It has now become an urgent matter to re-assert the original focus and conception of performance as a contemporary art practice. Current essays concerning the "cultural phenomenon of reenactments" express a somewhat relaxed critical approach to performance art, proposing that it is capable of "challenging and reassigning the authorial agency of the (re)performed works."(1) As such views proliferate through contemporary art's discourse, I fear they may whittle away at performance art as first presented in the 1970’s and eventually erode its ontology as an art practice.
As a practice, performance art is characterized by the ephemeral yet is distinctly marked by two features that also qualify as criteria for evaluation: duration and presence. As I have previously written, "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)."
An art practice that definitively involves presence, often inextricably linked to place, a performance art work is positioned temporally between beginning and end points. The actions of performance are overtly related to the corpus and this body engenders the performative (possibly psychic) experience. That performance is concerned exclusively with the body has provoked a fixation on language as insufficient to describe, critique or discuss it, given that performance reflects a transition from "grammar of the word" to "grammar of the body."(2) To reveal this as a misapprehension of performance, we need only recall that the conceptual foundation of this late 20th Century visual art practice projects performance as a document that defies inscription.
One of the default texts on performance states: "Performance art usually occurs in the suspension between the 'real' physical matter of 'the performing body' and the psychic experience of what is to be embodied. . . Performance boldly and precariously declares that Being is performed (and made temporarily visible) in that suspended in-between."(3)
Additionally, from the same author: "To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. . . Performance is the attempt to value that which is nonreproductive, nonmetaphorical."(4)
Disconcertingly, the above Peggy Phelan quote (from her "go-to" performance text) was reprinted in Robert Blackson’s otherwise scholarly essay, "Once More. . . With Feeling: Reenactment in Contemporary Culture", in defense of the Marina Abramović performance series Seven Easy Pieces (2005). That Blackson gives Abramović carte blanche to "potentially eclipse the works she reenacted"(5) is all the more shocking when one considers Abramović’s own characterization of her Seven Easy Pieces series:
"My version will be exactly as the piece was, but as a very long duration piece."(6)
Apparently, Abramović had not read Phelan’s text. If she had, she would undoubtedly see the inherent contradiction in her mistaking a reenactment of a performance as "exact" yet "longer." As we recall, a performance piece relates to a particular duration of an action occurring in a particular space. Thus, to reenact, for Abramović, seems to involve scant allegiance to the original time-based actions of the original performer who created the piece.(7)
This may be incidental to some critics but I find it to be irretrievably damaging to performance as a continuing art practice. Before we grant "open license" to future artists to "re-create" or "emulate" historic (iconic) performances, then we must define the fundamental differences between reenactments and recreations. Moreover, it would be a disservice to the founding tenets of performance to allow these reenactments to be judged under the laboriously retroactive critique of "taste."
Performance art is time-based yet as originally conceived it presents its ontology as beyond documentation. To visually document art is indeed daunting. James Elkins contends that:
"Visual documentation, whether it is video or photography, brings with it an ideology and an aesthetic which prevent it from functioning simply as evidence. . .The visual becomes suspect: it is no longer evidential, but contentious. . . Performance art is, in this sense, immune from the danger of being reduced to documentary evidence."(8)
This is of little concern for Blackson, as he believes that the "loose translation of eyewitness memory and historical documentation" of Seven Easy Pieces permits "the possibilities for and acceptance of reenactments that intentionally differ from their sources."(9)
We can at least remain indebted to Blackson for proffering a somewhat debatable (working) definition of reenactment as "a creative act." However, he seems conflicted as he realizes that reenactments are "slowly eroding the need for accountability to an original source" and yet still contain "the possibility for new experiences and histories to emerge."(10) It is this denial of the original, this re-casting previously enacted performances as "new experiences", that introduces the final thorny summation of reenactments like Abramović’s as weak copies, drained of their specific time-based authenticity, that transform performance into vapid simulacra to re-place the "real" Being of the original work.
1. Blackson, Robert. Art Journal, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Spring 2007): 39.
2. Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London, 1993, 150.
3. Ibid., 167-168.
4. Ibid., 146-152.
5. Op. cit., 39.
6. Moulton, Alan. Flash Art 38, No. 244 (October 2005): 89.
7. Unquestionably, Abramović is an artist of intensity and intelligence when she is performing her own works. From the Guggenheim Museum: "In 'Rhythm O,' she invited her audience to do whatever they wanted to her using any of the 72 items she provided: pen, scissors, chains, axe, loaded pistol, and others. This essay in submission was played out to chilling conclusions—the performance ceased when audience members grew too aggressive."
9. Op. cit., 40.
10. Op. cit., 40.