Wikipedia defines Performance art as
Performance art refers largely to a performance which is presented to an audience but which does not seek to present a conventional theatrical play or a formal linear narrative, or which alternately does not seek to depict a set of fictitious characters in formal scripted interactions. It therefore will often include some form of action or spoken word which is a form of direct communication between the artist and audience, rather than a script written beforehand.
For many years, my vision of this type performance art was what I saw in a circus. Though they were well rehearsed, the jugglers, acrobats, fire breathers, ring masters and puppeteers were still performing a kind of live artistic maneuvers on stage that is a delight to experience.
I still don’t understand where the line is between performance art and other staged performances – the likes of drama, dance, orchestra etc. Is it the elements of spontaneity and uncertainty above and beyond the usual scripted performances? I doubt it. Modern directors of all forms staged performance deliberately design and introduce some sense of spontaneity in their performances.
If your tastes permit, check out this video of spooky performances art by a Japanese artist. And then, the guy who paints his body like a silver statue and stands sill for hours in Times Square, only to wink occasionally at an odd bystander. Are these people performance artists? May be? We can debate for hours both ways.
Leaving that debate aside, Museums and art galleries, at least the leading ones, are reinventing performance art. Priya Kulasagaran writes about how Malaysia’s National Art Gallery is breaking out of its mold to embrace new age performance artists and hosting their arguably bizarre acts.
She says, “One of the stand out performances of the night was Jumaadi’s avant-grade wayan kulit performance. Armed with modernist shadow puppets and a backdrop of didgeridoo, electronic sounds and haunting vocals, the Indonesian artist weaved a tale of origins of rice and rats – complete with wrath of god, death and an incestuous love affair.”
I remember the traditional puppet shows (called bommalattam in Tamil) I watched at the temple across the street where I grew up in Gandhipuram, Coimbatore in India. Changes in audience taste plugged with sophisticated technology now enables folks like Jumaadi to produce “avant-grade” performances. And then there are the innovators, who think laterally redefining art. Priya writes about Tan Zi Hao’s performance dealing with “communal memory”. The audience were staged along with a chair, phone and a scrapbook full of notes on directions to a specific destination. Elsewhere in Malaysia, a volunteer student was let loose to figure the route to that destination – except he can call as many times this phone, which will ring only to connect the audience in this at Art Gallery performance who can advise directions to the student. Though I would consider this neither as an art nor performance, it did remind me of something lot more fascinating.
Early last year, The Museum of Modern Art in New York demonstrated a intriguing work by god-mother of all performance artists, Marina Abramovic. This is one such performance that just catches you off-guard to remind why this art form is referred as “an ephemeral medium”. Marina sat in a chair, quiet, inactive and indifferent, for 7-hours a day, and six days a week, across another chair where audience took turns to sit and “participate” in the performance. Unquestionably, it was titled “Artist is Present”. Not to confuse her work with theater, she says “To be a performance artist, you have to hate the theater. Theater is fake…the knife is not real, the blood is not real and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite”. Want to know her latest quest? Making you eat Eat Flaming Volcano Dessert. Suppose you want to read more about her, here is her interview in UK’s guardian news paper.
While on the topic, check out http://weburbanist.com. They showcase some unbelievable art projects, from murals to 3D street paintings. These are not necessarily performance arts; They still are spectacular works of art requiring extraordinary performance by the artist.