object. I deal with the concepts of space and time in my work whether it is drawings, paintings or sculpture. It is a subject I am spending a lot of time on. My question is, shouldn’t the artist’s physical body or voice or whatever way he/she chooses to use to convey the “intention”, be considered an object? It might not be the final product, but it is the medium and the focus is on the process. Almost like a live performance of music, dance, or acting that is not being recorded.

Anonymous said...

this is Jackie
Joyce: what about mobile sculptures? ir just walking around a scuplture, or looking at a video. I don't see the difference

Shanthi: I thought the same way you did about the body being the object and Mark explained it better to me. I think the process in performance art is everything up until the perfomance begins (all the preparation and thinking behind it). When the performance begins, it is not the process anymore, but the art. The body is a part the act, but the art is the entire performance, meaning the stage, the voice, the music, the props and the people. It is everything included in the happening. I think Mark could explain this better

M. Cameron Boyd said...

My explanation may not be necessarily “better,” Jackie. But let me go back up to Shanthi’s original post:

There is a presumption that performance needs an audience, and I think we could all agree on this. Granted one can do “private” performances, and art making itself is mostly done in private, excluding the academic studios, but we understand performance to be “manifested” as a connection between performer and audience. As Acconci terms it, “an exchange between artist and viewer.”

In reference to the idea of a “finished piece” of art (painting, sculpture) being like a video, “finished” art objects are decidedly more static than video or film; again, the idea of performance is focused on duration and presence.

I disagree with Schneeman’s characterization of viewing performance as being “more passive” than viewing static art objects. The range of eye motion, cognitive and perceptive recognition required seems to disprove that.

I agree with you, Jackie: Abramovic’s Seedbed was about something other than Acconci’s original intention, so why do a “cover” at all? If she wants to do a piece about gender issues then she should use her own ideas.

Russell Kelbaugh said...

Mark: I think the reason Abramovic "covered" seedbed instead of making her own work about gender issues is she used it to show that this work can be taken on many levels and she used it to portray another level. I think that it is very insteresting that the meaning of a work can be judged by the gender, race, or sexual orientation of the artist. Maybe she wanted to exploit that discourse.

Rebecca Jones said...

As to "why do it at all" (considering Maria Abromovic's piece", I guess I am sympathetic partly and simply to the inovation of "covering" an artwork, especially performance. I think that it does both question and assert the ideas of ephemerality in performance art because it references a specific event, in the manner of documentation or dramatic reinactment (which references mass media, and theater) but also makes it new by addressing gender issues. It's also relevant that we know from her other artwork that Maria does have her own ideas and this is one of them, rather than only an apropriation of another idea. Apropriation is used everywhere in the artworld why not push those boundaries?

Rebecca Jones said...

i meant "concerning" in my first sentence...not "considering"...

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Russell: Yes, another "level" of "interpretation," truly an "exploitation" of previously conceptualized, although much weaker performance piece. Acconci's Seedbed already addressed the issue of gender relative to the performer with greater power.

Rebecca: Are you saying that because Abramovic has "referenced" a previous work this equates her cover version of the work with "media?" Of course one can "assert" and "question" simultaneously, but I think Maria only succeeded in "expanding" an appropriative "technique" rather than "pushing" the boundaries of either performance or appropriation.

Rebecca Jones said...

Well, I still say, speaking only from what I know about performance art, that Abromavic did "push" the boundaries of appropriation and performance because (1) nobody had used appropriation this way before and (2) because her works holds a tension between being ephemeral (because it is a performance, fleeting) and being static (because it's so grounded to the past performance it directly copies).
And no I'm not saying that to reference other works is to equate with media...but "reinacting" (which is what she is doing rather than referencing) a piece does relate to mass media (in terms of acting, documenting and levels of reinterpretation through media).

M. Cameron Boyd said...

There is documentation that proves other performance artists have already “used appropriation this way before,” thereby making Abramovic’s “covers” pedantic, if not inauthentic emulations. To quote from the AiA article, “Back for One Night Only”, that I gave you:
Though the Guggenheim series was ground-breaking in its scope, precedents do exist, from Sturtevant doing Beuys in 1971, to Laura Parnes doing Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy just a few years ago; in fact Abramovic’s own work has also been ‘covered,’ by five women in Amsterdam performing a piece they called ‘Marina Positions.’

And from an art blog:

There has been a recent trend for signal performance artists of the 60s and 70s to either re-do iconic works from their past careers, or to recreate the work through documentation and installations of ephemera and objects. For example, Paul Schimmel, curator of "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979"(MOCA, Los Angeles, 1998) invited Carolee Schneeman to partially recreate her 1963 mixed media installation Eye Body for that exhibition. Ironically, a crucial element in the original presentation of this piece was the performer's own nude, painted body, which however was not included in the recreation. In November 2005, Marina Abramovic "re-did" seven iconic performances by artists such as Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Gina Pane, and others at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. This event triggered further conversations about performative repetition and re-presentation, historicity, and the impossibility of documenting the ephemeral. As well, the increasing uses of digital media, telepresence, electronic networking, and virtual presence in performances have complicated questions of the "Re-do", embodiment, presence, and virtuality in performative practices. Because by definition performance art usually is live, experiential, ephemeral, site- and occasion-specific, many scholars have argued that performances should not, and some times cannot, be repeated or documented, as that would negate the very nature of live presence art and its "you have to be there to experience it" aura.

Again, in reference to "the impossibility in documenting the ephemeral," any recreation of a previously existing performance work denies the fleeting, time/space site-specificity of the original piece by the very nature of it being a latter-day “cover.” I will close with two more statements from other sources:

Performance's only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.
(Peggy Phelan, The Politics of Performance, 146 – cited here:


The performance art of the early 1970s was concrete. We made one-time sculpture actions. If Mr. Burden's work were recreated by another artist, it would be turned into theater, one artist playing the role of another.
(Tom Marioni, SF performance artist in his letter to the New York Times.)

Rebecca Jones said...

Ok, I fully rescind my comment that Abromavic's cover was original, I overlooked the many times it had been done before, so I apologize for that.
I guess Abromavic isn't really bringing that much new to the table.