103. Catherine Wood, Performance in Contemporary Art
Because I wasn’t satisfied with Roselee Goldberg’s survey of contemporary performance in her book Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century, I decided to tackle another survey of contemporary performance, Catherine Wood’s Performance in Contemporary Art. Wood’s book takes on performance after the 1950s, as well as contemporary work, so it examines the recent history of performance as well as current trends. Who knows? Maybe this book will define performance differently than Goldberg’s book does, or perhaps it will explain why she includes work that doesn’t seem to be performance. Wood, a senior curator at Tate Modern, which published the book, divides the main part of the book into three sections: “I: The Individual,” “We: The Social,” and “It: The Object.” But there’s also a relatively short introduction as well, and of course that’s where I started reading. I do like to start at the beginning of things.
That introduction is divided into five chapters. The first, “Art That Moves,” begins with an affirmation of the performance’s visibility in contemporary art, particularly since the turn of the 21st century, and the increasing interest in the history of performance. “This book looks at what we mean by performance in the context of contemporary art, and considers how current practices are rooted in approaches to art that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, and which developed significantly, internationally, after the 1950s,” Wood writes. “Charting the evolution of performance since the 1950s, it asks how this art form has come to play a key role in shaping our very understanding of what art is today” (8).
Performance might be considered “as a way of enlarging the frame around what was previously considered to be the work of art, as a material object, to include also the active presence of its maker and viewers,” Wood continues (8). The relationship between the perspectives discussed in the book’s three sections—the artist, the audience, and the artwork—are typically made visible in performance work (8). The book is divided into these sections “not because they are exclusively appropriate to that aspect, but as a way of considering which of these perspectives has a degree of prominence in the work” (8).
For example, New York-based Japanese artist Ei Arakawa “has made work that resembles a club night, an opera or a parade. His practice combines performance, participation, art historical research and activism, woven through autobiography” (8). His works are often collaborative and “tend to look like live experiments, in which relations between the artist, artwork and viewer are deliberately unstable” (8). “Staging himself as part of the work, Arakawa plays host to . . . ready-made formats for live action, within which he creates images of community, and often uses artworks by other artists as props and prompts within these scenes,” Wood writes (8). In 2012, at Tate Modern, Arakawa invited two Japanese art historians to participate in a performance; their research “was used by the artist as a score for a group event combining live re-enactments and a public discussion about performance” (8). Arakawa stood onstage with the art historians (Harumi Nishizawa and Miwako Tezuka), along with a group of friends and colleagues, all of whom wore fringed black wigs and white brocade shirts inspired by the 1920s Japanese art group Mavo (8). The group remained onstage “as a chorus for the lectures and discussions that took place,” and occasionally they were asked “to participate in re-enacting some of the photographs of historical Japanese works”; sometimes they asked questions as well, “serving as an impromptu community of interest around the material under discussion” (8-9). But given their costumes, members of that chorus felt like they were “performing as a cheering campaign for the esoteric research area being explored onstage” (9). The event also felt like a party, one that included the audience, “because Arakawa’s commentary and finely judged sense of playfulness appealed to everyone directly” (9). “The event,” Wood concludes, “became an extraordinary and vivid reflection on performance’s live presence and its history. Arakawa’s role as an artist was less a point of focus than the entire situation that he manipulated into being” (9).
Wood suggests that Arakawa considers performance history to be “a set of templates that can be used actively to share a story about art that helps to make sense of the present” (9). It is also a “way for a temporary community to come together” (9), a statement that suggests the connection between relational aesthetics or social practice and performance. In one of his performances, for example, Single’s Night, “audience members were invited to improvise dances using painted panels by the artist Jutta Koether as props, to themed soundtracks composed by artist Stefan Tcherepnin” (9). Visitors were at first embarrassed, but “soon found partners and made up dances with abandon” (9). In 2014, “Arakawa created a deliberately ambiguous situation in which he gave away free soup, made by his mother using ingredients from her home town, Fukushima: the site of a recent, high-profile nuclear explosion” (9). Visitors who wanted soup made from UK ingredients instead had to £3.50. (That is an interesting variation on the now rather hackneyed social practice project of serving food to people.) “Information about the potential effects of radiation on Japanese food production . . . was pasted on the booth wall,” Wood notes (10).
“I begin with Arakawa, and the complex ecology of his art practice, because in its breadth it encompasses so much of what performance might mean within visual art today,” Wood writes. “With an attitude of camp playfulness, he questions whether the live presence of the artist is, or needs to be, authentic, and even what authenticity is in the media-savvy twenty-first century” (10). (I’m not sure how Wood’s examples support that claim, but never mind.) “His work demonstrates the activity of witnessing to be as important as performing, but foregrounding the roles of participants and interlocutors,” she continues. “And he stages the art object—often signified by painting in his work—as something that gains meaning through the collective rituals that surround it, rather than simply on its own terms” (10). In his work, we can see the “shifting shapes” of performance: “it might be a form of participatory exchange, or stylised movement presented onstage; pop entertainment, or political activism” (10). (So Wood’s definition of performance, like Goldberg’s includes social practice.) For Arakawa, she writes, “‘liveness’ is not just an attribute of the human actors involved but a state of potentiality embodied in how all the elements of his work might move and change” (10).
“As performance has become increasingly prevalent in the field of contemporary art, this renewal of interest has put a spotlight, also, on its backstories,” Wood writes, suggesting that there is new interest in performance’s “relatively invisible histories” (10), both of living practitioners of performance art in the 1970s, but also in its historical roots. “But a ‘secret history’ has also emerged, one embedded in the object histories of expanded sculpture, action painting and immersive installation in the second half of the twentieth century,” she continues:
Performance in contemporary art, then, might essentially be said to connote a space not just for performed action, but a space of active relations: a space in which things happen. Performance is a mode of working that draws attention to, and initiates transgressions of, art’s defining frame. . . . It represents a crucible of aesthetic relations between people and things that persists in a speculative state. Through this unsettling attitude of taking the whole situation of the art encounter apart and re-making it, we could say that performance is not only related to revelation of process, but it exaggerates or extends the propositional state of art: the “is-it-art?” or rather “this-is-art” that Marcel Duchamp initiated with the probative placing of a shop-bought urinal or bottle rack in a gallery, his famous “readymade.” Recognising that it was the declarative action that made this gesture into art, rather than the object itself, we see that questions of agency, intention and reception are essential to our understanding of what contemporary art is today. And these are the questions that are often dramatised in performance situations. (10)
I am sensing that Wood’s definition of performance is likely to be as maximalist as Goldberg’s, but I could be wrong about that, and I also could be wrong in thinking that a minimalist definition might be more appropriate.
The next part of the introduction, “Performance Art,” begins with a question: “Why is this kind of work being made, more and more often, now?” (12). Wood notes that contemporary art’s landscape “is increasingly rich with works that, because they are about action and the body, or are simply live events, might be loosely termed as performance. But the term is broad, and the nature of the performance aspect within these works is widely varied almost to the point of dispersion” (12). Younger artists reject the label, partly because it is associated with body-centred performance art of the 1960s and 1970s (12). Neverless, “such historical experiments opened up possibilities, or created new templates for art-making, that are highly relevant to the way many artists are working now” (12).
Wood notes that performance art began, historically, “with a key period of experimental art made in multiple locations internationally between the 1950s and 1970s,” a “high period” that “might be loosely identified as the foundation of performance art as a genre or movement, during a time when artists explicitly identified themselves as ‘performance artists,’ a label which few younger artists in a Western context use today” (12). The first wave of live art in the 1950s included work by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, and Piero Manzoni, all familiar names from Goldberg’s survey of the history of performance art in the 20th century (12). That work, Wood writes,
opened up the space of what emerged in the later 1960s and 1970s as ‘performance’ or ‘performance art’ proper across the globe: work by artists as varied as Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramović, Milan Knížák, Chris Burden, the Vienna Actionists, Lygia Pape, Yoko Ono and Hi-Red Center, all of whom experimented with live, body-centred practices as a counterpart to, or in confrontation with, the market and traditional media of sculpture and painting. (12)
A “more media-literate form of self-presentation” emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s, Wood continues, work which used video and “which can be seen as a precursor for the seamless inhabitation of the image in the work of many artists working today” (12). That wave included artists such as Joan Jonas, Luigi Ontani, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Michel Journiac, General Idea, Michael Smith, IRWIN, Lorraine O’Grady, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura (12).
According to Wood, “this high period of performance art and happenings” is “an important but somewhat narrow reference point for contemporary practice”:
From today’s perspective, the notion of performance art can be understood as a genre of sorts, albeit an extraordinarily and—by its own definition—necessarily permissive, open-ended one. What is especially new and valuable in the work developed during the 1960s and 1970s, and into the 1980s, is the introduction of a set of templates activating relations between the artist, viewer and artwork: a redistribution of the relations making up this triad, which had already been implicitly initiated with Duchamp, and which arguably connects with pre-modern and non-Western ideas about the role of art in a social context. These radical reconfigurations offer a complex starting point from which I wish to build a more expansive understanding of the reach of performance and the more virulently dispersed notion of the performative today. (13).
My suspicions were correct: Wood will define performance, like Goldberg, in an expansive, maximalist way–although she does a better job of justifying and explaining her definition and her use of the term “performative.”
“The irruption of ‘performance art’ is habitually described in terms of rupture: a radical break with traditional forms of art-making that stripped art of many of its accumulated habits and political associations,” Wood writes (13). But when what she refers to as “proto-performance” first emerged in the 1940s, societies around the world were undergoing radical changes, and the spirit of revolution continued for decades (13). The expansion of global media prompted the emergence of new “relativistic and critical views on the institutions of authority” (16). “This came hand in hand with a new sense of fracture between the immediacy of one’s own life and the consumption of mediated reality,” Wood continues, noting that in The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Guy Debord claimed that “‘all that was once lived directly has become mere representation’” (16). “From such a perspective, performance appeared, at this moment, as an arena for a new, apparently unmediated culture in the present tense,” Wood writes (16).
At the same time, “[t]he live performances that were created in these decades were not only a rejection of the institutions of art,” Wood contends. “The reinstatement of the figure within the frame of art, through performance, also posed a driving question about art’s capacity to tell stories, and its ritual basis” (16). “This reappearance of the figure”—and I take it that she means the human body—“was, in certain ways, an alternative and fresh continuation of what art had been up until then,” she continues (16). Performance “proposed new forms of figuration via narrative and picture-making, and also potential for explicit political content, which high modernism had absented” (16). It was also “a way of making a place for art among people: creating a scene in which the art object had meaning, or a vision of artistic activity that located art within life once again” (16). Performance thus “supplemented the blank formalism of modernist abstraction with a reinstatement of the figure” (16). However, at the same time, “by making live images, the body-art of performance could be seen to extend early twentieth-century concerns with expressionist figuration towards a literal, and often extreme, picture of raw authenticity” (16-17). Wood notes that various early 20th-century movements were interested in accessing “a seemingly authentic mode of expression” in order “to counter the cultured stylization of academic European sculpture and painting” (17). “The staging of the naked raw physicality of the subject, often in situations of extreme endurance,” in the work of the Viennese Actionists, for example, “can be seen as a literalised extension of this desire. In the 1970s, artists such as Gina Pane, Stuart Brisley, Marina Abramović, and Petr Štembera took these ideas to their limit, to create powerful images of alternatively fragile and abject bodies that push interiority to the surface” (17).
As artists of that period “demonstrated a desire to strike out against accepted forms and start from scratch,” they were “often working on their own bodies as a signifier of a mode of primary existence, imagining the body as a territory and a material that could be claimed and presented on its own terms,” Wood writes (18). This focus on the body offered a way to rethink the culture of art-making: “Performance art was often about being an amateur, experimenting, rather than a skilled performer, in order that apparently authentic exposure of the self, or exchange with others, might occur” (18). Artists worked with “notions of intimacy, reciprocity, community and communality, and challenged the boundaries of the artwork as a fixed material object,” and in doing so, they revealed the basis of art in social relations. “The relative statuses of the I (the artist as maker and subject), We (the viewers or participants in the work), and It (the art object as an externalisation of the artist’s subjectivity) were being newly staged and reimagined,” Wood argues (18). That sentence might turn out to be a central part of this book’s argument. Examples of this reimagining include Japanese Anti-Art movements of the early 1960s; the Vienna Actionists; the “large-scale, game-like participatory events” organized by Allan Kaprow in the US, Jean-Jacques Lebel in Paris, and Marta Minujín in Buenos Aires; and the “eccentric or intimate gestures,” often performed in public spaces “to propose micro-alternatives to state-led mass conformity” of Kim Ku-lim and Lee-Kang-so (18).
“It is useful, initially, to draw our frame of study closely around this burst of body-centred performance action, this moment that destabilised clear divisions between spectator and artist-actor, which built a momentum in the late 1950s,” Wood argues:
We might propose it as a kind of ‘degree zero’ for a threat that reaches backwards to early twentieth-century experiments, and forwards to what performance art means today. Performance, in the mid-twentieth century, proposed a way of re-connecting art and life. It conjured alternatives to the dominant ideologies under which art and life operated, demonstrating art’s role within a specific context, and a community of shared interest, and yet challenging prevalent political or institutional agendas. Its directness could offer a new kind of sincerity, confound expectations with an emphasis on risk, and foreground the fundamental relations between making, showing and witnessing that constitute the art experience. At a time of incipient globalism, such shifts were part of a wider, emergent post-colonial challenge to an idea of who the “we” of the audience might be, too. This was not to be taken for granted. (18-20)
If “what is art?” was a key question in the early 20th century, Wood suggests, in the 1950s that question had been “overwritten by the bigger contextual question: ‘what is society?’” (20).
The third section of Wood’s introduction, “Performance and Performativity,” considers the fundamental and productive slipperiness of the word itself (20). She notes that several terms have been used to describe this form of art—“live art,” “action,” “happening,” “event,” and “situation”—but that “performance” now “has the most currency internationally at present,” and is the term “routinely used by artists, writers and curators to describe work with a live dimension in the contexts of conversation, critical writing, marketing materials and programming” (20). For that reason, “it has become ever more potent and pervasive,” a keyword that creates “the conceptual space that enables the existence of what they describe” (20). She looks to the etymology of the word performance, noting that at one time it meant “to do,” and then shifted towards the notion of “completing a task or behaviour for an audience” (20). In business, it means “to succeed” (20). “Today, ‘performance’ and its related theoretical term ‘the performative’ connote something more reflexive, like the (artificial) constitution of reality by ‘enacting-as-doing’ and ‘doing-as-enacting,’” she continues. “Within art, the term ‘performative’ is commonly, and a little confusingly, used both as an adjective, intended to mean ‘performance-like,’ or ‘involving live performance,’ and in its theoretical sense, after the linguistic theory of J.L. Austin” (20), who coined the term to describe statements that caused things to happen in and of themselves. “In a slightly messy overlap of these dual uses of the term, ‘performative’ has come to suggest a state of self-awareness that is fundamentally woven into the undertaking of practical action: a capacity for iteration as opposed to passive description,” Wood states. She cites Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble and its borrowing of Austin’s linguistic concept “to consider the ‘acts’ that constitute normative patterns of behaviour in a society: the way in which a person’s individual subjectivity is produced through the unwitting repetition of acts learned at school, in the family and through the media—one’s social performance—and is thus potentially open to change” (20). Given all of this background, Austin concludes, “[p]erformativity as a concept is concerned . . . with the mutual influences between how we imagine the I, We and It, and how language is part of this game” (20).
“Questions around performance within visual art can be partially, but not substantially, articulated in relation to the academic discipline of performance studies, whose territory expands well beyond that of visual art towards a broader anthropological study of rites and cultural enactment as they intersect with theatre,” Wood continues (20-21). She notes that Richard Schechner, one of the founders of performance studies, “described performance in a general sense as ‘twice-behaved behaviour’” (21). She quotes Marvin Carlson’s claim that it’s difficult to judge where performing begins and ends, which suggests that all human behaviour could at least potentially be considered a performance (21). In art terms, though, “performance is treated not so much as an anthropological condition of our social status of being (although this might be implicit in certain works) but, in the first instance, as a medium: a way of working with a live situation” (21). “In a more developed sense,” Wood writes, “performance conveys a certain attitude: a degree of self-consciousness about art as live activity, which might also be carried through to our understanding of all other forms of art-making, even those in purportedly traditional media” (21). Historically, performance within visual art has been described as “live art by artists” (Goldberg), “an activity that declares itself as an activity” (Birgit Pelzer), and non-object-based art (Peruvian art historian Juan Acha (21). “In a contemporary context,” Wood continues,
theorist Bujana Kunst describes performance as “an antagonist know . . . a conglomerate of contradictory forces (human, non-human, spatial, natural, etc.) that constitute the moment of the present, and the invention of its political potential.” In common art-world parlance, “performance” in art often means something much simpler: more or less, a work of art that is staged as a live event, or has live presence. Even if the term is inadequate, it can work as a basic medium description alongside other basic categories of painting, sculpture, video, and so on. (21)
That “basic” and “inadequate” definition is the one I was working with as I read Goldberg’s Performance Now. “And yet,” Wood writes, “the term’s purchase within the field of contemporary art has evolved in ways that are, as Kunst notes, to do with its revelation of art’s socio-political base, and how it might be applied to technology and objects too. Performance and performativity represent attitudes or perspectives as much as media in current practice” (21). And that seems to be the definition Goldberg herself was using. I find myself wishing that I’d read Wood’s book before Performance Now instead of afterwards; I would probably have complained less and felt less frustration. Also, the writers Wood is citing here are probably a worthwhile place to begin thinking about performance, and whether my own walking practice could be considered performance.
In her 2010 book How to Do Things with Art, which Wood calls “important,” “art historian Dorothea von Hantelmann shows how both objects and installations, as well as actors, can perform within an art context” (22). That book probably lies behind Goldberg’s definition of performance Performance Now. Von Hantelmann’s
approach to performativity in contemporary art deliberately opens this idea up to consider how paintings by Daniel Buren or the video installations of James Coleman might be citational. In drawing our attention to the theatrical nature of the gallery’s white walls, or the ritual of viewing a video—which either iterate or deviate from pre-existing social and institutional scripts—von Hantelmann makes the essential point that structures and objects perform actively as much as people do. (22)
Yes, that argument definitely shapes Performance Now, and I find myself wondering whether von Hantelmann’s book is worth reading for my project or not. However, Wood continues, “von Hantelmann’s separation of this iterative quality of art form the literal theatre of historical performance art seems to neat. . . . Literal acts of performance art, as events, haunt performativity as its metaphorical ancestors” (22). I wonder what’s lost, though, in making the claim that objects perform or are somehow performative. If everything performs, does performance or performativity not lose its usefulness as a distinction? I think it does. To argue that everything performs is very different from arguing that performance is interdisciplinary, or that different artistic media can come together through performance or, more broadly, that contemporary art tends to be more interdisciplinary than art forms were previously.
“In the last fifty years, the action-basis of performance has drawn attention to the instability of the repeated rituals of so many aspects of art-making and presentation,” Wood contends:
Actual performances occurring within the field of art have, arguably, prompted us to see the whole field differently. Just as conceptual art began as a discrete perspective on practice, foregrounding concept and language, but has come to underwrite our understanding of contemporary art practice ubiquitously, so the performance perspective on visual art production—what we have learned to see as its made-ness, its transactional character, its impermanence, and its reliance upon repeated conventions of display—comes to inflect our understanding of what art is and means in the broadest sense. (22)
Performance art in the 1960s “instigated a dissolution of traditional interdisciplinary boundaries” and an attitude of “indeterminacy and improvisation” across disciplines that “has been a strong influence on our understanding of this area of practice, and its legacy dominates Western art history” (23). But, Wood continues, for contemporary artists “performance is not the free or undefinable space of cross-disciplinarity that some mythology around the work suggests. It is, often, a way of testing art’s own frame and its protocols as regards audience-artist-artwork relations” (23). Performance, she writes, “can be about singular acts or events created for an audience, but it can also be about drawing our attention to the active relations between people and things in more subtle ways that are not clearly bracketed in time” (23). Thus, she concludes, performance “is now defined by a double-layered understanding: as both the making of live events for a temporary community and the more pervasive conceptual attitude of performativity, which marks an openness to the possibility that things might act, and that social and institutional scripts might be acting through us” (23).
In other word, Wood writes, in a statement that echoes the approach I saw in Goldberg’s Performance Now,
[u]nderstanding what performance in art today means is less about fetishising liveness as defined by the presence of the living body, as much writing on performance has done, and more about considering a broader state of changeability or instability that is live: to consider how subject and object positions might be destabilised, and how subjectivity and society might be reciprocally shaped Such a state is what makes performance thrilling, but it also makes it difficult to define its limits. Without the clear material boundaries of a painting or a sculpture, where does a work of performance begin and end? How does the zone of possibility that performance initiates intersect with other disciplines? (23)
Those are excellent questions, and I hope Performance in Contemporary Art can answer them. I also find myself wondering whether Wood will discuss site-specific work that may not have a direct audience, or if in her version of performance, an unmediated audience is always required.
“Performance has emerged afresh as a vital area of exploration for artists in the past decade, perhaps because of its potential to be direct, expressive, political and unstable, as well as seductive, experiential and visually compelling,” Wood writes. “Performance seems to offer a space where the acts of making and showing, the process of exhibiting, are heeded; a space where a temporary reality might be produced and inhabited, shared by a community who gather to focus their attention for a period of time” (23). It also “heightens our perception of art’s components: they are making, we are watching, this is the work of art” (23). And it emphasizes the gallery “not just a viewing space, but a public space in which to gather” (23).
The fourth section of the introduction begins with the admission that performance as an object of study is “equally slippery” as its elusive definitions (23). “Much has been made in art historical and theoretical writing of performance’s ephemerality, its status as material fragments or remains,” Wood notes. Much of the work she discusses in this book “has been experienced through direct encounters with it, or even working with the artists to produce it, yet most historical work has been viewed through documentation,” which consists of “photographs, sketches, video, scores, stage sets, reviews, costumes, props, rumours, witness memories” (23-24). “Though these fragments offer only glimpses of the original work, they build nevertheless to form an imperfectly partial but powerfully intoxicating foundation myth for our understanding of performance art,” she writes (24).
Since the 1960s, Wood argues, “a new lexicon of art-making has emerged that re-casts the roles conventionally ascribed to the participants in the art encounter: the individual subject (I), the audience or community (We) and the artwork (It)” (24). Performance explicitly provides a space where these “dynamic positions” can be tested, thereby offering “concrete new patterns for presenting, paying attention to, and participating in art” (24). Out of these templates—and I find Wood’s repeated use of that word somewhat curious—“performance has emerged bolder, more theoretical and nuanced” (24). The ideas that came out of previous periods of performance are “now woven into the fabric of much more wide-ranging art practices in ways that are highly fragmented and dispersed” (24). “[T]he very logic of performance as an event-based art form,” she continues, “contained a drive towards the further disintegration of its own boundaries: a radical flexibility that is about much more than the electric charge of immediate liveness” (24).
And yet, it seems to have been that liveness, that unpredictability, that drew Wood to performance in the first place: “it is an experience of art in which one can never be sure where it is going or what is next, which offers a tantalising sense of infinite possibility,” she writes (24). While studying more conventional art history in the 1990s, she continues, she “always wanted to widen the frame around the work of art to see how its aesthetic form was not only informed by, but also merged with, its social, and thus political, base” (24). Performance “feels closer to lived life in its refusal to stay in one place, its persistence in transgression. Thrillingly, the rulees never quite fit” (24). It thus “disrupts prevailing definitions of authorship and ownership; even the fact that performances are now bought and sold is an experiment with the rules of the market” (24). It does have conventions, but these “are visibly open to contestation, or to being replayed and reimagined” (24). Other, more familiar forms of art, she acknowledges, can “also be all these things, but under the banner of performance we experience them, arguably, more directly, and often as a two-way conversation, or a situation that we are implicated in” (24).
“The history of performance that has been written so far has attempted to situate performance as a medium that equates with other art historical mediums: painting, sculpture, installation and so on,” Wood writes, citing Goldberg’s Performance Art as an example (25). “But one of the potential limits of this kind of method, based on classical art history, is that despite its championing of the idea of liveness, such a mode of tracking the evolution of a language through time, appropriate to painting or sculpture, is applied to what is, by and large, a fundamentally different medium and attitude,” she continues. “Performance, and the attendant difficulty in retrieving it, rests upon a succession of disappearing acts that operate in a different cyclical kind of progression of iteration and repetition and, in this sense, it has to be thought about differently” (25). Wood argues that the chronology “that was designed for stories of object-based media makes less sense for ephemeral and time-based formats, with their own cycles of appearance and disappearance” (25). She also disagrees with Goldberg’s emphasis “on liveness’s service to the object, which remains as the prized evidence,” something she sees as well in the “extraordinarily rich and important exhibition Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1970,” which also focused on concrete “‘residue’” of performance work (25). However, Wood writes, “what we actually see in the work of an artist like Rauschenberg is a continuous movement back and forth between work made for the gallery and work made for the stage, a desire to ‘keep painting alive,’ and a productive influence both ways” (25).
Retrieving this performance history is important for museums, Wood acknowledges, but “what is available to represent” the history of performance “is usually only secondary material: those paintings, sculptures, installations and photographs—and one might add scores and instruction pieces that come with contracts” (25). But now, “at a time when artists of the current generation are working on ways of scoring, or otherwise devising strategies through which live work can be exhibited and collected in its primary form, we might begin by trying to think about what seems essential to our understanding of that high period between the 1950s and 1970s from a contemporary perspective” (25). We might have to “get lost in the fiction suggested by the fragments, to allow ourselves to imagine the live impact of seeing arrows shot through canvases and smoke ring sculptures in Gutai Art on the Stage 1957-8, as though we can access it via the transparent information contained in documentation” (25-26). “Yet the texture of the remnants also opens up ways of looking at objects that come from a different, performative perspective,” she continues (26). Wood, through Jonah Westerman, observes that Peggy Phelan and Philip Auslander offer “two polar approaches to past performances”: Phelan believes “in the unique presence of the live event,” whereas Auslander argues “that only the event’s mediation enables us to recognise it as a performance as such” (26). Westerman, Wood suggests, offers “a third, ‘inframedial’ approach that has to do with the space between witness and document, a space where performance ‘lies and lives’” (26).
To begin looking at performance “from a fresh perspective,” Wood argues, “we might observe that the current generation of artists working with performance manifest a flatter relationship with history than the teleological narrative that dominates art historical accounts” (26). Contemporary performance work, she continues,
often stages an interplay between live acts, performed attitudes, vintage images and films, and networks of translation and connection: a territory in which historical change does not happen as a succession of formal questions being passed on to the next, but as a complex back-and-forth between past and present, and between multiple presents or multiple localities. (27)
She lists performance artists who “have made works that iterate potted histories of performance—both canonical surveys and individual re-enactments—as new works” (27). Those artists “are summoning passing history and making it palpable in the present” (27). Therefore, she contends, “performance history does not behave around questions of authenticity, originality, reproducibility, stability and historical narrative in the way that more traditional art objects do, or can” (27).
In addition, the history of performance art, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, tends to focus on American work; work from other parts of the world “is often clearly in dialogue with American and western European notions of performance art, and we know that images of actions, performances and events were circulating globally” (27). However, she continues, “part of the richness of this territory, and the peculiar nature of this kind of work, is that such back-and-forth between live action, image, transmission and description was taking place actively, and that different conceptions of what performing meant—by whom and for whom—emerged in different places” (27). “This book is not a history of performance art as a genre, unto itself,” Wood concludes. “Neither is it a comprehensive survey covering every form of performance in art since the 1950s” (27). Instead, Wood writes, “I have worked backwards from the present, trying to understand how we got here by looking at a necessarily limited selection of artists who are representative of historical imperatives in this area, and trying to relate them to the contemporary by setting them into a broader pattern,” while remaining aware of “multiple international histories” as well (27).
The fifth and final section of the introduction begins by noting that it is difficult to chart the “moving territory” of performance (28). “We might imagine a Venn diagram, in which contemporary art appears as a series of intersecting rings, which partly overlap with neighbouring disciplines—theatre, music, dance, as well as architecture, science, film and political activism,” Wood writes. “It is the movement of these ‘other’ disciplinary practices—as ready-made formats—into contemporary art’s frame that makes for part of the performative attitude that is current” (28). Many artists move “in and out of the space of art,” she writes, including Boris Charmatz, who “choreographs works for the stage of the contemporary dance theatre as well as for the public plaza and the gallery,” and Steve McQueen, who “directs Hollywood movies and continues to show in museums with his video installations” (28). “The space of art readily ingests all manner of other forms, seeming to offer a temporary home that draws attention to disciplinary values and formats in a critical context,” she writes. “Art is also, apparently, hungry to learn from its neighbouring practices” (28). “Artists have begun to invite the crafts of dancing, acting and performing into their practices on a continuum with approaches to materials more commonly associated with the visual arts, whether painting on canvas, collage or editing high-res video,” she continues (28). Contemporary art is therefore interdisciplinary, and performance incorporates other art forms. “At the same time, institutions have increasingly been inviting practitioners in other fields—choreographers, musicians, filmmakers—into the space of art,” because “[t]he cross-disciplinary nature of earlier performance . . . suggested that such a trespass might be possible and productive” (28). “What the movement between disciplinary boundaries is a productive cross-contamination,” Wood contends:
the encounter with dance in the museum not only offers comparative freedom for the choreographer to experiment, it extends the possibilities for art; it adds expertise, nuance and depth to the ways in which the traditionally material-focused world of visual art understands the place of living bodies, of people performing and working together. (28-29)
In this book, Wood focuses on these crossovers, which she considers more important “than the many artists who operate solely within those neighbouring disciplines, who have made work that is indirectly relevant to, and influential upon, an art context” (29). Works from outside the Western canon may not be part of the Western history of performance, but “they are examples of approaches that provide new models of art that help us understand contemporary practice, and to imagine new futures for it by offering backstories from which we can retrospectively project” (29).
Wood concludes the introduction by suggesting that the book’s three sections “are not intended to create exclusive boundaries between works,” but they are instead “tools for considering the primary impact of different kinds of work, and how various artists emphasise the components of the art they make to different degrees” (29). “The high point of performance radically changed the field of art, by attending to what had built it up to this point, and imagining how it could develop from there,” she writes. “But this perspective on performance poses questions, too. How does such active testing of art’s boundaries and its modes of working with time threaten our understanding of contemporary art as an area of practice? And what is not performative within this perspective? Is there a space outside its reach?” (29). “To understand contemporary art, an understanding of how it performs is necessary,” she contends, and this book “offers a guide to the evolution of that story, both in the dynamics of the art encounter and as a conversation between artists, taking select examples from the past six decades and across continents” (29).
The first section of the book, “The Individual,” begins with “The Artist’s Presence,” a discussion of Marina Abramovič’s 2010 performance The Artist Is Present, in which the artist sat at a table across from visitors, who were able to stay for as long as they wanted. Abramovič, Wood writes, “said that she wanted to be ‘like a mountain,’ ‘like a rock.’ She claimed that because she did ‘nothing,’ the performance ‘became life itself.’ The work contained ‘no story, no objects, just pure presence,’ she said” (32). “The figure of the artist presented by Abramovič in this work has come to stand for ‘performance art’ as it is popularly understood today,” Wood continues (32):
The singularity of this piece resonated loudly with visitors, and created ripples of attention through New York’s saturated media landscape, as well as internationally. Abramovič, unmoving at the centre of this, nevertheless moved those who encountered the piece. . . . But the impact of the artist’s apparently pure presence in real time was also powerfully multiplied by her celebrity profile . . . producing a new hybrid, populist version of the previously marginalised image of performance art. (32)
Wood notes that from the beginning, Abramovič’s performance work emphasized endurance, risk, and intimacy, “using daily rituals such as eating and sleeping, and staging the body’s vulnerability to pain” (32). She describes Abramovič’s 1988 “epic work,” The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk, made with Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen), which “ended both their romantic and artistic relationships in the same way,” without considering questions of audience (there wasn’t one) or walking (32-33). Nevertheless, one can see The Lovers as a work that emphasized endurance and “daily rituals” (a better term might be daily activities).
Abramovič’s The Artist Is Present, Wood writes, “conflates the two major paradigms that define a Western idea of the artist’s ‘self-performance’ in the postwar period: the presentation of the authentic self via the body as a real, vulnerable, physical and emotional presence, often involving ritual duration, on the one hand, and the idea of presenting oneself as a mediated image, on the other” (33). That doesn’t mean, she quickly adds, “that Abramovič’s is the best work in performance made in this period” (33). In fact, its “own understanding of its authentic basis is questionable in relation to its theatricality. The artist’s fast-track invitation to intimacy in such a high-profile setting might be seen as a form of kitsch” (33). How can one be authentic, Wood asks, “when performing as a quasi-celebrity?” (33-34). (Does that mean that when a performance artist like Abramovič reaches a degree of renown, they should retire?) “Abramovič arguably builds on the strategies that she developed in the radically different socio-political context of socialist Yugoslavia . . . such as slowing time and creating an intimate rapport between artist and viewer, and spectacularises them to make images suitable for consumer-friendly, twenty-first-century America,” she writes (34).
Nevertheless, “Abramovič’s performance undoubtedly touches upon something significant in its invitation to a kind of contact . . . rarely acknowledged in the contemporary museum” (34). It marks a difference in the staging of the self in the 21st century as compared to the 1970s, exploring “a split view of what it means to present or perform the body: on the one hand, as a kind of raw material and, on the other hand, through constructing one’s identity, finding ways to assimilate to the power of the image” (34). “Performance art, as a genre, remains overridingly associated with a familiar notion of authenticity,” Wood continues. “The powerful images that come to mind are of individual artists, surrounded by witnesses, engaged in expressive acts” (34). “Typically, performance art is represented by a singular, experimental and anarchic act,” often involving “nakedness, vulnerability and risk,” and “invariably putting the artist-performer face-to-face with the audience,” she writes:
Setting itself up as a counterpoint to the crafted and rehearsed nature of theatre, performance in art was about the un-skilled performer who might reveal something about themselves, unmasked, as it were. the “I” of the self, in this kind of work, is delineated by the physical boundaries of the artist’s body, and the probing thereof is often a kind of literal demonstration of psychological implications: one’s inside is shown on the skin. (34)
The Artist Is Present, Wood contends, “prostituted” the “subtle, original aims at authenticity . . . in the service of its mass consumption in the museum” (34). But, she continues, “a relationship to publicity and press might be seen to play a fundamental role” in performance work “from the start, as inherently intertwined with existential questions regarding what it means to be human” (34).
From the 1950s to the 1970s, performance artists “explored how our personalities and sense of being individual people are shaped, building upon the growing understanding that human subjects are both formed by external disciplinary structures and unique entities unto themselves, with their own consciousness, perspective and set of experiences,” Wood writes. These performances “were new explorations of subject-object relations, particularly of the relationship between artwork, maker and viewer: how a sense of self (I) is shaped by one’s relation to others (We) and externalised as an art object (It)” (37). In the work made between the 1950s and 1970s, “the figure of the artist-performer appears as a singular and powerful presence, even in moments that expose failure or vulnerability,” she continues. “These kinds of actions moved from a revelation of process to propose, radically, that with barely any other materials, one could transform oneself into art” (37). Performance art “began with the proposition of a self that one directs to aesthetic and political ends: the posing of an I as a new kind of art object. This simple idea was one of the most important building blocks set out by artists after then 1950s” (37).
In the next chapter of the book’s first section, Wood looks as “proto-performance” in the 1950s and after (37). This moment is “a key transition in art history: from attention to the material object itself (the painting or sculpture) to the action or process of making it” (37). This is “an increasingly self-conscious move from a clear separation between artist and object towards artist as artwork” (37). Artists like Jackson Pollock “appeared somewhat heroic, demonstrating intense or grand physical gestures” (37-38), while “the trickster attitude of [Yves] Klein and Piero Manzoni . . . was playfully critical of such grandeur: they were already posing as artists whose notion of the self was heavily inflected by what we would now call branding and marketing” (38). Photographs of Pollock at work were important: “We might now read Pollock’s ‘dance’ on the canvas as a proto-form of performance . . . although this was explicitly not the artist’s original intention” (38). “From the late 1950s onwards, after Pollock, many artists began to recognise that the circulation of images of their work, and indeed the activity of making it, was becoming as important as the work itself, creating a theatrical double frame that conflated real and representational space,” Wood writes. “In both live presentations and photographica and film documentation, artists disclosed the process of making as an extension of the imaginative space of their work” (38).
Exposing the process of making work as a way of revealing “the artist’s unconscious impulses staged one conception of the artist’s subjectivity,” a psychoanalytical one, but “other approaches to performing the act of making posed the artist very differently” (38). Beginning in the 1950s, Yves Klein “produced events that enacted art-world conventions with a spirit of mischevious play, and cast himself as a compère: an I that had little to do with interiority” (38-39). For Klein, “making art was as much about the frame of presentation as it was about manipulating paint or clay” (39). His most famous works, the Anthropometry performances, “were highly theatrical: in early iterations, naked female models . . . were covered in blue paint and directed by Klein, dressed in evening wear, to press their bodies onto large sheets of paper to create imprints, while a string quartet played his Monotone Symphony (1949) for the audience in formal dress, seated on gold chairs and sipping champagne” (39). Klein’s “version of art-making” was not an “authentic expression of his subjectivity” but one “premised upon delegation, an approach which is highly relevant to our understanding of contemporary art made within a late capitalist economy built upon outsourced labour” (39). Instead, Klein’s “complex actions from the late 1950s both dramatised the process of making art and posed a critique of its institutions, which framed the artist as a brand” (40). “He showed how it was not just art that was made: he revealed the whole situation around making, exhibiting and selling art as a kind of theatre, one in which both artist and audience willingly participate,” Wood concludes (40).
In the work of the Gutai group in Japan, “artists appeared as quasi-magicians,” creating “a new kind of active sculpture and painting via formal rituals that combined materials and gestures” (40). “Gutai foregrounded the individual’s capacity to act and make change, presenting the work of art as a live entity,” Wood contends. It was “explicitly influenced by Japanese ideas of Zen Buddhism and Kendo martial arts: the artists embodied a desire to transcend subjectivity rather than to express it as such” (41). “In this sense,” Wood continues, “it offers a model of the artist or self—of the I—that is more relevant to the current generation than the psychological interiority of abstract expressionism” (41). “The staging of the artist and his or her body in relation to the artwork within Gutai” was about “a desire to devise a reciprocal relationship between the material artwork and the energy of life” (41). The Gutai artists also “balanced the agency of the performing artist against the production of aesthetic objects, and set the individual within a clear context of collaboration with others, as well as initiating what today we would dub a ‘multi-platform’ approach to representation” (41). In Gutai proto-performance, the self “appears as a more fundamentally relational concept than the Freudian” (41). “The group understood that building a community of interest was important to provide a space for individual creativity,” Wood continues, “but at the same time there was suspicion in 1950s post-occupation Japan about the development of ideological groups, or identifying under specific political banners” (41-42). Gutai, she writes, “took on a horizontal system of community as opposed to a hierarchical one, believing individualism to be a potentially positive counterpoint to external pressures, such as the psychological forces of fascism and other forms of totalitarian group control” (42).
The third chapter of the book’s first section discusses the emergence of performance art in the 1960s and 1970s. “In the later 1960s and 1970s, a further shift began to occur: artists staged their own role not only as makers but, instead merged the I of the artist-subject with the It of the object,” Wood writes. “The self became the material proper” (42). This shift took art in two directions: first, “body art,” where practitioners “began to stage themselves as so-called authentic subjects”; and second, a concern “with constructing the self as a fantasised image” (42). This chapter focuses on body art, “a form that imagined the possibility of presenting oneself as real and raw, as existing prior to cultural or social convention: subject rather than citizen” (42). In this art, “[s]elf-inflected pain, nudity and endurance became markers of a new level of expressionism” (42). Artists that illustrate this tendency include the Vienna Actionists, Carolee Schneeman, Chris Burden, Marina Abramovič, Stewart Brisley and Letícia Parente, among others (42). “This was work that was often founded upon exposure of the artist’s own body to risk and violence, but it was usually also concerned with formal composition,” Wood writes. “Nevertheless, this work has been theorised in terms that emphasise its realness and authenticity as qualities of value—qualities often posed as being deliberately at odds with the perceived value system of fine art” (42). She cites performance theorist Peggy Phelan, who has claimed “that such body-centred work revalues ‘a belief in subjectivity and identity which is not . . . representable’ within ‘the ideology of the visible’ and that to ‘be in the present tense [the quality which, for her, defines performance’s essence] one has to be an amateur, not knowing what you’re doing, with the capacity to fail’” (42).
Authenticity, then, has been the essential characteristic of body art, but Wood presents examples which ask “questions about the possibility of such apparent authenticity” (42). Carolee Schneemann, for instance, “was one of the first artists to link her painting practice with tough questions about her bodily experience, to make this equation between I (the self) and It (the art object) explicit as a set of viewing—or voyeuristic—positions, deliberately speaking from the position of an embodied woman” (42-43). “Essential to Schneemann’s transition from action painting to performance art was her explicit focus on female desire and her challenge to the status of the female body as image,” Wood writes (43-44). Her work in the 1960s and 1970s “dramatised the idea of turning the interior to the exterior, but not in terms of psychological expressionims. Her work posed a continuity between vision and sex, surface and skin” (44). The 1960s work of the Vienna Actionists, on the other hand, “represents the emergence of a psychological, or psychoanalytical, idea of body are par excellence in Europe” (45). Their focus on “violent transgression and on probing the boundaries delimiting the individual body, in relation to its environment as well as to others,” came after “the violence of the Second World War, in which their parents’ generation had played a part” (45). Their work “was avowedly an attempt to begin again, and to re-sensitise the arena of art as a space in which what it means to be human could be more honestly depicted and explored, via imagining a new and more real form of painting” (45).
“Artists in the 1970s would take this idea of the self-as-canvas further,” Wood writes (46). Her primary examples include Abramovič’s early work and the work of Gina Pane, which presents “a painful and poetic vision of her body as a surface to be worked on: composing with organic materials (flowers, food), combined with instruments of pain, through highly ritualised passages of action” (46). “Pane’s work stages not only a sense of the externalisation of interior psychology, like the Actionists, or the sense of being at odds with the flesh,” Wood continues. “In this sense, Pane’s practice has much in common with that of Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, although Mendieta’s work—emerging directly from a practice in painting—was primarily concerned with the creation of images that staged her hunger for primeval relations between the body and nature” (47). Mendieta used “earth, feathers, grass, cows blood and paint in combination with her own naked body” to create “sacrificial scenarios” that “evoke pain and refer to violence against women explicitly, rather than documenting the artist’s physical endurance therof” (47). Her performances were often enacted solely for the camera,” Wood notes, “and the artist liked the sense of longing created by the mediation of film” (47). That is the first time Wood has mentioned the notion of a mediated audience. Unlike Mendieta, though, Pane’s work was masochistic: “In Sentimental Action, presented at the Galleria Diagramma in Milan in 1973, Pane pressed the thorns of a rose into her arm, creating pricks of blood along it, and cut the palm of her hand with a razor blade, in order to make a drawing of a rose” (49). “These actions and installations often took place in private, and were shown via documentation,” Wood writes (49)—her second example of a mediated audience. Leticia Parente’s body art was presented in videos like 1975’s Trademark, “in which she sews the words ‘Made in Brazil’ onto the sole of her foot, referring to the Brazilian regime’s use of electric shock torture to the soles of prisoners’ feet” (49). Like Pane, Parente’s performances “use the artist’s own body as a site for describing relations of power, pain and subjection,” but “whereas Pane’s work operates at a poetic level, invoking religious sacrifice and the spiritual transcendence of soul over body, Parente’s dramatisation of her own body’s vulnerability to pain speaks specifically to the brutal military regime in Brazil and its use of torture” (49).The UK artist Stuart Brisley “also staged the testing of the limits of his body as a medium,” and documented his work in “highly composed” photographs” (50). Wood argues that his “body actions” were “directly political,” such as 1972’s And for today . . . nothing, in which “Brisley lay in a bath filled with black water for two hours a day, during a period of two weeks. Adjacent, he laid out some offal that decayed through the course of the exhibition, with maggots and flies feeding on it” (50).”In this way, Brisley staged his body with a resemblance to the psychological expressionism of Actionism, but his approach to the entirety of the situation . . . went beyond the visual formalism of that work. Brisley took the representation of the body outside the frame of art and situated it in life’s real system,” Wood writes. “His broader body of work manifests an important dual approach to aesthetic and political form: a relationship between symbolic and direct action, even if these activities were not necessarily occurring simultaneously within the same work” (50-51).
Lebanese-born, UK-based artist Mona Hatoum’s “approach to the body furthered and made more explicit its situatedness in a political context, and within a practice largely focused on the making of sculpture” (51). Hatoum’s performance and video works “used her own body as a site for exploring the fragility and strength of the human condition under duress” (51). For instance, for her 1982 Under Siege, “she appeared naked, covered in mud and trapped inside a large transparent container. She repeatedly tried and failed to stand up inside the tank, its glass sides becoming increasingly smeared with body marks” (51). Revolutionary songs (in English, French, and Arabic) played in the gallery outside, along with snippets of new reporting from the Middle East (51). Her 1985 walking performance, Roadworks, saw her walk barefoot through Brixton for an hour, “with Doc Marten boots, usually worn by both the police and skinheads, attached to her laces by their laces” (51). “Hatoum used apparently simple body actions invoking torture and endurance to bring political stories into art’s frame, especially those related to the conflicts in Palestine, where her parents were born, and Lebanon, where she grew up,” Wood contends (51).
In the 1970s, the work of Los Angeles artist Barbara T. Smith “was typical of a new American feminist approach to the use of domestic ritual in intimate performance,” and a counterpoint to masochistic work or “the (albeit) critical machismo of work by male peers such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden” (51):
Smith’s best-known work, Feed Me 1973, took place between sunset and sunrise in the women’s toilets at the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Frisco, during an event called “All Night Sculptures.” It involved the artist sitting naked, installed in the room and surrounded by items of food, pleasure and ornamentation. One person at a time was allowed to answer (sixteen men and three women came in). A tape loop in the corner played the artist’s voice saying “feed me” over and over again. Smith’s intention was that people who entered the room would have to discover what she wanted, what would please or nurture her, by either asking or offering. This was a significant early work dealing with intimacy and social interaction from a feminist perspective, in so far as it presented the artist as an ambiguous figure whose desires were not known. She appeared to be open to the offerings of visitors. The key transformation in the piece relied on the fact that the (generally) male visitor had to change his expectation of satisfying his lust to deducing a means of nurturance and offering it to Smith, thus switching the vulnerability of female subjectivity to an empowered position of accepting or rejecting his offering. (53)
In a similar way, in New York, the Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh made “an extraordinary series of endurance performances dealing with the rituals of domestic life and the effort to survive as an immigrant in the city” (53). “His work tested his own physical limits to the extreme, exploring precariousness, marginality and struggle,” Wood writes. His One Year Performances, for example, “began with his Cage Piece 1978-79, in which the artist locked himself inside a wooden cage with only basic washing and sleeping facilities, and no communications for entertainment, for the duration of a year, inviting people to view him at intervals” (53). In another example, One Year Performance (Time Clock Piece), from 1980-1981, “Hsieh subjected himself to a rigorous hourly schedule: every hour, he would punch into a time-clock card, take a single photograph of himself and expose a single frame of 16mm film. For this performance, Hsieh wore a uniform of sorts, and began the piece by shaving his head so that we see his hair grow through the documentation” (53). Hsieh’s work was well documented because he was concerned “with legitimising and verifying his authentic execution of the proposed tasks. The meticulously gathered evidence betrays a quasi-legalistic anxiety about proving the seriousness of his position, despite his apparent espousal of marginal roles, that asserts his subject position despite this precarity” (53).
Compared artists from Eastern Europe, these Western artists arguably played “‘soft’ psychological norms and attitudes . . . against individual subjectivity” (54). That’s because of the “direct oppression and censorship under communism,” which means that performance had to be done in a special way (54-55). Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu, for instance, “staged his performance actions at home, only in front of a photographic or film camera,” because such behaviour was prohibited in public spaces (55). In the 1977 film Boxing, for example, Grigorescu “appears naked, boxing in his own shadow,” suggesting “a psychological state of alienation, at the same time as it poses the artist as a force of violent energy” (55). Wood notes that in this earlier period “artists communicated and shared work quite widely internationally: as documentation—through mail art, and in magazines as both photographs and written descriptions—and through participating in experimental film, music and performance festivals” (56). In this way, “work was able to circulate more freely than traditional art objects could, even within oppressive regimes” (56).
In China, after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, “a general shift towards body art occurred, too, but a little later than in Japan and the West, and in a situation of relative isolation from international networks” (59). “The earliest Fluxus-style experiments with performance began to emerge around 1979 when Kwok Mang Ho (also known as Frog King) visited from Hong Kong—a more open context that offered greater opportunity for exchange internationally—and staged a series of land art-like events titled Plastic Bag Happenings in China,” Wood writes (59). At the same time, collectives formed and began making performance work. The endeavours of these groups “replicated the dominant pattern of official culture under communism, in so far as they focused on group action, rather than the individual, yet they attempted to break given norms and conventions of commonality with their actions and to find new, unofficial ways of connecting art with the public” (59). They were not concerned with personal expression as Western artists, “immersed in psychoanalytic theory,” were, “nor was their conception of the body premised upon a Western mind/body dualism” (60). Instead, “in Chinese culture the body is a process and an embodied exchange between physical body and spirit (shenti), bringing our corporeal existence into contact with the entire universe” (60-61). However, the 1986 performance Wrapping Up—King and Queen, by Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi, in which the artists were wrapped tightly in newspaper and rope, “represented a new, expressive kind of suffocation with psychoanalytic connotations” (61).
The next section, “Inhabiting the image,” notes that artists of this period “also considered the place of the physical body in the natural ecosystem, and its potentially spiritual dimensions” (61). “Overall these works state the possibility of a kind of transparency of the body: a continuity between inner and outer self, encapsulated in the idea that one’s physical expression—one’s skin, naked body, tolerance of pain—could serve as an index of interiority, or could point to this as a fantasy, sometimes critically,” Wood writes. But at the same time, “a parallel strand of work on the body developed” that “suggested that the gendered self was not biologically innate or authentic, but was something that could be created through the enactment of fantasy or desire” (61). One way artist explored this idea was “via forms of ‘passing’ or ‘drag’” (61). The works of Cindy Sherman and Luigi Ontani, for instance, were “engaged within an accelerating media culture of lens-derived images,” and they represent a shift from “the early focus on forms of masquerade . . . towards an entangled relationship with photographic images and their surface” (63).Work by women artists of the period, such as Cindy Sherman and Adrian Piper, “marked a series of important transitions, from the Actionists’ use of the female body as a signifier of beauty towards the reclamation and transformation of the female body by the artist herself” (65). Cindy Sherman “turned to make-up and costume to create a cast of characters with her own face and body. Where the artist herself was—her I—is hard to locate. Her work offers the self as a series of deferrals, in line with Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that one is not born but becomes a women—or becomes many women, in Sherman’s case” (65-67). Of course, Sherman is a photographer, rather than (or along with being) a performance artist. Luigi Ontani used drag to pose “queer constructions of identity in ambiguously gendered terms” in both live performance and photography, identifying himself “with the authority of art history by inserting his image into the frame of old master paintings, whether as Saint Sebastian or Leda and the Swan” (67). “The work of these artists is emblematic of emergent articulations of both feminist and queer politics in this period, a deconstructive and critical approach to received gender norms and ideas of ‘straightness’ which have subsequently been theorised by writers including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler,” Wood writes. “The implication of this notion of I move on from existentialism in a significant way. Here the self is not to be discovered, or probed at by going deep into one’s psyche, but is constructed and projected towards the world, shaped in relation to social norms and expectations, whether with or against” (67). “This new performative attitude,” she continues, “represents a fundamental shift not only in the psychology of the artist, but also in the relationship between artist and artwork. It opens up the possibility of a new continuum between the self and the surface of the work, where the apparently superficial might be more truthful than what lies beneath” (67-68).
“During this period, artists investigated ideas of self not only in relation to gender norms, and social constructions of beauty, but also in terms of race and class,” Wood argues (68). American artist Adrian Piper, for instance, created an alter ego, the “Mythic Being,” in which she dressed in drag as a young, black man (68). “Her costume comprised an afro wig, moustache and sunglasses, with a t-shirt and jeans, and the artist adopted forms of behaviour that were apparently ‘masculine,’ with an aggressive edge, conjuring up the figure of a lower-class black male; a figure she knew many white people perceived as a dangerous threat,” she writes. As that character, Piper went to art openings and the Opera, the kinds of things she would normally do. These performances were documented on video and in photo-advertisements published in The Village Voice. “The status of her photographs as ‘documentation’ of her actions was provocatively undercut by the addition of . . . autobiographical journal entries” in the form of “thought bubbles” (68). In the 1980s, Lorraine O’Grady created the character Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, “a beauty queen persona appearing at art openings in a ballgown made of 180 pairs of white gloves” (68). During her appearances, she would hit herself “with a white cat-o’-nine-tails, while shouting out poems protesting against the racially segregated art world of that time. O’Grady was also a photographer. In her 1983 work Art Is . . . she “created her own float for the annual African American Day Parade in Harlem” (68). At various points along the route, O’Grady and her collaborators, who were also dressed in white, jumped off the float and held up empty picture frames, “inviting people to pose in them. Parade onlookers and Harlem residents turned into the subject of her live portraits, inviting a collective switching of subject position from audience (We) to subject (I), through the frame of the artwork (It)” (68-69). “This work,” Wood concludes, “offers a perfect example of how art can direct attention towards life by offering a frame or lens through which to look anew, and a switching of hierarchy between so-called ‘high culture’ and vernacular community art” (69).
“These select examples of work show how, through the 1970s and into the 1980s a new space for acting and performing began to be used within the two-dimensional realm of the image,” Wood writes. “Collapsing their own identity with their mediums, artists began to perform as images. They assumed different identities and even enacted those in different social contexts in order to consider the roles of gender, race, class and social standing in the formation of the self” (73). They raised questions about identity’s contingency upon context, but also how identity might be actively manipulated (73). “Through a variety of approaches, these works reveal an increasing gap between one’s literal bodily presence and one’s ability to create one or more personae as a picture that intersects with, and intervenes in, a culture of images,” Wood continues (73).
Now Wood shifts to a consideration of the subject in contemporary performance in the second half of the book’s first section, beginning with a chapter entitled “I, and Not I.” “[H]ow do artists perform now, in a contemporary context?” she asks. “How do they stage themselves as subjects (or objects), present their bodies or style themselves as images in the media-saturated and cyber-networked landscape of the twenty-first century?” (74). Are the ideas of individuality or the presence of the body still relevant to artists? “How are artists pushing beyond the notion of a single, coherent subjectivity to dismantle the presumption of individual autonomy?” (74).
“If performance is fundamentally to do with the act of showing, of projecting a temporary reality, its immediacy has to be understood, today, against the exponential increase in image distribution within culture at large, and the embeddedness of technology within social relations,” Wood argues. “Artists negotiate this landscape not only as image producers, but also in terms of how they themselves appear and are visible in circuits of communication” (74). The two realms—production and consumption of images—are increasingly blurred, Wood continues (74). “In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, being visible has become an imperative for artists, as well as for workers in the field of cultural production,” she writes (74). “On the one hand, many artists are dealing with the new existential fact that how one appears—one’s performance—equals one’s worth within the capitalist economy,” she suggests. “On the other hand, artists continue to find ways to assert physical or psychological presence as a form of resistance against this kind of alienation, and the increasing mediation of all aspects of life through images and technology” (74). For instance, artist LaTurbo Avedon “exists only as a virtual presence, an online avatar who is not linked to a person with real-time presence,” whereas Tino Sehgal’s work “is entirely focused upon the staging of enactors’ real-time presence and their direct exchanges with viewers, which are nonetheless pre-scripted within uncannily self-contained loops that repeat like basic algorithms” (74-75). This section of the book, then, considers the “shift from a sense of self defined by the limits of the physical body, towards its prosthetic extensions via technology and networking” and how artists are “attempting to negotiate a twenty-first-century culture of image saturation by becoming themselves images” (75). “At the same time,” Wood writes, “a number of artists in the 2000s have bypassed these questions almost entirely by picturing identity as a kind of free-floating shell that might no longer be linked to a human referent in real time and space, namely through an exploration of the avatar” (75). I wonder, though, if these themes or concerns reflect the activity of all performance artists—or all artists in general. Are these really the only concerns of artists today?
The next chapter, “Street and site: the body in context” begins with the assertion that if in the past “artists have used performance in art to stage new representations of the self, either as real and present, or as constructed characters and images,” contemporary artists “have increasingly built upon these newly staked-out positions to highlight the structural contexts that their identities are embedded in and shaped by” (76). This staging of subjectivity also asks “what such an assertion potentially excludes, raising questions of alienation and otherness, fluidity and multiplicity” (76). “In a contemporary context of ultra-visibility, there is increasing pressure for contemporary artists—and contemporary subjects more generally—to position themselves in relation to the image; to how they appear,” Wood continues. “And, yet, the question—or possibility—of the real presence of the body in space and time remains important for some, often as a potential resistance to such pressure” (76).
“One of the key figures who persists with working on the body as a physical fact that nevertheless intersects with identity and image in complex ways is African American artist Pope.L,” Wood writes, whose endurance performances, “crawls that he performs himself, varying in length and duration,” might be connected “to the earlier history of body art, representing, as it does, a feat of endurance that involves pain and duration, akin to the work of Pane and Abramovič” (76). One example is his The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street, in which he crawled up the entire length of Broadway in New York, “on his hands and knees, dressed in a Superman costume with a skateboard strapped to this back” (76). However, because Pope.L’s work is “staged as an intervention in the busy city street,” it “moves away from the rarefied intimacy of that side of historical body art, and into a more provocative, catalytic situation that activates a much wider urban context, pulling social dynamics into the frame and being performed for the camera” (76). Like Adrian Piper’s work, Pope.L’s actions “represent a situated form of body art, in which passers-by are not sure how to take or read the situation with which they are perspective” (76). His interactions with passersby, who perceive in it “a collision between his physical task and the construction of the image, conceived as a second frame around the action itself,” since his crawls are filmed, suggest that
[t]he politics of representation—who is filming whom, for whom—were framed as clearly as the possibility of acting in a pure sense. Pope.L’s performance thus situates the so-called authentic body—the artist’s physical presence, his blackness, his age—within a constellation of vectors to do with the relative power of doing, acting, appearing and being seen, while performing an extreme act of endurance that tests his basic physical capacities. (76-77)
Wood compares Pope.L’s work to Günter Brus’s Vienna Walk, in which “the artist shocked passersby on the bourgeois city streets with his face and body thickly painted” (77). In the very different context of contemporary New York, “Pope.L aggravated questions of racial politics, power hierarchies and age that dug deep into the broader issue of civic conformity, including the problem of mediation” (77).
Another artist who illustrates the political value of performance within specific geographical contexts is Guatemalan artist Regina José Gallindo, who “often uses her own body as a tool or site of experimentation to underscore her commitment to activism” (77). Gallindo “puts herself on the line, in carefully designed actions which expose her vulnerability, and that of the victims of political violence with whom she sides” (77). “One of her earliest works is Who Can Erase the Footprints? 2003, an action that involved the artist dipping her feet in human blood”—Goldberg stated that it was animal blood—“and walking from Guatemala City’s Constitutional Court to the steps on the National Palace, leaving a trail of footsteps that visualised the stains of military history on the country” (77). In that performance, which reaches most viewers through its video documentation, the direct or unmediated audience would have been the soldiers guarding those buildings. In her 2010 work Blind Spot, which Wood suggests is an example of how Gallindo “pushed her body to extremes of pain and endurance through rituals she has set herself within,” the artist “appeared stripped bare, standing on a plinth, alone in a room where blind people were invited to gather. She submitted herself to being felt by people’s searching hands—people who did not understand why she was there, or why she was naked” (77). In the 2013 video Earth—again, one sees how site-specific performance is experienced by audiences through its documentation—Gallindo stands “naked, in a green field,” an idyllic scene that is interrupted by the appearance of a bulldozer that begins “to dig the earth around the artist, her slight body standing still as the surrounding land is excavated, and she is left to stand on a small, isolated patch of turf” (77-78). According to Wood, this action was intended “to allude to the murder and burial in a mass grave of innocent civilians under the regime of José Efraín Ríos Montt, charged in 2013 with genocide, and subsequently acquitted” (78). Gallindo’s work, Wood argues, “lends the body’s presence renewed potential as a marker of authenticity, shrugging off the suspicion cast upon it by postmodernism” (78). That brand of body art “has been less commonly seen since the 1990s in a Western context,” although the Javanese Muslim artist and activist Arahmaiani’s “ritual body performances installations and participatory projects with social and religious communities bridge performance and protest against social injustice,” along with Mexican artist Teresa Margolles and Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, continue to make “strong body art images with political narratives” (78). In the 2009 performance Self-Sabotage, Bruguera interrupts a lecture-performance to play Russian roulette (79). “Bruguera has described this work as commenting on the function of artists as catalysts of social change,” Wood writes, “as well as being concerned with the idea of sacrifice: the sacrifice of oneself in the interest of one’s ethical values as an artist” (79).
“The Chinese artist Zhang Huan made some of the most radical and affecting body actions of recent times in Beijing in the early 1990s, emerging in a context in which . . . the body was manipulated as a form of political resistance,” Wood writes. His best-known work, for instance, is the 1994 performance 12m2 (the title refers to the size of the public bathroom in which it was staged). “It is documented in the form of a photograph showing him as ‘a naked man, his head half-shaved, sitting in a public toilet in the village. His skin was covered in honey and fish oil and with flies. His face looked blank but tough, as if he were trying to meditate his way through pain,’” Wood states (79). Chinese performance art of the period was “moving away from public actions towards performances that focused on the behavioural aspects of action, often including theatrical performance, expressive painting and early forms of body action” (79). One example of body action can be found in the work of He Yunchang, who in 1999 “tried to ‘cut a river in half’ with a knife, while suspended upside down from a crane, his own blood dripping into the river from the incisions made in his arms” (79). In another performance, he had one of his ribs surgically removed (79). “The work of Zhang Huan and He Yunchang demonstrates that in the Chinese context there was a shift in focus from We to I in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the same time as many artists in the West turned, instead, from the I to the We,” Wood writes (80). For instance, Zhu Yu’s 2000 photographic series Eating People “shows the artist cooking and eating what he alleges is a human foetus” (80).
“If these artists dramatised the body as fallible flesh and blood by exposing its interiority, the Canadian artist Cassils has worked upon the exterior signifiers fo the body to address themes of queer and trans sexuality, and the relationship between physicality and image,” Wood states (80). In the ongoing performance series Becoming an Image, begun in 2012, for instance, staged in a completely dark room, “Cassils—exposing their muscular physique—violently hits, kicks and punches a two-thousand-pound clay block. The action is only visible via the flashes of light from a photographer’s camera. It thus appears as a succession of still ‘flashed’ images, a sensation at odds with the brute physicality of what is taking place” (80). Cassils’s work, Wood suggests, “can be seen within a tradition shaped by artists such as Los Angeles-based Ron Athey, who was known for his extreme, queer S&M inflected approach to body art” (80). A counterpoint to Cassils’s “epic confrontation with the clay” (80) is Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s 2000 Butter Dance. “Suryodarmo often works with materials—whether butter or charcoal—performing apparently simply tasks as a way of situating her own subjectivity in relation to labour, matter and time,” Wood writes. In Butter Dance, Suryodarmo steps onto brick-sized blocks of butter and balances herself. “She moves slowly, sensuously, arms in and out, twisting her feet form side to side in a slow dance, inspired in part by traditional Indonesian dance,” Wood continues (80-82). As she dances, her feet and legs and eventually her entire body become smeared with butter, and she begins falling, again and again, “the once-neat butter block now a splattered, spread-out mess of lumps and tracks” (82). Eventually she gives up and lies in the butter. “The work has a Sisyphus-like quality, but, like Cassils’s work, does not bring specific political or biographical information to bear on the image we encounter,” Wood comments. “Rather, it creates an image of struggle that speaks to broader questions of human labour, consumption, endeavour and failure, through the lens of gender” (82).
The next chapter in the book’s first section, “Auto-portraits,” begins with this statement: “[i]f these artists assert their own physical presence as forms of resistance, often in a political context, a different approach to the self as material has appeared in parallel in the 1990s: that is, one with a more plastic, choreographic form, which draws upon autobiographical narrative” (83). This approach can be seen in the work of French conceptual choreographer Xavier Le Roy, which “exists both in the context of dance and visual art” (83). “In his influential early work Self Unfinished 1998, Le Roy performs wearing a stretchy, black costume with a top and skirt, which mask the head and lower body in the same way,” Wood writes. “The performer walks or crawls around the stage on all fours, undermining the body’s hierarchy and verticality to propose a headless creature that moves in strange ways, even inverting the body altogether, as he scales along a wall upside down” (83). In his 1999 lecture-performance Product of Circumstances, Le Roy tells his life story, “using his background as a researcher in macro-biology—specifically the study of oncogenes in breast cancer—to consider the constitution of his subjectivity via the metaphor of cellular abstraction, among other things” (83). During that performance, his movements “extend the cellular metaphor, taking the body’s image apart” (84). “Le Roy proposes an alternative perspective on the notion that the body is a vessel for the mind, by focusing on how experience shapes thinking,” Wood continues, suggesting that this idea “resonates with French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s concept of plasticity” (84).
Polish artist Cezary Bodzianowski’s actions, “usually staged in public spaces, elaborate the primary language of 1960s body art, too, but within miniature dramas set in everyday situations” (84). Bodzianowski performs “as a kind of everyman” and “the objects, architectures, behaviours and signs that he encounters become props in this unfolding form of theatre. Extemporising from everyday urban encounters, the artists pursues the latent implications of particular things or scenes ad absurdum” (84). In 2008’s Serso, for instance, “standing by a set of black metal bollards arranged in line to block cars from a pedestrian street, Bodzianowski hangs back, looks around, and then attempts to throw a rubber ring to circle one, as though it were a game of hoopla” (84). His work, Wood suggests, “seems at first to comment on society (We), but reveals the artist to be an idiosyncratic and solipsistic figure, an I struggling to connect. In fact, Bodzianowski’s apparent compliance only adheres to a set of codes that he has invented for himself, according to his own improvisational game” (84). Rather than adapting to his surroundings, he intuits their potential adaptation “to his own imagination—a child-like reversal that opens up new possibilities, but with an isolationist air of tragedy” (84-86).
Italian artist Roberto Cuoghi’s work “engages with the idea of metamorphosis, prompting us to look again at what we take for granted” (86). His best-known work “was a performance lasting seven years, from 1998 to 2004, during which he transformed his appearance entirely so as to resemble his now late father,” dying his hair white, growing a beard, wearing his father’s clothes, adopting his mannerisms and habits, and eating the kind of food his father enjoyed (86). He also gained 41 kilograms. “In this approach to self-experimentation, the question of performance is exceeded,” Wood writes. “Simulation becomes real transformation, confusingly blurring art and life in an extreme process of identification that pushes beyond the question of image and proposes a deeper undertow of behavioural heritage” (86-87). It undercuts the notion of individuality and the notion that we have “the freedom to deviate from our social and familial scripts” (87). French artist Paul Maheke, Wood continues, “has made a series of performances and installations in which he performs, and dances, to assert his own presence, all the while creating layers of erasure and flows between surfaces that point to the permeable boundaries of the subject” (87). In 2017’s What Flows Through and Across, for instance, “Maheke’s dancing body is obscured by, or veiled between, scrims, screens and projections, moving in cyclical rhythms that represent his own, untrained dance practice as a way of finding presence, through time” (87).
The next chapter in the book’s first section, “The body as surface,” states that the “new wave of live performance” that appeared in the US and UK in the early 2000s wasn’t interested in the authentic presence of the body, “but rather broader questions about how lived life relates to, and can be performed within, the dominant logic of the image” (90). In addition, “[t]he fragmented history of performance was brought into visibility . . . as questions of re-enactment arose afresh” (90). These re-enactments were “an attempt to summon and visualise a relevant history for an emerging generation interested in this relatively obscure area” (90). Oddly, Wood includes Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the 1984 miners’ strike, documented in the 2011 video The Battle of Orgreave, along with re-enactments of historical performance art. “These new iterations of historical performances and events might be likened to the re-enactments that take place within communities who wish to reflect upon significant religious narratives or political events of the past that constitute their community,” she writes (90).
Performance at the turn of the milennium “often navigated the question of mediation,” Wood continues, citing Guy Debord’s argument that “the space of intersubjectivity—of being together, and being mutually aware—was being increasingly mediated by the spectacle of the image, whether photographic or filmic, broadcast or digital” (91). This work responded to the context of neoliberalism, “in which media corporations gained increasing power,” and “artists began to perform in new ways in relation to the notion of publicity” (91). The Young British Artists of the 1990s, for instance, abandoned “the existentialism of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud” and instead “embraced the idea of the artist as entrepreneur” (91). That work was influenced by the American artist Jeff Koons, whose image (he presented himself as a business executive) offered “an emphasis on surface to match the highly polished, gleaming and apparently hollow pleasure” offered by his art (92). “Whether clownish and absurd, or seductive and sleek, this idea of assimilating to the image, and of creating deadpan characters, avatars or clones, gained further currency in the 1990s,” Wood writes (92).
“In the late 1990s, New York-based artists such as Vanessa Beecroft and Matthew Barney extended this emphasis on performance as image in a slightly different direction, exploring what we might call cinematic modes of staging the body,” Wood continues (92). Beecroft’s live tableaux were derived from her earlier drawings “that obsessively documented her self-image and her anorexia,” but in her performances, she “transposed her fantasised self-image onto the bodies of multiple hired models, who were styled as clones in matching flesh-coloured tights, make-up and wigs, and choreographed to stand in inert or listless block formations as living sculptures of sorts” (92). These “grand tableaux were designed by the artist to create what she described as ‘monumental images in the memory,’ more than to assert her models’ real physicality,” particularly since they tended to look “less lifelike and more like mannequins” because of Beecroft’s “use of cosmetics and accessories” (92-93). “Despite occupying the same gallery spaces as the viewers, they appeared at one remove: otherworldly and uncanny in their image-like-ness,” Wood suggests, noting that Beecroft herself was not part of these tableaux (93). Instead, “she was replaced with this corps de ballet of avatars in a substitute self-portrait that emptied the notion of I into a distribution of attributes of femininity without any sense of interiority on the part of the models” (93).
Barney’s ongoing DRAWING RESTRAINT project, which began in 1987, “offers an exaggeratedly masculine counterpoint to this image of styled femininity,” Wood writes (93). The project began as photographs documenting actions performed in Barney’s studio, climbing using mountaineering equipment and negotiating obstacles. However, “[t]hese actions evolved into more complex video presentations in the early 1990s, which began to incorporate narrative, and later into the full-scale of the elaborate The CREMASTER Cycle 1994-2002, eventually incorporating mass choreographies within surreal, quasi-mythic scenarios” (93). The physicality of Barney’s earlier actions, Wood notes, “was always mediated through video and film, the image plane of the screen becoming essential to the body’s co-ordinates” (93).
“Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué also plots his subjectivity within a complex matrix of images, albeit to very different ends,” Wood writes (94). He began as a theatre artist, but now he presents his autobiographical performances at visual arts institutions and interdisciplinary festivals. “Mroué scripts and performs in the work, which often takes a lecture-cum-storytelling format,” Wood continues. “He interweaves the recounting and analysis of political events in Lebanon and the wider region with stories from his own life, invoking critical pathos and humour” (94). He often uses personal documents, videos, newspaper clippings, and photos in these performances, but “casts doubt on the veracity and cogency of the archival documents we see, voicing his suspicion that they may be mere props, and foregrounding contradiction and hesitation in the attempt to construct any such narrative memory” (94). His 2012 performance The Pixelated Revolution is a lecture-performance “about the impact of mobile phones and social media in the Syrian uprising of 2011, which plays upon his own use of video in relation to the subject about which he speaks” (95). “Mroué’s work creates a curious space of intimacy through his spoken revelations that is nevertheless continuously undermined by his exposure of fakery and construction,” Wood writes. “Rather than positioning himself as an objective observer of political reality, he exposes the messier truth of his implicated and partial perspective as part of it” (95). His live presence “might appear to anchor his stories and recollections to his authentic real-time presence,” but “he stages his own embeddedness in layers of representation and networks of information that unsettle our seemingly direct access to him as a figure onstage” (95).
The first section’s next chapter, “Painted scenes,” addresses the use of traditional media in negotiating the “relationship to the image via media and technology” (96). Paulina Ołowska’s work, Wood contends, “is less about revealing the process of making . . . and more about a way of considering the painted image as a projection of the individual subject’s imagination: either creating a world that the artist can step into, or extending its logic towards the body as a canvas” (96). “Ołowska connects herself to a selective history summoned from a female perspective, building a foundation towards who she is or might want to be,” Wood writes (96). Ołowska “embraces anachonism,” performing “the role of ‘the painter’ as a bohemian figure” (96). In her 2001 photograph Heavy Duty, Ołowska “stands as though painting at an easel, poised with a brush in her hand,” while her collaborator Lucy McKenzie “lounges on the floor wearing a leotard”—a reference to a series of Olympic gymnasts by McKenzie (96). “This photograph is typical of Ołowska’s frequent dramatisation of the act of painting itself, which she relates to her own body in sensual and physical terms” (96). “If Ołowska can be said to inhabit an image-world of her own devising, performing fictionalised versions of herself and her autobiography that foreground her Polish identity and her gender,” Wood continues, “the Indian artist Nikhil Chopra works within the space of drawing to perform as different characters who reflect on his own subjectivity and personal history, with a more explicitly political dimension” (98). Chopra “produces a visual context” for his fictional personae, which include Yog Raj Chitrakar, “a dandyish late nineteenth-century draughtsman, explorer and landscape painter,” and “‘The Queen’ in a hooped skirt,” by “using drawing to create both recordings of his characters’ memories and a theatrical backdrop against which he performs his stories” (98). “The characters he plays are a way to look at himself: to think about how his own subjectivity has been historically constituted, both through his family history and through the broader history of colonialism in India, as well as to shift his gendered appearance through forms of period costume and drag,” Wood continues (98). “In his performances, the artist conjures a real-time equivalent for the evocative space of those paintings, becoming the image of his grandfather in the past, as a way to dramatise his own identity in the present,” she writes. “Yet, if the performing of a character seems to be associated with conventional theatre, by isolating character from a narrative script or context, and by playing multiple characters within single performances, Chopra inserts the potentially disruptive energy of this fiction into other situations” (99). His live installations are difficult because of their duration, “blurring the line between enacting and actually living as his character (99). “In this way, the artist metamorphoses into characters that reiterate elements of his own autobiography, allowing familial relationships and histories that constitute his own identity as a subject to emerge” (99). “Chopra’s mode of dressing up invokes the queer subversion of drag, while appearing as period ‘role play’—an activity that might be defined as enacting a specific character within a context of make-believe, perhaps within a form of improvised theatre, or a game,” Wood concludes (99).
The next chapter in the book’s first section, “Assimilation: role play,” begins with a discussion of the work of Andrea Fraser, who critiques “art’s institutional and behavioural structures,” making “interventions into ideological circuits by performing as characters that bring into relief the wider set-up in which they exist” (99). For 30 years, Fraser has played a number of different roles: curator, visitor, dealer, collector, critic, art historian, and artist (99). “In her videos and performances,” Wood writes, “she often identifies with her characters’ apparently innocent compliance with a system that . . . has totally skewed our orientation in terms of the values that we expect to find endorsed by the museum” (99). Fraser thinks of her tours of imaginary visitors around galleries, such as her 1989 work Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, as “‘art criticism in action’” (99). In her 2001 work Little Frank and his Carp, Fraser “responds to the spectacular architecture of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in overly sexualised ways,” or Art Must Hang, also from 2001, “in which she performs the script from a drunken after-dinner speech given by the late artist-provocateur Martin Kippenberger,” Fraser “stages the self as a series of ready-made attitudes based on acute observation and mimicry, born of the context in which they operate” (100).
South African artist Tracey Rose also “assumes the appearance of different characters to create a typology internal to her practice, and reflective of her socio-political context: post-apartheid South Africa” (100). In her performances and video work, she dresses up and performs “as different racial, ethnic and gendered stereotypes in South African culture—as a ‘white woman,’ a ‘black woman,’ a ‘hottentot,’ and so on” (100). “Rose extends Cindy Sherman’s approach to self-styling, pushing this towards specific critical commentary about the legislative context of identity politics in the country in which she lives,” Wood writes, suggesting that Rose demonstrates, “in an apparently playful yet bitingly critical manner, not only that the image-surface is a malleable veneer, but also that the racial criteria upon which recent South African history was founded are changeable and irrelevant” (100). For instance, Rose’s 2001 three-channel video installation Ciao Bella, “a feminist parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper . . . shows the artist performing multiple roles in an exaggerated manner,” including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Marie Antoinette, and Jeff Koons’s former wife Ilona ‘Cicciolina’ Staller (100). “Rose’s work appears to deal with the surface presentation of the self—self-image—but carries with it a threat of violence as it hints towards the deeper implications of these appearances and how she is manipulating them,” Wood writes. “Her work opens up the possibility of existing within the gap between the modes of identity offered by the labels that language gives us” (101).
Argentine-born, US-based artist Amalia Ulman’s 2014 project Excellences and Perfections was a five month performance on Instagram, “in which the artist inhabited the character of a pretty, blonde female who shape-shifted from ‘cute girl’ to ‘sugar baby’ to ‘life goddess’—the female roles that she perceived as being most popular on social media” (103). According to Wood, “Ulman fabricated a narrative, through these postings; a virtual life in character that centred around a certain kind of lifestyle,” and her posts about “having cosmetic procuedures such as breast augmentation surgery” elicited “both sympathy and admiration” from her Instagram followers, many of whom where “outraged when, months later, the reality of what she had presented was exposed, by the artist, as being faked” (103). “Ulman’s project emptied the presumed intimacy of social media, exploiting the colonisation of its users’ peripheral vision, so as to build a story that grew ‘at the back of their consciousness,’ as the artist sees it,” Wood writes. “Ulman understands the performative nature of her medium as having a power to blur art and life that comes from the almost incidental nature of the encounter with the images. Even if her posts are only occasionally glimpsed, her fiction becomes somehow lodged in the imagination, embedded in their daily lives” (103). Ulman’s work, like Rose’s and Fraser’s videos, is only available to viewers in a mediated form, which would appear to be the point, since it addresses mediation itself.
The issue of mediation becomes even more important in the section’s final chapter, “Born digital,” which deals with artists whose performance practice involves avatars: digital bodies or figures that stand in for us online (103). “Today our identities are often highly mediatised, filtered through technological prostheses, whether smartphones, Skype or social media,” Wood writes. “The extent to which one’s outer appearance connects with one’s interior becomes, for this generation of artists, ever more unstable” (103). “If the relationship between appearance and interior has been troubled by artists performing the image since the 1970s,” she continues, “the digital native proposes a new I that is ghost-like, and potentially disconnected from interiority” (103). While the artists Wood has discussed so far “work on questions of image and presence in different ways that imagine a persistent possibility of a coherent subject,” today “many contemporary artists work in and on the increasing gap between the things that constitute the subject as a perceived whole” (103-04). “Appearance, physical presence and specific aspects of personality become materials for this work, often appearing simulated, mediated or refracted through technology,” she writes. “Liveness extends from being a human or organic quality towards the myriad activities of our digital prostheses” (104). Interest in the notion of the post-human has grown since Donna Haraway published her essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” in 1985. That essay was an attempt “to reposition the subject as a potentially self-constituting, self-determining being,” and artists have
worked on this idea from both critical and exploratory perspectives, asking how one’s identity might be imagined as emanating from points of origin not determined by genealogy or biology; how one’s sense of self is mediated by technology; how one’s supposedly unique or personal qualities become externalised; and, conversely, how digital bodies are able to simulate human qualities. In this early twenty-first-century context, performing—as both acting and showing—can take on a life of its own. If performance is everything, and everything is performance, it leaves us to question the substance of reality. (104)
My response to that statement is that clearly everything is not performance, nor is performance everything, and that we remain organic beings despite our increasing reliance on technology. But never mind my thoughts on this issue.
One example of this kind of work can be found in the 1999 discovery, by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, of an 11-year-old girl character “in the catalogue of a Japanese agency that develops manga figures for cartoon films, comics, advertising and video games” (104). Huyghe and Parreno bought the figure for $428 and placed it—her?—within an artwork. They named her AnnLee, “redesigned her to improve her appearance and set up a video animation facility in which she could be ‘used’ however one wanted” (104). They lent her out to other artists, and she ended up appearing in video animations, paintings, posters, books, neon works, and sculptures by many different artists (104). That collection of work was called No Ghost Just a Shell (104). “By buying her and sharing her with others to generate new appearances and identities from her basic existence, Huyghe and Parreno explored the idea that through this ‘rescue’ she would ahve new experiences beyond those that she was intended or designed for,” Wood wrotes (104). After three years of experimentation, they created a certificate that gave AnnLee “‘back to herself,’” a “legal document which transfers AnnLee’s copyright to a foundation that belongs solely to her” (104-07). That is, of course, impossible, since AnnLee is “a character without agency within the real-world legal arena,” and her retirement is both “her freedom and an impossible state of inaction that effects her death” (107). For Wood,
AnnLee might be seen . . . as a digital performance whereby a character who is very much not related to the real-life identities of the two artists who created her—rather, in fact, a kind of obvious projection of their assumed desires, or of a generic kind of consumer desire, and a familiar gendered relation of passive female to active male—exists as a ghost-performer in another realm. (107)
Other artists, including Jordan Wolfson with his 2014 Female Figure project, have explored similar territory. “For Female Figure, Wolfson worked with engineers and special-effects experts in Los Angeles to create a sophisticated animatronic female robot attached to a mirror by a pole,” Wood writes (107). That figure “simulates sexually provocative dance movements” while looking at her audience in the mirror (107). However, “despite her blonde wig and voluptuous figure . . . the robot’s body is dirty and abject, showing its mechanisms bluntly. The deeply uncanny effect of this performance is that we can see exactly how she (it) works, but cannot help being seduced, if simultaneously horrified, by its lifelikeness” (107). For Wood, “[s]he is a simulacrum, an animatronic cyborg made flesh, but clearly a machine” (107). I agree with Wood that both Female Figure and the AnnLee project explore issues of cybernetics and technology, and that they are performative, but are they really performances in the way that Ulman’s work is performance?
“Critical questions hang in the air as to the gender relations at play here,” Wood notes in relation to Wolfson’s work (107). However, other young artists, many of them women, “have gone beyond the staging of such feminised avatars as ‘others’ and have worked in ways that identify with the avatar as a stand-in for themselves, or employed avatars as a critical way of exploring how the image itself performs, as well as moulds and shapes subjectivity” (107-08). The UK artist Kate Cooper, for instance, “makes high-definition films of female bodies and faces in which it is impossible to distinguish what might be real photographic images from what is constructed pixel by pixel” (108). Cooper, Wood writes,
presents her female subjects as being entirely complicit with, composed of, and continuous with the surface of the digital screen. In Cooper’s world, Debord’s spectacle, as a screen, is no longer mediating a prior reality. Instead, subjects exist in a state of pure alienation that becomes so detached from reality that it is almost transcendent; it defies the existing boundaries of the subject. (108)
Another British artist, Ed Atkins, “works with hyperreal, high-definition video to create simulations of life,” but these are “typically male avatars—talking heads, body parts, animations—that reflect back on our own embodied experience as viewers” (108). In Atkins’s 2014 work 14 rooms, a large, 3-D head appears on a flatscreen television and tries to convince its audience of its humanity (108). Atkins’s avatars, Wood writes, “suggest a masculine and emotional counterpoint to Cooper’s blank, feminised image,” and “their emptiness serves to remind the three-dimensional, ‘warm-bodied’ viewers of their own physicality” (108). I have the same question about this work that I had about the AnnLee project and Wolfson’s female robot: is it really performance?
The first section of the book ends with a summary. “If within the flesh-and-blood experiments of body art practitioners, the presentation of one’s individuality was a marker of authenticity that attempted to peel the subject away from socially constructed habits and scripts,” Wood asks, “what does it, or can it, signify now? Where are the individual subject’s boundaries in the early twenty-first century?” (111). She states that Peggy Phelan’s belief that performance’s essential characteristic is its liveness and immediacy “is difficult to maintain in an age when liveness is underwritten by dissemination via the digital” (111). “What relevance does a 1970s construction of characters through rudimentary means (wigs and make-up) have now, in an age of almost infinite potential to manipulate the surfaces of images, to construct appearances digitally, and to engender human equivalents in virtual space?” she asks (111). Here’s my answer: those performance artists in the 1970s were taking risks, including the risk that someone would take offence to their appearance in the street or at an event and punch them in the nose. No such risks are taken with virtual “performance,” because the body is left out of the practice except as a simulacrum. And yet, we all have bodies—even those of us who sit in front of computers all day, either programming them or playing games that involve digital avatars.
Wood states that this section of the book has “dealt with the performance of individual subjectivity and the presence of the body in performance,” along with “the ways in which the boundaries of the subject have become less clear through its prosthetic extension via technology, and the increasingly nuanced interplay between people and machines” (111). “Defining the boundaries of the performing subject—I—is as complex as determining the limits of the artwork in the early twenty-first century, and the two questions are certainly interrelated,” she continues. “Just as the physical and communicatory capacity of the body is extended by prosthetic technology, meaning that the skin of the physical body does not represent a limit, so too the art object is acknowledged to be situated: in architecture, in language, in networks, among other people” (111). “The dissolution of the boundaries of the self in this way necessarily leads to a consideration of the notion of the We,” which is the subject of the next section of the book (111).
One of the things that walking art might offer to Wood’s concern with the body’s extension through prosthetic or virtual technology is a return to the corporeal: to the rhythm of feet trudging along a road, to the sensory stimulus of birdsong or wind or rain, to the numbness of physical exhaustion or the pain of bleeding blisters. She might consider that idea to be hopelessly Romantic, or a throwback to the body art of the 1970s. But I would consider the teleological narrative this chapter constructs—from the physical body to digital avatars—both tendentious and incomplete. We still have bodies, after all. And those bodies matter.
The first chapter of the book’s second section, We: The Social, is entitled “Social sculpture.” It begins with a description of Anne Imhof’s 2017 work Faust, which was installed at the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. As visitors approached the pavilion, they “were confronted by barking dogs, wire fences and a black-clad, sniper-like figure balanced stealthily on top of its neoclassical façade, before being shunted around to a side entrance by security attendants” (114). The pavilion’s interior had been turned into “ a stage set for her choreographic installation,” performed by “a group of people with a languid, alienated presence, more theatrical in spirit than participatory,” although “her treatment of the entire situation brought the politics of social dynamics into play” (114). Imhof’s 2016 project Angst “had comprised a rolling score of choreographic gestures” in which audiences “were included in the performance, if not directly addressed, by our very acts of witnessing and moving in groups around the action” (114). “In Venice,” Wood continues, “Imhof dared us to stand and participate in her vision of a sweet, but somehow sick, protection zone: in the bright lighting, her performers were on show, but always just out of reach” (114). The work addressed “the idea of nationalistic identity and power” as well as “our own privileged position as a visitor in relation to that of the contemporary subject as a worker-performer who has to be seen to succeed” (114).
Wood relates Imhof’s work to that of Tino Sehgal: “[i]f Imhof’s commission connected up the theatre—inside—with the wider choreography of the biennial—outside—in a confrontational and critical way, Sehgal’s work has been responsible for drawing attention to the choreography that underpins the inner workings of the art institution” (114). Sehgal’s work is a form of sculpture that creates “relations between museum and gallery staff, visitors and planted ‘interpreters,’ as he likes to call his performers” (114). For instance, in Sehgal’s 2016 commission at Tate Modern, These Associations, “sixty people dressed in casual clothes” walked, ran, or moved in swirling patterns, “at times slowly changing in unison the word ‘electricity,’ before breaking off to approach visitors individually and engage them in conversation” (114). “As is characteristic of his work since the early 2000s, he used movement, speech and interaction by and with people in space—no objects as such-to create a live artwork (though one not to be labelled a ‘performance,’ according to the artist),” Wood writes. “Sehgal’s attitude toward sculpting live action is significant because of his insistence that the situations he creates are staged throughout the gallery’s regular opening hours, giving them a presence equivalent to exhibited objects, but disallowing any photographic record thereof” (115). The situations he creates are then sold, “as editions with no material trace, thus theatricalising the rehearsal of a legal contract as a live situation” (115). “Sehgal’s work is exemplary of a tendency in contemporary performance to make art out of people’s movement, speech and physical presence only, and to invite dialogue with—and/or the reciprocal actions of—the viewer,” Wood continues, suggesting that he is influenced by the South African-born conceptual artist Ian Wilson, whose practice involves conversations between small groups of participants (115). “Similarly, in the past decade, Sehgal’s work has enacted situations of radical objectlessness in place of artworks that are made by transforming physical materials,” she states (115-16). Sehgal “prohibits the capture of his work through film or photography to guard against its potential fetishisation in the form of document-relics” (116).
Wood notes that Sehgal doesn’t talk about “the social,” preferring the term “subjectivity,” although “subjectivity as it is shaped by interaction with others” (116). Nevertheless, Sehgal “takes the realm of social interaction—between his interpreters and visitors—as one that chan be shaped, formalised or intervened in, to aesthetic and political effect” (116). Like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Olafur Eliasson, and Carsten Höller, then, Sehgal practices relational aesthetics (Wood cites Nicolas Bourriaud), staging “the social—or the sociable—using different forms of installation that would serve as familiar, often domestic, prompts to behaviour and interaction” (116). But what strikes Wood about “the mode of art-making proposed by Sehgal and others in the early 2000s is its denial of the material object or prop altogether and its emphasis on gestures as forms in themselves” (116).
In the 1970s, Joseph Beuys invented “social sculpture” as a way “to extend his assertion that ‘everyone is an artist’ in an activist direction” (116). Beuys thought of his audience “as a creative mass of individuals,” and his notion of social sculpture was “a way in which human action could impact upon and shape society—an important notion linking politics and aesthetics” (116). But, Wood continues, “[a] significant direction in contemporary art since 2000 concerns how artists have sculpted movement and social behaviour in a more concentrated, choreographic way, frequently inside the museum, but also in off-site contexts” (116). “How did art take this turn towards making social activity visible, and aestheticising it?” Wood asks (116). In the postwar period, she suggests, “many artists began to make work that considered the meaning and formation of art and culture in a different way from body art, which had focused primarily on individual subjectivity” (117). Instead, these artists “began to create new social situations whereby microcosmic images of society were enacted in provisional ways,” such as Beuys’s outdoor mass actions, which he called social sculpture; Allan Kaprow’s “happenings”; “sensuous spaces in which the whole body was addressed,” by Hélio Oiticica among others; “interventions in public spaces intended to be glimpsed by passers-by, by artists such as Jirí Kovanda”; the abstract choreography of Merce Cunningham or Anna Halprin, which “undid conventional dance partnering and patterns”; and “interventions into socio-economic structures to make labour patterns visible,” such as the Maintenance Art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles (117). In 1974, Bonnie Sherk and Jack Wickert “created one of the most ambitious social projects in art of this period: the Crossroads Community, known as The Farm, on seven acres of disused land located partially underneath and adjacent to a motorway interchange in San Francisco” (118). With the help of the community and other collaborators, they turned the space “into a site-specific sculpture, farm, community centre, school, and human and animal theatre” (118). Sherk called “her approach as the creation of a ‘life frame’” (118). Other artists address loneliness in their work, such as the Czech artist Katerina Šedá, whose 2003 project There is Nothing There created a game for the 300 inhabitants of a Czech village that “cultivated the growth of new community relations” (119).
“How are these historical moments, which suggest the possibility of a social basis of performance, connected?” Wood asks. “How do they relate to Tino Sehgal’s radical proposition that art could be made only of gestures and relations, with no objects at all?” (120). So far, she notes, she has only considered performance in terms of “a spectator looking at a figure who somehow acts” (120). Now, however, she “will consider how artists have elaborated this impulse towards staging all kinds of live, social situations of reciprocal attention, looking at its different forms and formats: as a dust, a circle, a group, a workshop, a mass, a network or an intervention into an anonymous crowd, or mimicking a corporation even” (120). This section of the book, then “will consider how intersubjectivity and communality have been worked on performatively in the postwar period and in a contemporary context” (120). The “social dimension of performance,” she contends, “has run in three parallel tracks since the 1950s”: first, “the shaping of ‘social sculpture’ built upon the basic idea that a performer needs a witness, or an interlocutor, to stage an act”; second, the attempts by certain artists “to blur the line between performer and witness, by making work among and for themselves as groups”; and finally, “the invention of new ways of framing social relations, founded on the realisation that society is itself built of behavioural patterns and institutions” (120). She suggests that useful writing on these themes can be located in Andrew Hewitt’s 2005 book Social Choreography and in Judith Butler’s 2015 book Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly.
First, as with the book’s first section, Wood starts with the decades after 1950. The first chapter in this subsection is “Reciprocity.” It begins with the suggestion that “much historic performance made in a visual art context has a solipsistic feel to it, and often a deadpan refusal to engage the audience via theatrical strategies of entertainment or narrative: for example, rejecting tactics that would pace the encounter pleasurably through time, in order to disrupt expectations” (120). Nevertheless, “the need for a witness,” a need which is “a basic condition of reciprocity,” “underwrites our understanding of it, even if that role is not clearly prescribed, or is couched in the anonymity of online experience” (120). “Whether or not it appears to be actively solicited, being watched lends meaning to action, and is, of course, an essential part of performance’s psychology,” she writes (120). Is that true of all performance, though? What about private performances documented by still images? In any case, Wood goes on to note that “within the field of visual art, other artists, spectators or the audience as a mass tend to be staged as participants, too, even as material components or active players of the work, rather than simply as witnesses” (121). So perhaps in those private performances, the photographer was both direct witness and (obviously) participant. “In this way, the social situation of performance in art is about much more than the presentation of acts for an audience,” Wood continues. “Arguably, it opens up new spaces: a kind of soft architecture formed of positions and attention. The choreography of performance within the field of visual art has a social dimension that is considered formally, and frequently extends off the designated stage” (121).
Wood notes that Jacques Rancière, in his 2004 book The Politics of Aesthetics, “suggests a relationship between the aesthetic and political spheres that is to do with how the ‘sensible’ (what is perceivable) is distributed and shared amongst a community, and how this might be altered through intervention” (121). For Rancière, the question of what democracy means, “and how much of it is founded upon the taking of positions,” is central (121). Rancière looks at “the relationship between art and life b considering the community of human relations and activities as a dynamic field, whose patterns depend upon prescribed inclusions and exclusions that might—and, in a democracy, should—be challenged politically” (121). For Wood, Rancière’s argument (and I have to acknowledge that his book, which I haven’t read, is on my reading list) is connected to performance through the metaphor of taking positions, which can be read literally, or choreographically, as the body posed in space (121). And yet, she writes,
[i]mages of performance art often appear retrospectively, in archives and art history books, almost as solo portraits. Yet if the camera had panned back from the image of that performing figure, a bigger picture would have become visible that includes the audience as its essential frame. What is the artist’s fundamental relationship to the assembled spectators? Why make work in this way, and for whom? Who is watching? Where and how is the audience placed: standing or seated? What shape does this temporary community take? And what kind of mobility or agency does the audience have? How are performances positioned in networks of witnessing, dialogue, collaboration and other forms of reciprocity, and how have these relations been acted in and on, or shaped within art? (121)
“If these questions began to be dealt with in the art of the 1970s,” she continues, “they are increasingly essential to work made in the past decade” (121).
“At a basic level, then, it is impossible to think of performance without imagining a recipient of the performed act,” Wood writes (121). This notion is “essentially a structure of recognition, because, in this relationship, ‘the artist has found an “other” who is willing to give him reassurance in the fantasy or utopianising world that he is attempting to make visible,’” she continues, quoting Lea Vergine (121). In theatre, this dynamic is “assumed to be obvious” (121), but in visual arts performance, “we cannot take for granted being directed to look by the arrangement of seating to stage, nor darkness to light. Such boundaries are less defined, or even open to being continuously rearranged” (121-22). “In the museum or gallery, we are often directed to look at the act of witnessing itself,” she suggests, noting that “[c]ollective presence is frequently staged as part of the work, as may be the technical or architectural elements of support for the performance situation” (122). Audiences can see the performers, in other words, but they can also see each other looking at the action, although this can also be true of site-specific theatre, or even theatre-in-the-round. “In the primary crucible of performance relations, then, the physical set-up between performer and audience, as well as the architecture of the theatre’s technical set-up, are as essential to our understanding of the work as what is purportedly enacted in its choreography,” Wood writes (123). “But,” she continues, “the psychological relationship is equally significant” (123). For example, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece was actually “a live test of the boundaries of interpersonal space, inviting a degree of active participation from the audience, bordering on aggression” (123). Chris Burden’s Shoot implicated the members of his audience in his self-directed violence (123). And without (or with) audience intervention, Abramovič’s Rhythm O “could have turned out very differently. In these works, the conflicted capacity of the audience to watch or act is what constitutes the work” (123). Well, yes, partially, but not entirely: I think Wood is going too far here.
According to Wood, “the analogue set-up of Dan Graham’s experiments with the staging of relations between artist, audience and intermediary object in Performer/Audience/Mirror 1975 serves as an important, founding template for the increasingly complicated state of self-aware mediation in which we find ourselves in the twenty-first century” (123). In this case, though, the technology is simple: Graham performed facing a mirror in which the audience could see itself watching, and in which Graham himself could watch the audience. “Performer/Audience/Mirror created a prescient, early visualisation of the constructions of making, seeing and being seen, which have a host of new connotations in a post-internet era,” Wood continues. The work “deliberately blurred the line between the performer (ostensibly the artist, who stands up speaking) and the audience (who are reflected in the mirror, and talked about in detail, so as to appear onstage). A study of fractured relations between performing and passivity was dramatised in this piece” (123). In Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 The Weather Project, the museum audience, “reflected in it,” was able to recognize itself “as a collective body: visitors quickly deduced that in order to see oneself, one had to bond with others to make larger patterns or shapes, or indeed that it provided a spectacular space in which to stage protests” (123-25). “It was also an early example of a work refracted and disseminated in social media,” Wood notes (125). Goldberg mentioned that work in Performance Now, but she did not explain how it was anything more than an installation. I wish Wood spent more time on The Weather Project here. Or perhaps it’s up to individual readers to research that work.
“If individual artists have used bodily gestures and actions in either expressive or formal ways to perform versions of themselves, the social dimension of performance is located in how points of connection between participants are made visible,” Wood writes. “Form and meaning are found in the taking of positions, the choreographing of relations, the initiation of interctions. But what does it mean to highlight the very act of watching by incorporating the audience within art’s frame?” (125). Such an approach is far from high modernism’s engagement with works of art, in which the meaning of a work “is assumed to be internal to its form” (125). Rather, “[i]t locates the art experience explicitly among people, rather than in a separate, transcendent sphere” (125). Wood cites Michael Fried’s complaint that Robert Morris’s minimalist sculptures seemed to be “‘lying in wait’ for him in the gallery” (125). “Morris’s activation of the total gallery situation, influenced by the theories of embodied perception in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writing on phenomenology, meant that the viewer could not disappear into imaginative communion with the work simply by looking at it, but was always inevitably staged as a physical presence,” Wood notes. “This kind of artwork could never be grasped in a pure form but only ever from a partial, contingent, embodied perspective, pushing back from a notionally private space of contemplation towards a situatedness in space and time; an inevitable relation to things, and to others” (125). Fried saw that as a problem, but “many artists after minimalism have chosen to work with and on” that problem, “from both political and perceptual perspectives” (125).
Happenings—a term popularized by Allan Kaprow in the late 1950s but pioneered by other artists internationally—“represented a radical experiment with the art encounter by drawing participants’ attention to its total situation, and rearranging its expected co-ordinates” (125). Happenings “emphasised action and liveness over fixity and permanence, and undid conventional hierarchies between viewers’ experiences of space, time, materials and movement” (125). Object were included in happenings, but the emphasis shifted away from those objects as artworks, “or even from the artist as a central authorial figure, towards a more democratic configuration in which it was imagined that spectators would make their own way through the work as an experiential totality, inventing new pathways of interaction” (125). Wood notes that the idea of the happening spread around the world and was interpreted in different ways in different contexts (127). But, at the same time, “artists were also using game structures and choreography to either initiate or demonstrate ideas of participation,” such as Yvonne Ranier, Simone Forti, and others at the Judson Dance Theatre in New York (127). Rainier’s 1968 work The Mind is a Muscle was “a succession of individual and group tableaux showing people performing simple movements, negotiating or manipulating objects, interacting with each other in primary, physical ways, and dancing her signature piece, Trio A” (127). The choreography suggested that dance “might be a kind of ready-made aesthetic to be found in the city streets,” and the work “staged a shift away from the notion that meaning comes about through individual expression of interiority and instead proposed a form of meaning that could be generated collectively and was readable at surface level” (127).
In the 1970s, feminist artists like Suzanne Lacy “were interested in blurring the boundaries between symbolic and political action,” and in the 1980s and 1990s, “her work would further these questions substantially” (128). For instance, her 1987 “mass performance work,” The Crystal Quilt, “consisted of a one-hour action that was broadcast live on television: 430 women aged over sixty were seated at tables, each manipulating coloured and shaped cloths placed upon their own table to form the effect of large-scale quilt patterns devised after a design by [Miriam] Schapiro” (128). “With this work,” Wood continues, “Lacy wanted to create a powerful image of older women, who were often invisible in terms of mainstream media representation in the US” (128). The Crystal Quilt was “underwritten by the foundation of her longer-term, less visible, groundwork: the Whisper project,” which included workshops, conversations, lectures, leadership seminars and dialogue with and through the mass media, so that the work extended radically backwards, and forwards, from the moment of its visualisation as an action in 1987” (128). The significant community outreach activities in that project “set a precedent for 1990s relational aesthetics and beyond” (128). “Lacy’s body of work has persistently crossed the line between direct and symbolic action,” Wood continues, “investigating rape and violence against women, prostitution and ageing as its themes and utilising community-building strategies to go beyond creating images of political issues, choosing instead to intervene in social reality and foster deeper relationships and communication with the communities with which she engages” (128). However, unlike Tania Bruguera, who describes Lacy as an influence, she did not engage in pure activism, and “[h]er attention to the filmic nature of the actions she produces asserts their status as artworks. She makes passing but powerful images embedded in life that temporarily mobilise a community around an important idea” (128).
Wood includes Abramovič’s practice in this section as well, particularly [h]er staging of collective action and responsibility in Rhythm 0,” which “served as an antagonist precursor to experiments with these issues in the 1990s and early 2000s,” such as Santiago Sierra’s live installations and videos, which “dramatised the dynamics of extreme inequality by paying participants to undertake potentially humiliating acts in exchange for money, and to make these exchanges visible as art” (128-29). “Sierra’s work might be understood as a form of symbolic activism, but his approach has been controversial in its delegation of those body-art markers of authentic endurance and pain to enactor-workers in need of income,” Wood notes (129).
In the section’s next chapter, “Collectives and networks,” Wood points out that a variety of international groups “approached collective production in ways that made the We both the subject and the means through which a private community came together in a common search for meaning, posing alternatives to official institutions,” not unlike happenings (130). Some artists “made absurd, poetic actions embedded in the social fabric, on the street, in order to both disrupt and draw attention to behavioural norms and codes, and simply to find moments of expressive freedom amid urban anonymity” (130). These actions “prefigure the ways in which artists have begun to work in networked ways in the early twenty-first century” (130). Her examples are Gorgona in Croatia, Collective Actions Group in the Soviet Union, and No-Grupo (Non Group) in Mexico. No-Grupo, a collective of four main artists and other associated members, “often used a . . . strategy of distributing texts and props to the audience to create critical, and fun, participation. They set out to counter the art world’s fetishisation of objects by creating unstable events which they called ‘montages of plastic moments’” (131-32). For instance, when they were given a lunch-time slot at the First Salon of Experimentation at the National Institute of the Fine Arts in Mexico City, “they responded by creating ‘lunch boxes’ for the audience, which contained what they described as ‘artistic food,’” such as a Coca-Cola bottle with a tag asserting that it was art (132). “[E]ach lunch box was accompanied by a text outlining the group’s critique of institutional funding structures, which they claimed forced artists to compete for survival,” Wood continues. “This work was typical of No-Grupo’s satirical sense of humour” (132).
The following chapter, “Embedded,” notes that other artists in the 1970s and 1980s “drew attention to collective norms and behaviour via interventions among crowds” (133). “In the 1970s, artists such as Jirí Kovanda in Prague, and Isidoro Valcárcel Medina in Spain, performed actions that were more or less invisible, only glimpsed by a photographer planted by the artist, or maybe a handful of friends who had been advised that a work would happen at this place and time,” she states (133). (I find this notion of invisibility to be very important to site-specific walking performance.) In this art, “the emphasis is on the social field as a whole, with the artist as interventionist” (133). The crowd was only in the frame as “a ready-made cover for these artists’ covert actions, which would blend in among other everyday activities, while at the same time bringing into relief the social patterns of the city” (133-35). Kovanda would quietly place small objects in the city as temporary sculptures, and “enact gestures that were almost imperceptible as art,” such as standing in the street with his arms spread out, or staring passersby in the eyes, or deliberately bumping into them (135). “Within the context of communist Czechoslovakia, at a time when political obedience and conformity were demanded of citizens, making non-official art was a risk,” Wood notes. “Kovanda, today, describes the actions that he carried out as ‘non-political, in the sense that they were neither propagandist for the party nor directly agitating—against it” (135). However, from a contemporary perspective, “a political intention in these independent acts of disobeying civil norms” can be easily inferred, an intention that has to do with “asserting individual freedom, and initiating illicit networks of mutual understanding” (135). Medina worked “in a similarly repressive context in early 1970s Spain, under Franco,” Wood points out (135). At first he “engaged in public actions using sculptural objects” with which he would interact, but later he engaged in what he called “‘exclusively social work,’” such as 1974’s 12 Measuring Exercises about the City of Córdoba, “which consisted of a series of physical and symbolic measurements of the environment and traffic of that city, performed by the artist using his own rudimentary equipment” (135-36).
The work of Brazilian theatre director and activist Augusto Boal “engaged in a more directly political form of performance embedded within social reality” (136). He developed a form of theatre, which he called the Theatre of the Oppressed, “whose audience is often captive, in the sense that observers believe themselves to be witnessing a real interaction” (136). “What is important about Boal’s example,” Wood writes, acknowledging that as a theatre artist he falls outside of a visual arts context, “is that no distinction is made between actors and witnesses, thereby abolishing the dichotomy of activity/passivity that, in Boal’s view, is detrimental to performance” (137). (In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière takes apart the notion the binary opposition of activity/passivity; for Rancière, spectators are active interpreters, not merely passive viewers.) “Boal’s practice is relevant to the work of artists such as Paweł Althamer, Roman Ondak and Tino Sehgal, which also engages with ideas of embedded, invisible theatre, albeit to different ends,” Wood continues. “[W]here Boal sought a covert method of disturbing social relations to intervene in political reality, these artists insert fictional behaviour into the real in ways that effect a different kind of disturbance of relations, with a pervasive and sometimes absurdist sense of mistrust towards apparent reality” (137). In a similar way, US-based artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles “took on the role of a worker performing low-wage or unpaid labour—what she called ‘maintenance work’—from an activist perspective” (137-38). Since 1977, she has been artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. The work of ACT UP has been reevaluated “as a form of collective art practice,” Wood notes (139). “ACT UP utilised posters, slogans and live visual demonstrations in public spaces to challenge government policy and the behaviour of pharmaceutical companies related to the treatment of AIDS,” she writes. A retrospective of material created by the activist group was mounted in 2009-2010 at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Boston: “this clearly acknowledged the visual strategies devised by ACT UP and indicated a shift in the perceived dividing line between art and politics or activism” (139).
The next chapter in this section, “Performing formats: institutions and games,” begins by stating that “since the late 1980s artists have begun to understand institutions as settings for enacted behaviours that can be challenged through re-imagining or re-playing” (140). “The rules of specific disciplinary formats and institutional structures are more and more often invoked performatively by artists to test out different patterns for articulating social contact (bonds, agreements or simply ways of interacting),” Wood writes (140). The 1990s marked “the emergence of so-called ‘relational’ situations in art, within which communal activity could take place: some co-operative and convivial, some choreographic, some—as art historian Claire Bishop has described them in her writing on ‘relational antagonism’—deliberately divisive or contradictory in nature” (140). Wood refers to Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1998 book Relational Aesthetics for a definition of the practice and a list of examples of artists “who work to this agenda” (141). “Identifying this tendency was a controversial but important move,” Wood continues, “even if the territory was much more complex and evolving than that which was charted in Bourriaud’s essay” (141). She traces the concept of “the ‘relational’” to the 1960s and discussions of British sculptor Anthony Caro’s “assemblages of found industrial materials” (141). Bourriaud’s discussion “offered a new way of considering forms of live or participatory art as being less about a performer per se, and more to do with all the actors taking part in the aesthetic encounter, including the artists, the installation or object and the viewer—in relation to each other, as it were” (141). But over the last 20 years, “artists have explored the idea of sharing art in many more diverse and experimental situations than this particular group of artists have,” Wood contends. “Among other things, artists have borrowed from the ready-made formats fo theatre and dance, extended the use of games, rethought institutions such as schools or museums from a performance perspective, engaged in activism, created fictional interventions through acting, and worked in ways that mimic trade corporate brands and networks” (141-42).
One such ready-made form was borrowed by African-American artist David Hammons in 1983, when he set up a table alongside other street vendors and sold snowballs in Manhattan, an event he called The Bliz-aard Ball Sale. “By assigning value to and appearing to seek profit from an object made of ephemeral material, usually used for play, Hammon’s work drew attention to, and parodied, the arbitrary value system of the art market” (142). Another example, which Wood describes as “[o]ne of the most ambitious social performance projects in the past fifty years, and one that also refuses to acknowledge a defined arena for art, confusingly blurring the lines between real politics and representation,” was the work of the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) in Slovenia in the early 1980s (142). NSK, Wood writes, “moved beyond existing models of institutional critique by constructing a grand, multi-part social institution of their own—a virtual territory as a composite of four different artist collectives as micro-organizations”: the band Laibach, the painting collective IRWIN, the theatre group Scipion Nasice Sisters, and the design group New Collectivism (142). The work of NSK “addressed the social and political situation in Slovenia in the turbulent period leading up to its split from Yugoslavia in 1991,” Wood continues. “Using an array of media—from painting to television—NSK reflected upon the construction of the systems they infiltrated or adapted to their own purposes” (142-43). In the 1990s, “NSK evolved further into a ‘conceptual territory,’ a ‘state in time,’ with its own ‘passport’ and ‘embassy,’ that has thousands of members, or ‘citizens,’ internationally. As a ‘state,’ NSK now exists as a kind of social and political potentiality whose future direction is openly debated by its citizens at regular congress meetings” (143).
Now the section shifts to contemporary artworks, with a chapter entitled “Situations.” It begins with a discussion of the work of Tino Sehgal: “In the consumption-driven twenty-first century,” Wood writes, his “insistence on the objectlessness of his work appears to be utopian: replacing the fetishised material thing with so-called immaterial movement; purging aesthetic experience of stuff in favour of pure doing, being and saying” (145). “How does performance’s emphasis on sociality tie in with today’s experience economy?” Wood asks. “How does this work both sculpt and exploit social relations, or dramatise a state of alienation?” (145). The answer, in relation to Sehgal’s art, is that its “live quality . . . rests on the fact that we are invited to interact and exchange with his enactors,” although “as viewers, our understanding of the controlled nature of his part-scripted, part-improvised dialogues becomes increasingly heightened as the conversation unfolds” (145). A sense of separation between enactor and viewer is created “by the stylised nature” of the enactor’s behaviour (145). “Sehgal’s work addresses the viewer individually, but its effect, and affect, instigate a far from feel-good relationship,” Wood writes. “When the enactors talk to us, tell us stories, trade intimacy, history or confession, we experience them without dissolving ourselves into the suspended disbelief that we would take to a theatre play. Rather, we are self-conscious of being in an artwork, and we feel ourselves somehow solidify into an object, too, within this exchange” (145). Part of what is displayed, she continues, “is our own subjectivity” (145).
Francis Alÿs’s 2002 work, When Faith Moves Mountains, “might be linked more directly to the Beuysian idea of social sculpture, but it adapts this for the media age,” Wood continues. That work “created a spectacular choreography of some five hundred volunteer participants, dressed in matching white shirts, who took shovels and literally moved the peak of a sand dune, located outside Lima, by several centimetres” (146). Although the project was documented in photographs and video, Alÿs “was specifically interested in its legacy as a rumour—a collective action founded upon belief rather than its material efficacy, which remained elusive” (146). Alÿs described his intention as the creation of “a ‘social allegory,’” and he saw this collaborative action as “a metaphor for the capacity of participative action to take on mythical and even religious features in its heroic confrontation with the monumentality of nature” (146). But at the same time, “it represents an ephemeral and senseless gesture,” since “[t]he movement of ten centimetres of sand on a dune that is two hundred metres wide is not perceptible in reality” (146). (Indeed, I had heard that the project moved the entire dune—that’s the rumour that reached me.) The work documents “the participants’ investment in collaborating on this work, rather than the result,” Wood suggests. “Alÿs’s action was intended as a kind of myth that would be transmitted between people over time and across distance. The titular question of faith—both among the participants, and in the idea that this myth might inspire it—is the real subject of the work” (146).
A related work, Zhang Huan’s 1997 To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond, “involved a group of about forty migrant workers standing still, spread out across the diameter of a large pond, in order to create a slight rise in the surface of the water” (146-47). For Zhang, the rise in the water level was less important than the symbolism, in Chinese culture, of fish (associated with sex) and water (the source of life) (147). “Typical of Zhang’s later work . . . this piece considers the capacity of collective action,” even an action without any apparent purpose, to change reality (147). Katerina Šedá’s work also involves “actions that give shapes to forms of collectivity” (147). “In her long-term project For Every Dog a Different Master,” which began in 2007,
Šeda sent packages to tenants of a large housing estate in her hometown—Brno, in the Czech Republic—which appeared to come from neighbouring tenants, whom the artist had secretly paired. She then organised a social event so that they could meet, stimulating the creation of new relationships among approximately two hundred, previously anonymous neighbours, most of whom had been displaced to modern housing from smaller villages. (147)
In 2008’s Over and Under, Šeda spent months negotiating with residents of a neighbourhood in Brno, trying to convince them to build steps over their backyard fences “so that she could run through their properties in an uninterrupted circle she had plotted through the neighbourhood” (147). The entire process—and I’m assuming Wood means the negotiations rather than the run—was documented on video. That project is interesting to me, since it involves a form of self-propelled mobility, but it is obviously really about building relationships with people.
“Šeda brings to life what Andrew Hewitt has defined in terms of social choreography: an aesthetic practice that can actively intervene in the ways that people relate and interact with each other,” Wood writes (147). Hewitt’s focus is on dance, but Wood argues that the significance of his ideas extends beyond dance, “applying to more pedestrian aspects of social choreography. It is often these apparently ordinary patterns of interaction and behaviour that artists have manipulated in order to initiate alternative encounters between participants in their work” (147). She suggests that Ai Weiwei’s 2007 project Fairytale “is perhaps the grandest example yet of a tendency in the past decade to envisage large-scale, utopian projects involving the participation of a mass of people—either as performers or witnesses, or both simultaneously” (147). Fairytale was “a ‘live’ work,” but not a performance, Wood contends (147). “The participants in the project—the 1,001 Chinese people that Ai Weiwei arranged to travel to Kassel,” where Documenta 12 was being held, “and for whom he provided food, lodging and free passes to the exhibition—were never ‘on show’ for the exhibition audience,” she explains, “although they may have been glimpsed going about their daily business by the people of Kassel and the art tourists alike, who might have even enjoyed chance encounters with them” (147). Fairytale challenged “the dynamics of spectatorship,” and to grasp it as a work, “one had to change one’s expectations and open one’s mind” (147). Are such projects, Wood asks,
grand new forms of social sculpture orchestrated by a central shaman-like artist figure? Or does such an approach speak of more problematic notions—especially for an artist working in post-communist conditions, such as Ai Weiwei—of ‘social organisation’ and ‘social engineering,’ albeit put to the service of a fantasy or a dream? What are the dynamics of performing here? Does Ai’s action activate a performative awareness of Documenta’s meta-structure, mroe than it being about individuals presenting the ‘doing’ of something? (148)
“Like Šeda and others, Ai works in what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described as the ‘social field,’” Wood continues. “These artists’ projects stir up the potential energy that is latent but settled into habit within a specific social field (the European art world) by cross-contiminating it with other spheres” (148). In contrast to the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, “with its massed performance of perfectly synchronised, uniform citizens,” in Fairytale “the mass of people signifies a latent potentiality for action: a new social base with a transnational sense of mobility and possibility” (149). “By cross-contaminating and disturbing the common beliefs of the social fields that the work touches upon, it creates a new kind of common humanity that registers, if only perhaps for a fraction of time, the potential to not be determined by given circumstances,” Wood continues, a freedom “just to be” (149). However, she asks whether “this fantasy takes us back to a notion of authenticity in the pause between identities; an identity unmarked by society” (149). That idea would apparently not be a good thing.
The section’s next chapter, “Collectives and networks after the internet,” begins by suggesting that “the dominant characteristic of the contemporary field, socially and artistically, is that of our increased connectivity. Being networked online has shifted our understanding of what being a collective might mean—both for art and for politics” (149). “The line between activism and critical experimentation has been productively blurred by a number of artist groups in the past decade,” she continues (149). For example, Mumbai-based group CAMP—the acronym stands for Critical Art and Media Practice—works with people involved in infrastructure, “including the provision of water, electricity, cable TV and the internet” and have “developed temporary TV and radio stations, websites and annotated film archives” (150). In one of their early projects, which posited “electrical circuits as social metaphors,” an electrical switch was placed in the street outside CAMP’s studio. Passersby were “able to flick the switch to activate lights up in the building block, and the electrical supply was also shared by an ice-cream vendor in the street” (150). According to Wood, “CAMP attempts to open up new democratic spaces for art production, thinking outside of common binaries that separate art from non-art, commodities from so-called free culture, or individuals from institutions” (150). CAMP wants to “test the boundaries between private and public ownership, and to reconsider who has power to act within the world,” actively engaging “with questions around infrastructure” to draw attention to “its tools and materials” (150). Goldin+Senneby, a collaboration between two artists, Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, uses “the performative space of virtuality, and the permission it affords, to explore legal, economic and spatial constructions from a critical point of view, using a complex form of fabulation” (150). In an ongoing project entitled Headless, begun in 2007, Goldin+Senneby have explored offshore finance, “and how it produces virtual space through loops in legislation,” by identifying and tracing an offshore company in the Bahamas called Headless Ltd. and examining “the potential for invisibility and withdrawal from social norms” that such tax havens imply (152). “They have used this company, extrapolating from it in fictional ways, as the basis for an ongoing speculative exploration of the mechanics of narrative,” Wood writes (152). Because Goldin+Senneby outsource their artistic labour, “they employed a detective to find out more about Headless Ltd and commissioned a ghost-written detective novel, which is used as a vehicle for narrating their investigations,” she continues (152). They “even commissioned documentary filmmakers to interview an investigative journalist about how to make a documentary about invetigating Headless Ltd, and hired a curator and a set designer to devise a didactic display introducing viewers to the characters of the novel Looking for Headless” (152). “In these ways, the artists play with the logic of the virtual in the real world—whether the status of the avatar, here substituted with an actor in real time, or the loops in legal and digital code that permit fictional transgressions with real effects,” Wood states. “At the same time, Headless represents a model of anti-social or anti-relational practice: a flat continuum of information that is being shaped by different interests, but without an apparent singular driver or head” (152). My question, though, is whether these art works are performance.
The section’s next chapter, “Interventions,” explores artists who “turn to the kind of social performance initiated by Augusto Boal, which highlights the existing mise en scène of the social fabric in which is is embedded” (152). Wood suggests that the work of Slovakian artist Roman Ondak is a good example, because it “investigates social codes, conventions, rituals and forms of exchange, in an an effort to stimulate the collective imagination” (152). In his 2007 work Measuring the Universe participants marked their heights on the wall of a gallery, and in his 2011 work Swap participants traded personal objects on a display plinth “in order to create forms of comparative, collective portraiture” (152). However, Ondak “also makes more stealthy interventions in given situations” (152). His 2003 work Good Feelings in Good Times “is an artificially created queue that is intended to be staged inside the museum, but can also be adapted to other spaces” (152). The queue “is deliberately placed somewhere where it would make sense for a queue to form, or where it might almost appear to make sense but not quite, exaggerating its absurd effect” (152). Its length can vary, but it “obeys precise rules, which state that it can be enacted indoors by a minimum of seven and a maximum of twelve people, or outdoors with a maximum of fifteen people” (152). There are no restrictions on the age or gender of participants, who are either volunteers or paid actors, and they wear no costumes (152-53). “If questioned by onlookers,” Wood writes, the enactors—like those in Tino Sehgal’s work—are requested not to divulge anything about the performance; they are instead encouraged to improvise as if they were in a real-life situation” (153). The artist plants the queue “as a prompt to interaction or altered behaviour (people join the queue, observe and query what the queue is for, or simply avoid it), but also points to the social choreography of the museum at large—a kind of frill of ordinary behaviour inserted decoratively” (153). According to Wood, “Ondak is also interested in what happens psychologically when we are waiting to see something, especially within a museum space geared to the idea of looking at and encountering art,” and she suggests that “[t]his collective sharing of apparent non-experience might in fact offer a subtle form of enhanced contemplation” (153).
Unlike Ondak, the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala explores institutional structures outside of the art world. She has, Wood writes, “infiltrated and performed within the contexts of a boarding school (Drive with Care 2013); the European Parliament (Broad Sense 2011); a Finnish dancing club (Wallflower 2006); and a shop (The Angels 2008), where she performed ‘acts of kindness’ that—being unprompted—look suspicious” (153). In her 2000 performance The Real Snow White, she was barred from entering Disneyland Paris dressed as Snow White, “because the children might think she is the ‘real’ Snow White” (153). In Takala’s documentation of this action, a park guard
tells her that she cannot dress like this, as an adult, because she might be going in to “do something bad.” If she is in costume, she becomes continuous with the cartoon environment of Disney: to appear as part of it, her behaviour must be regulated in accordance with Disney policy, so that the children can interact with her in “Disney Realness” without there being a rupture (of wrong behaviour, or bad behaviour). At one point the guard tells her “there is a real Snow White in the park.” (153-55)
In Takala’s work, Wood continues, “the artist does not perform as herself but assumes a character in order to call attention to the social norms within her chosen environment,” an “embedded masquerade” which “critically comments on the codes of a given environment and what is at stake in accepting its rules, exposing the degree to which participation in social structures relies on a suspension of disbelief” (155).
Nevin Aladag explores “social environments and issues of cultural translation, or mistranslation,” through performance and film. In her 2007 site-specific performance Raise the Roof, documented on video, “a group of women dance on top of an industrial building situated on the former border between East and West Berlin. Each woman listens to music on her own headphones, and wears stiletto heels which form a kind of percussion as they punch holes in and tear up the tarmac roofing” (155). That rooftop had once been part of a patrol route for East German soldiers, “and Aladag reimagines an echo of their marching boots in the sound born of this surreal action,” thereby “transforming the urban landscape . . . into a stage for action” (155). Non-professional dancers perform in Aladag’s ongoing Occupation series, which began in 2009. “At exhibition openings, the artist plants performers passing for ordinary visitors, who, one by one, begin to sway and dance,” Wood writes. “The instigation of this action nudges others, and, with a sense of permission lent by those who are dancing, even thouse who are not part of the artist’s planted action begin to dance” (155). Ondak, Takala, and Aladag all “instigate and frame social behaviours,” and their work operates “from an embedded position inside the scene that is brought to visibility” (155).
The next chapter in this section “Entertainment as readymade,” begins by pointing out that in a visual art context that is distinct from theatre, “the fact that there aren’t set positions for performers and audiences lends a distinct freedom to the process of making performance” (155). Contemporary performance, Wood continues, “also opens up the possibility of cannibalising other disciplinary formats and social institutions, whether theatre, sport or entertainment,” which means that “art performance can look like something else in another discipline” (155). One example in the 1990s was Rirkrit Tiravanija’s appropriation of cooking (155). “Tiravanija’s straightforward approach to cooking and sharing food,” Wood writes, “was radical in its displacement of such a primary activity into the gallery, without apparent aesthetic transformation” (156). Ei Arakawa’s work “often borrows from entertainment culture,” using the nightclub, the musical, or the holiday resort “to create participatory events or share stories” (156). Arakawa’s work is collaborative, but he is often the catalyst, instigating events that “derive from the immediacy and provisional structure of 1960s happenings” (156).
Israeli-born artist Keren Cytter’s art “consistently involves working with other people: her films and theatre pieces are made with multiple actors, and she stages relationships, conversations and choreographies in the work” (156). At the same time, though, “she explore how individual vision meets collective production: her interest is in representing group dynamics, according to a script written by her, rather than experimenting with others in the process of making the work” (156). Her 2009 performance work History in the Making, or the Secret Diaries of Linda Schultz “is an hour-long take on the idea of total theatre that combines spoken text with a variety of gestures, movements and music” that is “set to a pleasing electronic score composed by the artist” (156). Cytter’s film work relies on “the authentically imperfect detail of her found settings and the ready-made cast, drawn from her circle of friends,” which exaggerates the productions’ provisional qualities (156). “[T]ransposed into theatre,” however, “that verisimilitude is outed as a form of masquerade. Even the moment when one of the actors messes up, as he appears to stumble with his lines and apologises for having to start again, turns out to be obviously scripted. Process is seemingly revealed, but in fact it has all been planned beforehand” (156-57). (I’m certain that there are examples of such self-referentiality in theatre; like Goldberg, Wood doesn’t credit theatre for its aesthetic innovations and, I think, relies on an outdated notion of what theatre is or does.) Cytter’s “making of dance” appears as “an idea of dance that is deliberately acted out, set within an idea of theatre. Both are treated as exotic clichés, with a heightened sense of their irrelevance,” Wood continues, noting that “the slight gap between speech and gesture that Cytter’s work often incorporates lends her live production an echoing quality, as though the whole thing were a fantasised scenario played out in someone’s head” (157). Her work is a “thought-led acting out,” Wood suggests, and therefore extremely self-conscious (157). In this way, “Cytter makes visible the paradoxically solipsistic quality of the ‘social’ in the social media mindset” (159), a conclusion that is hard to understand, since nothing in Wood’s description of Cytter’s work suggests anything about social media.
Artist and choreographer Maria Hassabi works in both theatre and gallery contexts, as well as in public spaces, “underscoring the different protocols of behaviour therein” (159). Her 2013 work Intermission, presented at the Venice Biennale, “involved Hassabi and two other dancers performing continuously to create an ongoing sculptural tableau of sorts,” moving through a space that “was also host to sculpture and installation by other artists, and to visitors walking around, and up and down the steps” (159). “Much of Hassabi’s work explores the question of display as it plays out in both exhibitions and theatre, elaborating on the conventions of both formats,” Wood writes (159). For instance, her 2013 PREMIERE foregrounds beginnings and endings in performance, thereby addressing “the expectations of viewership” (159). “PREMIERE staged the seated audience’s state of passive attention against the spectacle of five dancers performing a slowly rotating turn,” Wood continues (159). The work’s 83 minute length “was determined by the time it took the performers to turn 180 degrees so as to face the audience, creating an elongated ritual of observance and revelation that fetishises the roles of performers and viewers to an absurd degree” (159). The work’s lighting “becomes very present as material, almost a body in itself: both heating and showing, then hiding, what is happening onstage, and also marking a transition from the working-out space of the studio to the exposure onstage, from process to product” (159). I wonder what that lighting looked like, and how it accomplished Wood says it did. In her 2015 work, PLASTIC, “a group of performers enacted a continuous live installation based on a looped, four-hour solo, both inside the galleries and in the spaces outside the museum” (159). “Moving with exquisite control at a glacial pace, the luxurious drag of time on the dancers’ visibility while in mmovement threw the whole situation into sharper view,” Wood writes. “With no apparent beginning or end, Hassabi’s work maximises the tensions at play between live bodies and the gallery as a context designed for object presentation, to absorbing and charged effect” (159).
Dominican-born, Berlin-based artist Isabel Lewis appropriates social formats, “but she extends the idea of the nightclub as a space of encounter to meet the quirkier territory of the amateur gardening club,” where she plays the role of host “and considers the space of her work as a temporary for extending hospitality to her audience, whose participation is integral to the dynamic of her performance situations” (159). Lewis’s work “envisages discourse as embedded in life experience, rather than as content to be transmitted,” Wood suggests, referring to a 2014 work in a London department store which created a nightclub space in which “Lewis addressed the lounging audience with philosophical theories about gardening, sex, love, friendship and culture, with references to Plato and Max Weber” (160). “Lewis makes work that deliberately appeals to the body as a totality, to communality, and to all the senses,” Wood writes. “In her practice, the work of art is an organic activity woven into the mess and earthly pleasure of real life, rather than a transcendent sphere” (160). Lewis’s “‘occasions,’” which bring together “performance, entertainment and discursive space,” “not only generate peripheral conversation but also make it feel newly valuable as an informal and relaxed experience of sharing” (160). Lewis describes her work as choreography, as “a collage of materials, ideas and experiences” that brings things together in time, including human bodies and objects (160-61).
UK artist Jeremy Deller’s work “is indebted to the kind of social practice work made by Suzanne Lacy and her peers” (161). He organized a re-enactment of 1980s UK miners’ strikes in The Battle of Orgreave, but he “has also made artworks that take the form of community events, rooted in his fascination with the traditions of late nineteenth-century pageants, parades and festivals” (161). His 2004 work A Social Parade, part of Manifesta 5 in San Sebastián, Spain, “subverted the nature of such a public procession by collaborating with the city’s underground youth groups and associations, rather than municipal authorities,” and his 2009 Procession was “a parade composed of different self-identified groups in the city, from the Boy Scouts to trade unions, and from a pipe band to gay rights activists, all of whom created floats or staged appearances as the procession advanced through the city centre” (161). These processions and parades, of course, are examples of site-specific and collective walking art.
The section’s next chapter, “Game-changing: activist strategies and invented institutions,” begins with a discussion of Mexican artist Carlos Amorales and his stagings of Mexican wrestling matches in contemporary art galleries and museums, which involved actual wrestlers (162). “Amorales considers the activation of the audience, brought together in this temporary constellation, to be as important as the presentation of a quasi-self-portrait woven by the wrestling match itself,” Wood writes, suggesting that “the performance is less an image to be viewed, and more a catalyst that disrupts and reorganises people’s positions and attention; in this case, borrowing from the ready-made format of the live sports arena” (163). Amorales brings “a populist form of entertainment into the cathedral-like space of the gallery,” and “takes an unexpected route to the self-reflexivity of the avant-garde: the audience seeing-themselves-seeing” (163).
Tania Bruguera describes her work as “behaviour art” (163). Behaviour art, Wood writes, is “the idea that art is a sphere through which civic action might be transformed” (163). “For Bruguera, art is a means of enacting social change instead of representing social and political issues,” Wood continues. “She takes advantage of the cultural capital afforded to her by art institutions to build frames and containers for political action, and has pushed the creation of social situations and institutions as artworks perhaps furthest among her peers” (163-65). She notes that Bruguera is influenced by Lacy’s work, but that Bruguera “has blurred the lines between direct and symbolic action to an extreme degree” (165). Bruguera says that her work consists of “short-term” and “long-term” actions (165). Her 2005 Tatlin’s Whisper #5 is a significant example of a short-term work. In it, “a patrol of mounted police . . . continuously shift crowds of visitors around a museum or gallery space, exerting power but to no apparent end” (165). “On one level, Tatlin’s Whisper #5 is a choreographic spectacle that is quasi-participatory—one can choose to watch or to stand within the crowd that is being moved—but in fact the piece stages an imbalance of power that is ultimately founded upon a forced complicity with the apparently free space of the contemporary museum,” Wood writes. “On another level, Bruguera slyly doubles the critical power of the piece by staging the museum’s complicity with the apparatus of the state, and with military or police power more specifically, by asking the institution to create arrangements for the state to participate, relying on official networks and cooperative favours” (165). Her Immigrant Movement International project, which began in 2011, is an example of one of Bruguera’s long-term projects (165). She “began the project by spending a year running a community space in Queens, where the movement was first headquartered” (165). During that time, “she lived in an apartment shared with migrant women and their children” (165). “Engaging with both local and international communities, as well as working with social services, politicians and artists focused on immigration reform, Bruguera attempts to find ways of addressing questions about the social conditions facing immigrants, and their political representation,” Wood writes. “The challenge inherent in Bruguera’s practice, in her being both part of the community she supports and part of the art world, and servicing both communities at once, lies in the crux of debates about art’s place in the world, and whether its status as a removed activity negates its potential to produce real political effects” (165).
According to Wood, “Bruguera’s approach is exemplary of how an expanded idea of performance has fed into the development of contemporary art, by encouraging artists to build spaces where none exist, or where what exists is not adequate” (165). These artists, “[b]y taking a performative approach and imaginatively constructing a fictional space,” have started “to create new narratives that have the potential to become new realities to act within” (165). (What makes this work “performative,” though? And how are spaces such as Bruguera’s community space “fictional”? I don’t follow.) Wood suggests that Benin-based artist Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which both calls “on the art establishment to pay attention to contemporary African art,” but also questions “why the boundaries between Western and African art exist in the first place,” is an example of this kind of work (165). Another example is the work of French choreographer and dancer Boris Charmatz, who “has approached the notion of the museum with a similar interest in building a space that did not yet exist” (167). “Charmatz’s practice, rooted in dialogue with visual art, is heterogenous and frequently collaborative,” Wood writes, noting that Charmatz has also initiated “a ‘nomadic’ school” and a museum (167). “Charmatz’s work asks,” Wood writes, “how might choreographic explorations of the body, and bodies together, determine the foundations of an alternative kind of architecture for dance? (168). By “reorienting the body’s own hierarchy, Charmatz also opens up new possibilities for acting, as well as new points of contact between figures and behaviours” (168). “[H]e organises patterns of practice that do not necessarily fit into describable relationships or codes of action,” Wood continues (168). In his 1997 work herses (a slow introduction), for instance, “two male-female pairs (performed by dancers who are partners in real life) move with, on and in relation to each other in ways that conjure a different sense of the ‘relationship’ as a contract or a space for movement” (168). In 2009, Charmatz became the director of one of France’s national dance institutions, the Centre choréographique national de Rennes et de Bretagne, and renamed it Musée de la danse (168). According to Wood, “Charmatz envisions the possibilities for the institution by imagining its structures as performed acts, and enacting them from the point of view of the nuanced movement of the dancer: a means of opening up the medium with an activist dimension” (168). Charmatz, she continues, “uses institutional formats as ready-made structures to cannibalise, and from which to productively build” (168). What he is building, however remains unclear; I guess I would have to do further research into Charmatz’s work at the Musée de la danse.
The ongoing project Public Collection, by Romania artists Manuel Pelmus and Alexandra Pirici, which began in 2013, “addresses the context of the public museum and the question of ownership” (168). “The work takes the form of a succession of artworks being acted out by five interpreters, akin to a looped game of charades,” Wood writes. “Critically reflecting on the museum’s role as it archives, historicises, collects and reflects on society, shaping expectations as to what is valued, the artists possess or reclaim these objects of value by enacting them” (168). “Each work is carefully represented in its imaginative transformation from material to gestural forms,” Wood continues, suggesting that Pelmus and Pirici “play upon the audience’s own mental repertoires and shared experiences of art, which are brought to bear upon the inferred meaning of the performed gestures” (168). Indonesian artist and activist Arahmaiani, “who makes performance, painting, sculpture and installation,” has spent time in the past decade “working with communities around the world on environmental issues using non-violent methods and aimed towards fostering unity between potentially conflicting groups” (171). In one of these works, Parangtritis, a workshop enables participants in a community procession to carry flags they have made themselves which carry anti-corruptions messages (171).
The second section of the book ends with a summary. “If art, in its broadest sense, offers a way for us to look at ourselves and reflect on our time—a kind of symbolic mirror—then performance within art stages us in the act of observing ourselves: it produces a two-way mirror,” Wood writes (173). However, as the examples she has presented in this section of the book suggest, “the question of who We are is contingent and fractured—often more an aspiration, a utopian desire, than a coherent reality. We might be a temporary gathering, more than a permanent identity. But We—with its implied exclusions and exclusions—is something that is, and has been, perpetually in question” (173). Performance, which “has often sought to transfer the focus of aesthetic attention from the discrete object or action towards the broader world of the social frame,” is “mostly employed by artists because of its promise to reach beyond representation and allow us to see ourselves as collective shapers of a space in which we give our attention to something, whether beautiful, agitational, co-operative or transcendent,” Wood continues (173). (Her blurring of the boundaries between performance and relational aesthetics, though, weakens this argument, I think.) “Performance frequently dramatises the unresolvable questions around how the collective basis of We is defined by proposing temporary configurations of being together,” she writes (173). The “live situation” of performance “adds a condition of mutual awareness between people”—between members of the audience, it seems (173). “Diffracted through the multiple image-screens of contemporary living, the acts of performing and bearing witness, seeing and being seen, become increasingly complex,” she continues, while “the assertion of collective presence in real time gathers new charge in a context of technological mediation: whether the procession, the parade, the protest or the performance per se” (173). The very act of gathering together, she concludes, becomes an inherently political act because of its “raw sense of potential for further action” (173). Perhaps, but what kind of action? Is every assembly of people inherently political? Are all gatherings constructively political, or can assemblies be destructive or negative? (Think of one of Trump’s rallies.) This argument needs to be clarified.
The last section of the book is It: The Object. It begins with a chapter on “Living sculpture.” It begins with a description of Mark Leckey’s 2003 performance at Tate Britain, in which he juxtaposed Jacob Epstein’s sculpture Jacob and the Angel with the large speaker stack of a Jamaican sound-system (176). “The event was staged after the museum’s closing time, so that, aside from this one lit area, the galleries were dark and empty,” Wood recalls. “An audience of approximately three hundred people stood in a broad circle around the two sculptures” (174). A group of artists performed the piece with Leckey: it was “a three-section sound composition, played live, that moved from attack to serenade, and then to synthesis” (176). “Leckey’s treatment of the museum space, an artwork in the Tate collection, and the audience itself, assembled in this late night gathering, created a significant shift in my understanding—and in the understanding of many of those present—of how we cold be in the museum and be a part of it at the same time,” Wood writes (176). The event, she continues, “redefined what the encounter with an artwork could look and feel like. That museum’s atmosphere of apparent timelessness and the objects autonomous presence were transformed, via this action, into a place and a thing that were in the audience’s possession within a certain period of time only” (176). Leckey’s conversation with Epstein’s sculpture, Wood continues, brought out “its narrative content, sensuousness and drama,” and the event “created a script for a cultural ritual, which somehow enacted [Leckey’s] love for the artwork, caressed it, in such a way that it could be experienced collectively, and shared” (176). The action “transformed the high modernist idea that the encounter with the artwork is a suspended moment of grace outside of time, and rewrote it as a public situation. And yet this was not the theatrical time-space of minimalist literalism either” (176). The event, which Leckey titled BigBoxStatueAction,
proposed how we might encounter that which has been conventionally defined as “the artwork” differently: neither as a singular, fixed point to be looked at, or even glanced at and walked around in a matter of seconds, nor as an object to be encountered from different perceptual viewpoints, phenomenologically. Instead, Leckey approached the work obliquely, imagining it as a focus of gradually unfolding concentration. This approach somehow enabled us to enter the historical time of the sculpture—both in terms of its made-ness and its dramatisation of a Biblical narrative—and at the same time drew attention to our here-and-now presence in a shared collective event: he wove the museum artefact into his own narrative. (176-77)
The action “allowed for the coexistence of such differences, and such qualities of experience,” Wood continues. “It part-beautifully, part-aggressively asserted a thinking-feeling-experiential space as ‘our’ museum, and brought the Epstein to life” (177). Leckey’s work “shows us a way to dig into our own archives of cultural memory and, taking a cue from internet navigation, dissolve their solid, fixed states as relics into a new reciprocal fluidity that elaborates unexpected and boundless conversations,” Wood writes:
Instead of challenging the idea of the museum as a site for the rationalised display and conservation of objects, Leckey works in this context to make it more like what it is: more fetishised, more mysterious, more enchanting. Things affect each other and things affect us. (177-78)
“We are bound together and to things,” Wood continues. “In this context, we are forced to rethink how we, as viewer-consumers, are situated in relation to objects in such conversations” (178).
“A book on performance in contemporary art . . . might be assumed to exclude art objects entirely in favour of actions,” Wood admits, but she notes that “ideas that art might evolve towards objectlessness have been in the air since at least the late 1960s,” and such reconsideration of “the status of the object in art has accelerated in the past decade, for example through the ephemeral actions of artists such as Tino Sehgal” (178). But, even so, “the art object, or the idea of the artwork as an object, underpins much of the performance work discussed thus far” in the book,” she continues (178). In addition, “[b]eyond the emergence of performance as a medium, art history encompasses what could be termed a secret history of performance, formed by the traces of actions, exchanges and verbal propositions that have historically seeped through object-based art” (178-79). Some artists in the 1960s, for instance, “performed as traditional media,” as living sculptures, such as the work of Gilbert & George (179). Other examples of artists who have worked with this form include Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Kazem in the United Arab Emirates (180), whose work is documented in still photographs.
“Within the realm of contemporary art, we increasingly understand the artwork in expanded terms to incorporate both object and action,” Wood continues. “In some cases, action is objectified, mimicking the qualities of material forms. In other cases, objects are made to move, appearing to act. Often, artists set objects and actions into provisional configurations, so that artworks do not necessarily have a fixed form or end. Duration becomes the boundary, rather than a material limit in space” (181). For instance, Richard Serra, “one of the makers of the most ambitious material sculpture of the past fifty years,” nonetheless “manifests a relationship to action” in his films and drawings (181). “It follows, then, that with the integration of performance into the field of contemporary art, the infrastructural rules of art’s ‘game’ . . . have come into visibility more clearly,” Wood argues. “Drawing attention to the agency of the artist as performer (as a kind of doer or demonstrator), performance-related work exposes the elusive chain of actions that underwrite the artwork” (181). And yet, “if ideas of performance and performativity move from a simple sense of making, doing or acting, towards the production of a shared reality, we need to ask not only how does the object appear here, but also, how does this attitude objectify or reify action,” Wood continues. “Artworks can be made of actions, and objects can perform,” whether they are literally moving, like Lygia Pape’s Neo-Concrete Ballet, in which “geometric shapes move around on a stage,” or whether the object “is subjected to a conceptual displacement, as in the repetition paintings of Sturtevant, whose very appearance cites their proximity to, and doubling of, works from the (male) canon” (181). It seems, then, that this final chapter of Wood’s book is going to focus on performativity rather than performance, which is unfortunate, for my purposes, and that it is going to argue that objects perform, which strikes me as an example of a metaphor taken literally rather than figuratively.
“In shifting how objects are framed within contemporary art, performance art arguably contributes” to a “broader rethinking of social creativity,” Wood suggests (182). “As the boundaries of the artwork are redrawn, our sense of aesthetic value changes, too,” she continues. “Performance has provided a reflexive context in which the artwork—whatever form it takes, whether material or immaterial—is taken out of a state of apparent disinterestedness or neutrality as far as viewing conditions are concerned, and is placed instead in an explicitly social and temporal setting,” as Leckey did (182). “If performance and the performatie are to do with how things are made to appear, then we might consider that the entire field of art is simply constituted of the investment we make in its meaning: how we give attention, how we place things, how we interact with our surroundings,” she writes (182). In other words, performance “opens art to life by enacting scenarios that suggest that the activities of people in relation to objects and in relation to each other constitute the broader work of art” (182). From the perspective of live art, “the material object can be imagined as but one element, albeit often an essential and catalytic one, in this view of the situation” (182). Critiques of modernism have challenged “the Western ideal of art as a neutral, transcendental domain,” and the “spaces of encounter” of art “have begun to be resituated socially and politically,” she contends. “Our understanding of performance and the performative have played an important role in this, but revealing the ultimately provisional nature of how we do things” (182).
The next chapter, “The way things go,” looks “at questions of non-human action by materials or things: how the object position, which I have called It, is made to perform” (182). “What I am referring to as the performative dimension of contemporary art is to do with how artists draw attention to the way in which all the elements of the art encounter act within a work or situation,” she writes. “The field of contemporary art is entangled with performance and the performative, in terms of how things act upon each other, act upon us, and are coexistent with us. It dramatises the question: what kind of reciprocity exists between people and things?” (182). That question generates another: are inanimate objects capable of acting?
“The study, collection and display of objects—utilitarian, decorative or symbolic—has been central to the evolution of Western modernity and to the way in which the modern or contemporary art museum understands itself,” Wood writes (183). However, in the contemporary art museum, “the anthropological context that frame[s] objects in museums . . . is erased in favour of an increasingly globalised conceptual and formal language of object-immanence” (183). One problem with this model is that it leaves “human agency” out of the picture: “In combination with a denigration of manual skill after the readymade, the contemporary artwork becomes untouchable, almost un-made,” and “it becomes out of use: existing only for visual display” (183). “To understand the role of the object in the context of performance, and in parallel to understand how it can be performative, it is necessary to think about again how the object is related to action in contemporary art,” Wood continues. “In the 1960s and 1970s, artists enacted process: they staged objects of things as moving entities, often as a series of permutations via photography and film: from here, objects began to appear as a kind of prompt or prop that elicits action; and, more recently, objects themselves have been cast as actors in performances that draw attention to organic movement by non-human actors” (184). Finally, this chapter “will look at works that stage objects within narrative or conceptual frameworks, casting them as quasi-characters or stage sets” (184).
As with the book’s other sections, Wood begins the discussion with a discussion of “Props and prompts” in art of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. “The theatre set provides a ready-made image of how the art object might relate to action,” she begins, noting that the term “theatricality” has typically been pejorative in the art world because the prop “represents a denigration of an object’s status” (184). However, she continues, “there are many interesting ways in which artists have played with art objects as props of sorts, or as prompts to initiate action” (184). The American artist Joan Jonas, for example, “was a pioneer of what, in the 1970s, was labelled ‘mixed-media performance,’ in which all elements (sculpture, video, live action) coincided within a single work” (184). Jonas “often dramatised her own relationship to the so-called traditional media, which she and her peers were moving away from, by incorporating minimal sculptural objects as props” (184). In her Mirror Pieces performance series, for instance, “Jonas used multiple large mirrors as actors of sorts, and also as a way of proposing a form of expanded sculpture. These rectangular mirrors became substitute figures, carried by performers on stage who would slowly, deliberately shift and rotate them so as to capture the audience as a fragmented image on glass” (184-86). African-American artist Senga Nengudi “invented a new language of biomorphic sculpture in her R.S.V.P. series,” which began in 1977. The sculptures, Wood writes, “are typically made of everyday found materials, such as women’s nylon mesh tights which she would select in a variety of skin tones” and then use them in improvisations, “pinning and stretching the tights into changing positions,” or filling them with sand “to weight and distend them,” in the process “creating ritual performances with and around the sculptures” (186). In some works Nengudi invited artist Maren Hassinger, a member of Studio Z, a radical group of African-American artists with whom Nengudi was affiliated, “to activate her sculptures by becoming entangled with the fabric, representing how women were socially restricted via the expectations of gender, and also commenting on the elasticity of the (female) body as it stretches and comes back into shape in pregnancy, or indeed—often exhausted and overused—does not” (186).
Like Jonas, the American artist Channa Horwitz worked with drawing, “but her work suggests a very different relationship to performance” (187). Instead of being used as prompts, Horwitz’s “intricate, repetitive score drawings . . . act as latent notation for performance or dance, which may never be realised: they contain the potential to work as a score, but can also be looked at as abstract patterns that are self-contained” (187). Horwitz’s works both reject and embrace “their own potential as conduits,” Wood continues (188). Her drawings are both “end points and potential beginnings, carrying codes that might initiate movement or sound improvisation” (188). “The objects made by Polish-born, Romanian artist André Cadere were also imbued with a quality of magic potency via their use in actions” (191). He used them in performances, both inside and outside of gallery spaces (191). “[T]he power of Cadere’s work was, arguably, more to do with how his objects were used: how they interacted with the institutional functions of the artist, the museum and the market,” Wood writes. “Having no specific orientation, and being in between painting and sculpture, the bars were carried about by the artist to museums and galleries, and positioned in different ways: propped up against the wall, lying horizontally on the floor, and so on” (191). Sometimes, breaking the conventions of exhibition practice, Cadere would place them in exhibitions of other artists, without having been invited (191). “In this way, he underscored the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion of the museum and gallery system, as well as casting the object not so much as a separate, finished entity but as an extension of his own presence”; that’s because, “[e]ven when they were static, the bars connoted a trickster-like possibility of movement, or immanent disappearance, working against the atemporal fixity implied by the gallery” (191).
The next chapter of the third section, “Object actors,” begins by noting that documentation of artists in the studio in the 1950s and 1960s “cast the making of art as a kind of proto-performance” (192). In the 1960s, minimalist artists used photography “to document the potential permutations of their work” (192). UK artist Rasheed Araeen “made interactive sculpture” which could be “redistributed and photographed in different arrangements, working with participants” (193). Araeen’s “early actions of the 1970s are similarly transient: cut-out circular or geometrically shaped objects were placed in the landscape, or on the surface of a river, to form a sequence of temporary active sculpture constellations” (193). At the same time, the Japanese artists associated with the group Mono-ha (which means “school of things”) “conceived of sculpture made by rearranging the elements of given reality” (193). They would arrange natural and artificial objects and then photograph the results. “For the Mono-ha artists, it was the score for their arrangement or placement that was significant: the way that they appeared—often nakedly provisional—in an art context, and the viewer’s inference of the trace of the artist’s labour through both their precarious arrangement and the photographic evidence,” Wood writes (193).
The Mono-ha artists, as well as American minimalists and Brazilian neo-concretists, were influenced by the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who “emphasised the body as the primary interface through which we get to know the world, implying that one’s body is first and foremost situated in space,” Wood writes. “This offered a corrective to the long-held philosophical tradition of placing consciousness as the source of knowledge and prioritising opticality. Phenomenology proposes that the body and that which is perceives cannot be disentangled from each other, and are bound together within a continuously shifting interrelationship” (195). The body thus “came to be seen as a sensorial apparatus in itself, rather than being one more thing” (195). The Brazilian neo-concretist Lygia Pape, like other members of the movement, argued that works of art could only be understood phenomenologically, and that they had something in common with living organisms (195). “In the 1950s, Pape made paintings, prints and sculptures but also a number of related performance experiments”: neo-concrete dances and performances that “appeared to cast the objects themselves as performers, rather than presenting the performers as objects via costume” (195). In the 1958 Neo-Concrete Ballet I, for example, “four white cylinders and four orange-red parallelograms appeared onstage. Each was two metres tall and set on wheels, moved by people hidden inside them” (195-97). The choreography, Wood continues, “was made up of simple repetitive movements enacted by the geometric shapes, as two notes sounded on the piano, which was used as a percussion instrument” (197). Pape’s 1968 Divider “radically extended the idea of a user-led work” (197). It was “formed entirely by a crowd of participants whose heads slot into holes in a large, square, white sheet,” who walked down the street, “forming a collective action and sculpture in motion” (197). That work, Wood suggests, “prefigures similar works in this period that make visible ideas of social networks as a corpus, such as James Le Byars’s Ten in a Hat 1969, a collective mobile sculpture enacted by ten participants wearing an extended piece of pink cloth fixed to each person’s head by a cap” (197).
American minimalists were also influenced by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Wood argues, “as well as Gestalt theory and Russian constructivism” (198). Much of Robert Morris’s early work was “conceived within a context of theatre” (198). In 1961’s Column performance, for example, a grey plywood box was placed centre-stage in a theatre. When the curtains opened, “the box stood upright for three minutes, then, manipulated by a wire, fell over and lay prone for a further three minutes, before the curtain closed again” (198). Morris’s first sculptures were made as props for dance works, and he made five performance or dance works himself between 1963 and 1966 (198). Even after his work turned towards sculpture and away from performance, Morris’s “performative approach remained” (199). His 1965 installation, Untitled (L-Beams), “was founded upon the active interplay between material objects and the viewer’s embodied perception” (199). “By placing a pair of two-metre-long fibreglass L-beams in a gallery space, Morris demonstrated that a division existed between our perception of the object and the actual object because, although viewers perceived the beams as being different shapes and sizes, in actuality they were identical,” Wood writes. “In direct opposition to modernism’s focus on the internal syntax of the object—that is, how the object can be understood as something self-contained—Morris chose instead to examine the external syntax: the theatricality of the object, the way an object extends out from itself into its environment, and how it is perceived in relation to a wider apparatus” (199). Morris documented these works photographically, “creating a sequence of different configurations, which show all possible orientations of the same unit, and how we perceive them differently—the sculptures themselves as performers in a form of object choreography” (199-200).
The next chapter, “Animal and organic movement,” discusses the work of artists such as Jannis Kounellis, Simone Forti, and Fujiko Nakaya, who “invited the ‘performance’ of organic reality into their work in different ways” (200). “These artists staged forms of live action not enacted by manmade objects, but by other non-human actors,” Wood writes, including “animals, plants and natural elements, including the weather” (200). Kounellis, she continues, “was associated with the Italian arte povera movement, which, like Mono-ha, incorporated the use of simple, raw and found materials, whether cotton, rock or glass, a plant or a piece of ironwork” (200). In 1967, Kounellis “displayed live birds in cages with rose-shaped, cloth cut-outs pinned to canvas alongside his painting,” thereby transforming “the gallery into a stage, dramatising an unresolvable meeting point between real life and fiction, the spectators becoming a part of the scene” (200). In 1969, Kounellis exhibited 12 live horses for his Untitled (12 horses), which was inspired by a story the Surrealist André Breton told “about the Tartars bringing their horses to drink at the fountains of Versailles” (200). “The horses were displayed in formation, tethered around the space, and despite being domesticated appeared nevertheless intimidating, while also being sadly impotent in their tamed state,” Wood writes (200-01). “The transgression of Kounellis’s piece, as with Oitcica’s inclusion of live parrots in his installation Tropicália 1967, rests in its opening up the experience of art to a sensual, wild or natural dimension, beyond human control,” Wood notes, noting that Joseph Beuys’s 1974 I Like America and America Likes Me, which featured a wild coyote in the gallery, could be considered along with these works. In 1976, the Uk artist Rose Finn-Kelcey’s The Magpie’s Box involved the artist attempting “to establish a dialogue with two live magpies,” using sounds instead of human language to communicate with the birds (201). “Finn-Kelcy’s interest in a different type of language was part of her exploration of a feminist position in the UK in the 1970s,” Wood continues: “proposing alternative voices to the dominant male voice” (201).
Simone Forti was also interested in animal movement; she also “created other kinds of object-based, or organic, ‘choreography,’” such as her 1967 collaboration with filmmaker Hollis Frampton, a five-minute film, entitled Cloths, in which “a sequence of patterned and plain squares of fabric . . . are mesmerisingly arranged and rearranged in layered sequences, appearing to the camera like semaphores in succession without revealing the human manipulator” (201). In Forti’s 1961 Onion Walk, “an intriguing and simple piece . . . a sprouting onion is allowed to grow atop a glass bottle until that growth forces it to fall off its perch” (201). Wood describes this as a “curious-cum-vegetable ‘performance’” that “suggests a relationship to nature that was somewhat ahead of its time, given its interest in movement across both the human and non-human spheres” (201). Forti was not imitating or impersonating or performing these “creatures,” Wood contends; rather, “she seems to have wished to learn by observing them, to extend her own capacities as a dancer by incorporating their forms of locomotion, as ‘non-stylistic movement,’ into a human repertoire of movement and into human experience—suggesting, in the process, a perceptual paradigm untethered to the upright human body” (201).
Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya, who worked with artificial fog in the 1960s and 1970s, “drew attention to the broader currents of the atmosphere: the weather, and, more specifically, currents in the air” (201). Robert Rauschenberg, working with Billy Klüver, “created moving and sound sculptures,” and his 1971 work Mud Muse “was a large vat of liquid Bentonite that bubbled and splattered according to patterns triggered by sound recordings attached to its valves and nozzles” (201). And Argentine artist Nicolás García Uriburu “also intervened in, and drew attention to, the environment by making a form of expanded painting-cum-land art in the late 1960s, but with an activist dimension,” Wood writes (204). For the 1968 Venice Biennale, “he dyed the Grand Canal green using fluourescein, a pigment which turns a bright green when synthesized by micro-organisms in the water,” an action he repeated in New York’s East River, Paris’s Seine, Germany’s Rhine, and Argentina’s Riachuelo (205). In 1974, he dyed the fountains in Trafalgar Square and was fined £25 (205). “As an early form of performative protest, García Uriburu was involved in raising awareness of water pollution, endangered species and habitat loss, at times in collaboration with Greenpeace,” Wood writes. “His work was pioneering in its consideration of ecological issues: he used artistic methods to underscore his own capacity, as an individual, to affect the environment around him in strikingly visible ways” (205).
The next chapter, “Performing structure,” begins with the acknowledgement that in contemporary art, “a certain kind of object-based or installation work has come to be understood in terms of the ‘performative,’ in a way that has very little to do with performance or action in any other sense” (205). “To understand this idea of performativity, we must look back at the history of institutional critique, as it was developed by Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke and Michael Asher from the 1960s onwards, in works that attempted to expose institutional conventions, as well as to make visible the historically and socially constructed boundaries between inside and outside, public and private, and so on,” Wood continues. She suggests that the “architectonic answer to Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculptures” may have been “Asher’s contribution to the 1969 group show Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York” (205). In that work, Asher “simply concealed a blower above a door to create a slab of air that visitors passed through when the moved from one gallery to the next” (205). In the 1970s, Asher began removing elements from exhibition spaces, such as, in 1970’s Installation at Pomona College in Los Angeles, the gallery door: “The light and noise and activity of the street were thus experienced inside the gallery” (205).
“If Asher, Buren and others worked performatively on the architecture and set-up of the gallery of museum as mise en scène, drawing attention to its hidden codes as carriers of meaning,” Elaine Sturtevant (who went by her last name only) “played on the performative language of painting and sculpture, and on the performance at stake in being an artist” (205). In the middle of the 1960s, she began reproducing paintings and objects created by her contemporaries, copying them so faithfully that they were hard to distinguish from the originals (205). In this way, Sturtevant deliberately turned “the concept of originality on its head” (205). By striking at the concept of originality, Sturtevant was striking at the value of works of art as commodities on the art market (205). “She is credited with marking the beginning of the 1980s Simulationist movement, but unlike the work of some of her peers . . . her reproductions are neither appropriation art nor homages,” Wood writes (205-06). Rather, Sturtevant “flagrantly fakes the works of other artists” with the aim of showing “the hidden reverse of the apparently legitimate art economy” (206). “By ‘passing’ as originals by Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring or Andy Warhol, her works reveal originality and authenticity as muths, which the art system does its best to mask,” Wood continues. “The artists she fakes have sometimes, themselves, been complicit in the process. Warhol, always one step ahead, allowed her to make her Warhol Gold Marilyn 1973 on his own silk-screen press” (206). Sturtevant’s works “set in motion a heightened awareness of the entire economic system of value and meaning in art,” Wood concludes, and her “doubling of iconic works—usually works by male artists re-fabricated by a female artist—injects a silent virus in the system, a doubling of cells that corrodes and destablilises its structures and support bases via an apparently passive, but in fact excessive and loaded, complicity with the very foundations of its value system” (206-07). The meaning of Sturtevant’s paintings lies not in their status as museum objects, but rather “upon a theatrical suspension of disbelief” (207).
Now Wood moves to discuss contemporary work, beginning with a chapter entitled “Object actors II.” “If artists working in the postwar period expanded the realm of the performative to incorporate the moving object, as well as animal and organic life, the current generation take[s] this complex ecology as a point of departure to make the object ‘perform’ in various ways,” Wood writes (207). One of the central questions that the presence of performance in contemporary art asks, she continues, is “how can we read the history of art in the past century from a live, performance-inflected point of view?” (207). “Instead of subordinating action to objects, from this perspective, objects appear as catalysts and mediators in an expanded form of practice,” she continues. “Contemporary work is often concerned with the ways in which actions and objects are imperfectly co-existent, even inseparable, and certainly mutually influencing” (207).
In the 21st century, Wood continues, “we are surrounded by objects that seem to address us and talk to us,” but at the same time, we are extending “our own capacities through technological tools,” virtual prosthetics that mediate experience (207). Contemporary artists thus “face an increasingly complicated territory for producing art, and considering where the artwork—if not a fixed entity—might begin and end” (208). Carston Höller’s installations use sculpture as prompts for behaviour: “for example, by inviting viewers to pass through multiple sets of electronic sliding doors, mirrored on one side, creating extreme disorientation,” as in his 2003 installation Sliding Doors, or “to whizz down vertiginous, twisting tube slides inside the museum or gallery,” as in his 2006-07 Test Site at Tate Modern (208-09). Animals have also been featured in Höller’s work. “In his 2010 exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, titled Soma, two herds of reindeer were housed in the large main exhibition hall, along with canaries, mice and flies, and a scattering of Höller’s giant toadstool sculptures” (209). Some of the reindeer were supposedly being fed on hallucinogenic mushrooms, and visitors to the show could “enter a raffle to stay the night and drink urine collected from the reindeers, though they could not be sure whether it was from the hallucinogen-fed ones or not” (209). By modelling the exhibition after a scientific experiment, Höller suggested that “through such an experience, art might open people’s minds more than drugs can” (209). “In these different ways, Höller uses test situations to force an awareness on his viewers of patterns of shared consciousness through forms of participatory feedback,” stimulating new insights “into the borderlines between our sense of self (I), community (We) and the built environment (It)” (209).
Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum, whose work “takes the form of objects, diagrams, drawings, text and sound used in relation to participatory actions within which individual experience is key,” experiments with art “as a connecting device that links sensory experience, sociability and language” (209-10). His project Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?, which began in 1994, invites viewers to take a rectangular steel object home for a month, in order to have “an artistic experience with it” (210). “During this period of time, the participant’s role is to decide how to use it, if at all—where it should be taken, what should be done with it,” Wood writes. “The results that emerge are radically open. The only requirement is that the participant sends documentation to be archived and made accessible on the project’s website” (210). “Basbaum’s interest in producing such an object as an artwork is to do with a desire to intervene in and reshape the basic protocols of relations between artist, object and participant, and to stimulate creativity,” she suggests (210).
Japanese artist Koki Tanaka “creates experimental situations and forms of improvisation that relate to processes of art-making,” sometimes using “everyday objects as prompts” (210). For instance, in his 2006 work Everything Is Everything Tanaka “documents a sequence of actions using found things: a ladder, a plastic jelly mould, some shaving foam and a broom are tested and played with, transforming them into props for micro-performances” (210). Wood doesn’t say, but this work must have been documented and circulated on video. More recently, since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Tanaka “has created patterns out of the activities of daily life, devising collective tasks,” getting people to collaborate on tasks he sets: making pottery, writing poetry, and so on (211). Part of his installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale “involved the staging of various collective actions, such as a night walk in the city with some fifty participants, or a discussion in which the topic was the participants’ own names” (211). But unlike Basbaum’s prop, or perhaps prompt,
Tanaka treats domestic utilities or construction tools as a means of interrupting ordinary movement when encountered out of context. His work sets up loops of apparent dysfunction or absurdity, while at the same time instigating new aesthetic diversions, and new kinds of interaction . . . where unexpected permissions, solicitations and suggestions are inferred from tasks or cheap, mass-produced things. (211)
Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen’s work is mainly presented in theatre spaces. “She has taken an unusual approach to the field of dance by occasionally casting things, rather than people, as performers,” Wood writes (213). She “considers the expanded potential of choreography towards an installation-like situation onstage,” as in her 2009 work Evaporated Landscapes, which is “a performance designed to be exclusively played by non-human actors, such as foam, fog, light and sound. It might equally sit in a gallery, were it not designed with a specific, event-like duration, so that it becomes a pictorial form of installation” (213).
French artist Philippe Parreno considers “the question of liveness as it emanates from electricity and digital technology,” dramatizing “an emerging world of artificial intelligence, as well as the merging of organisms and machines in biotechnology” (214). In his “actor-less performative installations,” such as 2013’s Anywhere, Anywhere Out of the World, “pianos play themselves, lights go on and off, and LEDs and neon lights flicker in time to music. Human instigators are absent, yet the show moves by an invisible force that shapes our movements and attention in turn, ghostly and mysterious” (214). American artist Ian Cheng pushes “this ceding of avant-garde improvisation strategies to computing” to a maximum, working “on the potential of a computer algorithm to have a ‘live’ presence that self-generates in unpredictable ways and becomes autonomous” (214). His 2016 project for the Liverpool Biennial, Emissary Forks for You, “was what he describes as a ‘mixed reality simulation,’ in which a virtual pet—a small dog, called Shiba Emissary—verbally commanded visitors to follow it throughout the exhibition” (214). Tablet computers were loaned to visitors so “they could interact with the virtual pet, in a kind of deductive narrative video game” (214). “For his exhibition at the Serpentine in London in March 2018, Cheng presented a digital life-form called BOB, interacting similarly,” Wood continues. “Using digital technology, Cheng creates a new form of smart liveness: digital organisms . . . assume a life and autonomy of their own, continuing to perform, grow and generate behaviours so long as they are connected to a supply of electricity, independently of either viewer or maker” (214).
The next chapter, “Acting on the infrastructure,” begins with Brazilian artist Renata Lucas, whose work “extends the idea that the material things around us in the street, or park, likewise serve as prompts and tools that influence our behaviour” (215). In her 2003 Crossing, for example, “she covered the entire centre of a large crossroads in Rio de Janiero with plywood, laid flat on the tarmac,” a “sculptural intervention [that] brought the crossroad’s shape and function to the foreground so that it became a kind of temporary stage for the cars passing, because it made a noise as each vehicle drove over it and also created a kind of plinth-like display of the passing traffic” (215). Lucas’s 2003 Failure “is a gallery-based installation comprised of multiple hinged sheets of plywood laid onto the floor, wall to wall,” resembling “an expanded version of a neo-concrete sculpture, with its geometric principles of composition” (215). But the installation “can be manipulated by visitors, initiating an ongoing series of live interactions with the site, and reconfigurations thereof” (216). In Lucas’s work, the “prescribed definitions of space, property and order” are disrupted, and we see “everyday activities” in a new way (216). “Ordinary people and things become actors and players on a giant, often surreal stage set,” Wood writes. “Through this way of looking at the world, its malleability and our potential for dreaming of changes come into view” (216).
The work of Argentinian-British artist Pablo Bronstein “also includes temporary sculptural forms, elements of architecture, furniture, video and live performance” (216). He is an excellent draughtsman, sometimes using an anachronistic reed pen to create “elaborately detailed renderings that in most aspects convincingly mimic historical precedents,” and his “playful, performative attitude underpins the other elements of his work, including his ability knowingly to try on period styles” (216). “But beyond his often camp or super-stylised choreography, in the work’s broader evolution from postmodern pastiche, Bronstein flaunts an exuberant confidence in the contemporary notion that the copy precedes the original, and in the Google-era interchangeability of images and authentic things,” Wood writes. “Such a quintessentially digital-age mindset is countered, nevertheless, by the eccentricity—and even unfashionability—of his plundered preferences” (216). At a surface level, Bronstein’s work masquerades “as classical, harmonious homage to past glories” more at home in the 17th century (217). “The work appears to be, and might perhaps be mistaken for, a form of revivalist complicity,” Wood notes. “But the artist’s appropriation fo these forms and styles derives from a fascination with their forbidden status within the realm of contemporary good taste” (217). In his 2010 Magnificent Triumphal Arch in Pompeian Colours, “a single performer dances and gestures elaborately towards a painted architectural fragment as a kind of monolith,” and in his 2011 The Birth of Venus, two dancers “in historical costumes and masks” move “within an architectural mise en scène” (217). In such works, Bronstein’s “complicity resembles a form of resuscitation rather than liveness, and is enacted in a highly performative manner, through different layers of simulation and drag” (217). In Plaza Minuet, which was presented “within a corporate lobby in Performa, New York, in 2007,” Bronstein “organised dancers to walk in diagonal patterns performing Baroque gestures with a nod to Voguing—movement that appears exaggerated against a context of pedestrian activity,” a performance that “offers up a queering of public space” (217).
The work of Australian artist Gerry Bibby “is fugitive in its restless movement across formats and situations, but he exhibits a consistent fascination with process and system, from both poetic and political perspectives” (217). “Rather than departing from the linguistic approach of conceptualism, he beings with concrete objects and systems that he finds in given contexts, and deduces the structures in which they are set up or that they imply,” Wood writes. In his work for Frieze Projects in London in 2013, Bibby “explored the history of labour and economic exploitation connected to the consumption of oysters in London” by planting “clusters of oyster shells in public areas of the fair, which acted as a record of a pre-fair performance, in which art fair workers and building staff were invited to eat oysters, making them participants in, rather than providers of, the decadent pleasures associated with art fairs” (217). For his 2014 project at The Showroom in London, “rather than creating an exhibition for the display space, Bibby worked behind the scenes with the organisation to explore potentially different work dynamics between the institution and the artists it supports” (217). He ended up rethinking the building’s heating system, researching ways to make it more efficient (219). This project might have appeared to be related to Hans Haacke’s or Michael Asher’s institutional critique, but Bibby’s interest was “less in deconstructive criticism . . . than in exploring the practical and psychological relations at play in such a set-up, as well as the social dimension of production in an art context” (219).
The next chapter, “Theatre of things,” discusses the way that “a number of contemporary artists continue to experiment with the more formal question of display as it relates to the gallery” (220). For instance, “Guatemalan-born artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa makes sculpture and performance that are influenced by his childhood experience of activist theatre in Guatemala, and that often have a set-like appearance, using temporary materials such as painted polystyrene” (220). He draws on folklore, conspiracy theories, mythology, magic, “and the Guatemalan civil war of 1960-96 is a recurring subject in his work, softened only by the at-times absurdity or humour” (220). For example, his 2014 installation Props for Eréndira “takes on the story from Gabriel García Márquez’s 1972 novella The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndia and her Soulless Grandmother, a story about a girl who is forced into prostitution by her grandmother after accidentally burning down the family home” (220-21). The installation, Wood continues, “appears as a stage-set for a drama that is about to unfold, but without live action. Vividly painted polystyrene sculptures of objects from the life of the protagonist are set against pink wallpaper in a static display” (221). “Ramírez-Figueroas’s work often presents art objects as curious fragments from a personal invented mythology,” Wood writes, but their significance is “always to be understood in relation to the conjuring of narrative,” if “often in unsettling or dissonant ways” (221).
Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx’s installations “comprise choreographies of found and handmade objects, manipulations of gallery lighting or framed shafts of sunlight, film and slide projections, pencilled graffiti text and marks, paper screens, and scattered card or paper shapes that the artist describes as ‘confetti’” (222). Tuerlinckx’s “environments become a theatre of things that compress and expand the viewer’s experiences of time, scale and light to heighten and disorientate perception” (222). “Her work is perhaps best described as a material manifestation of the patterns and processes of thought itself: she tries to bring mind and body into a unified space,” Wood writes. “In her gallery exhibitions, Tuerlinckx stages her material collections and arrangements in ways that destabilise our perception, opening up a sense of wonderment owing to our shifting understanding of them as three-dimensional artefacts and images” (222-23). In her 2014 “lecture opera” “That’s It!” Tuerlinckx “exaggerates this masquerading quality by turning an exhibition into a ninety-minute live theatre piece whose backbone is a slide show featuring her own personal archive of collage and drawing, interspersed with choreography, music, spoken texts and moving or manipulated objects” (223). According to Wood, “[t]he performative dimension of Tuerlinckx’s work is twofold: she both addresses the exhibition set-up and ritual, and creates exhibitions as a performed theatre-style event. The question of visual display remains central, but she experiments freely with the mode in which we might encounter it” (223).
Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga “brings her research in anthropology and literature to practice looking at colonial histories and Afrofuturism—a cultural movement featuring science fiction themes drawn from elements of black history—weaving together material from different sources” (223). Her installations incorporate found objects, archival documents, instruments and performances or spoken word (225). Her 2015 exhibition Kinjiketile Suite “staged a display of ephemera and archival photographs and documents related to the Maji Maji war in 1905-07, an armed revolt against German colonial rule in present-day Tanzania” (225). This material was “set within a plywood and sisal rope construction, interspersed with a collection of castor oil plants, and were accompanied by live readings by actors in English and Swahili” (225). The exhibition was “a stage-set for political narratives and a format for reordering how we might encounter them,” Wood writes. “It is a theatre of competing narratives; a discursive space in which objects are prompts to explore stories, issues, different voices that meet and clash. These perspectives might emanate from apparently neutral, natural things—a plant, for example—with a hidden historical association. But Kiwanga also allows space for the poetry and potency of absences” (225). According to Wood, Kiwanga’s approach “is emblematic of a kind of contemporary practice that makes little distinction between the texture and presence of objects and those of a live reading or action performed in their midst” (225). Her work “proposes the world of ideas, objects, actions and conversations to be in a state of circulating connections—not directionless, but open in its emphasis on how networks of meaning and relations are configured, and how the space of art not only connects with the external world, but breathes it in and out” (225). Kiwanga’s installations, Wood suggests, are “hyper-transitive”: “they are conduits to manifold competing global narratives. As a set of provisionally arranged prompts, they keep us moving to deduce a narrative, and are simultaneously puzzle-like and generative” (225). Her “mode of aggregate exhibition might be though of as an active space with a . . . discursive mode of spectatorship. Just as the role of the artist-as-author is evolving, so too is that of audiences” (226). Today, “the deductive role of the reader” imagined by Umberto Eco’s 1962 The Open Work or Roland Barthes’s 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” “is being enacted literally in contemporary art” (226).
The section ends with a summary—both of the section and the book itself. “This book has asked what we mean by performance within contemporary art, which has led us to the more fundamental question: how has the rise of performance since the 1950s changed the field of art?” Wood writes:
We have seen how the model of the artist has shifted away from the figure of the lone individual towards that of a collaborator engaged in experiments with sharing, reciprocal dialogue and networks of exchange. We have also noted how the status of the audience has been altered, transforming supposedly passive observers into participants. And our understanding of the art object as the locus of value and experience has been recast, too: its boundaries are constantly being challenged, and we encounter it in myriad forms. The work of art emerges, as a result, as an ever expanding notion. We have moved form a definition of performance as medium to a more pervasive understanding of the performative. New awareness of the ritual structures that regulate our relation to the work of art is also significant. The assumed behavioural codes of the gallery are changing with these changes of practice. How does performance show the framework of art as being “made”—whether of architecture, bodies or attention—as much as the object that it foregrounds? All of these questions, today, must be understood against a backdrop in which the broad notion of performance has become more and more important to both work and life. (226)
She notes that in the 1970s Lucy Lippard described performance as “the most immediate art form” at a moment when “performance offered a new alphabet of forms that foregrounded the patterns of attention, forms of community and dynamic potential for reconfiguration of relations within the art encounter” (226). The effects of these experiments, she continues, “are still in motion today, working their way through art’s DNA” (227). “Across the world, experiments with action, liveness and performance have enabled new representations of individuality, new shapes for social contact, and new parameters for encountering and understanding art, both born of and reacting against many different psychological, political and artistic contexts” (227).
The “new habits of assembly initiated by performance,” Wood continues, may have affected “the entire field of contemporary art, rendering the art encounter itself as a set of acts” (227). The act of exhibiting art, she suggests, “is understandable as a ritual that is underwritten by both ideological and theatrical protocols, behaviours and expectations” (227). Live art itself “becomes a metaphor for how life might be played” (227). “But if performance history supposedly has its origins in a high period of one-off, live events that foreground the palpable, often vulnerable living body, performance now is not only about liveness in that essentialist sense,” she continues. “From an emphasis on the real-time presence of bodies, performance has morphed into a metaphorical texture that represents a provisional state of things, suggesting the possibility of change and transformation through iteration—what I have been calling the ‘performative’” (227). The performative “serves as resistance to notions of possession,” and although it “might not be anti-market or anti-institutional in an explicit way,” today “liveness often injects a degree of unruly evasiveness that possibly allows for a more accurate representation of the conditions of life than something that is fixed and can be possessed in its entirety” (227).
“Performance,” Wood continues, “is pervasive within art of the twenty-first century. But if everything has become performative, what comes next? Perhaps the critical and revelatory dimension of performance, which initiated such profound shifts within the field of contemporary art in the first place, will push things to a limit” (227). Will performance “force awareness of the deceptive freedom and flexibility of contemporary art’s own frame?” (227). Wood cites, approvingly, the work of Suhail Malik, who has argued that contemporary art is “a limited genre with a very specific set of attitudes and practices” whose “apparent freedom, indeterminacy and cross-disciplinary character makes it all the more voracious in its consumption of other disciplines, but not neutral as an ideological structure” (227). “What is certain,” she continues, “is that our idea of art as it is represented in the gallery and museum is shifting at its base” (228).
“As the art world grapples with globalism and attempts to formulate new cultural narratives and network patterns, the canon is fundamentally in question,” Wood writes, suggesting that it’s no longer possible to assume “a universalist understanding of the artwork’s origin and meaning” (228). “On this point Western museums can learn from the approaches of indigenous art specialists such as Wanda Nanibush, curator and activist, who in working to ‘make space’ for the artistic legacy of her First Nation ancestors, makes the point that everyone, in fact, should ‘locate themselves from where they are speaking,’” Wood continues (228). Moreover, questions of value are hard to determine and raise important questions: “Have we been mistaking the object of art for what it symbolises socially? Have we been confounding the outcome with the act: art not as a thing but as a prompt to enlarge the imagination, art as a form of belief and communal value?” (229). In order to understand the object of art, then, “we must recognise the provisional nature of any ‘we’” (229).
“Performance represents a powerful way in which artists have tried to situate the work of art within an—often temporary—community of belief, to make the production of aesthetic meaning visible,” Wood concludes:
If we don’t try to understand the relations between people, materials and time within the experience of what we call art, we risk making assumptions that universalise particularities, prioritise certain forms of cultural power or simply ignore the way that meaning is produced for, between, and by people, even while the experience of this deep communion with a work of art might feel transcendent. (229)
Performance “registers the shifting state of contemporary reality—moving with it, or reshaping relations to change its course—to make representations of what it means now to live” (229).
I think that Wood’s survey of contemporary performance is more persuasive than Goldberg’s, although perhaps that’s because I’m getting more used to descriptions of and arguments about “performativity” rather than the more concrete term “performance.” I’m left curious, though, about private works—that is, performance works without a direct or explicit or unmediated audience—and about site-specific performance, which I would define, for my particular purposes, as phenomenological: an exploration of “a physical location—grounded, fixed, actual,” rather than an institutional or discursive location (Kwon 95). I will have to look elsewhere for explorations of those areas of inquiry. Perhaps that will be my next step in this project. It’s good to see the inclusion of so many performances that use walking (typically within a social aesthetics framework) in Wood’s book, though, and I could also look at more works of art that use walking as a methodology. Actually, I’ll probably end up doing both. And, happily, my reading is giving me a background in performance art. I mean, I no longer have to struggle to remember the name of the artist who had himself shot in the arm as a performance (Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971, and surprisingly there was an audience present). That’s a big step forward.
Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Now: Live Art for the 21st Century, Thames and Hudson, 2018.
Kwon, Miwon. “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” October, no. 80 (1997), pp. 85-110. https://www.jstor.org/stable/778809.
Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott, Verso, 2011.
Wood, Catherine. Performance in Contemporary Art, Tate, 2018.