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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Naming the Rose as Rose: On defining Performance as art



Naming the Rose as Rose:
On defining Performance as art





Kankhowa’s Make Easy Guide Book: Learn Performance Art in Just two Days

Majority of the high school and college students take help of some cheap guide books to appear the examinations. They are cheap in all terms: in market price, in availability at the second hand book stores, near Photostat shops and also in the approach on what they are prepared. One can find similar guide books for household recipes, to learn a new language in just ten days, herbal medicinal treatments to become a family doctor at most ease and even to have sex. Thousands of types are there like, 10 techniques to have sex, make your sexual life healthy and enjoyable, physical benefits of having sex, lessen your stress by having sex and so on. Make easy learner’s guidebooks are available in all segments, for gardening, for cookery, for childcare, for music, for yoga, for car driving, for pets, and yes, for a change of the society also. In the days of our bachelors in literature, we consulted notes from a much commercially popular writer named Ramji Lal, which were almost prohibited in the classrooms. Most of the students took his notes but never uttered the writer’s name. In Art History or History of Art, a book played similar role, by Edith Tomory, what we called “laal book” as the cover was in ‘laal’ i.e.-red. A similar book, which is cheap, which is guidebook for students and learners, which is more direct and explained in the most easiest manner was in my mind for the new comers in Performance Art.

The thought might sound funny but interesting to realize how such a subversive idea sprouted in my mind. Most importantly when I sit here to write for the justification of the idea, many serious issues spring up as the anticipating factors, and they might address broader areas like: art and pedagogy, emerging interest in live art or performance art, the changing paradigms in contemporary art practice, the lack of a comprehensive methodical attempt towards art writing, the absence of a standard model of contemporary art history and so on.
Daumiere's Spectators

The need can be realized easily as we all face almost similar situations whenever we attend a performance art festival, workshop or public art event where many young artists and practitioners as well as a large number of diverged spectators assimilate. For many ‘it is boring’. Many speak out, ‘we understood nothing’. ‘We got no clue what was it all about’, this is also a common claim that we hear most frequently.  

Despite of Performance, as a whole, being the oldest evidential form(s), despite of many practical sprouting in last several decades, performance as art or precisely Performance Art so to coin is still a newer form. Perhaps among all the practices Performance Art is the only form of art that is obligated to define itself every time in a new way.
Speaking again, performance art is an area where the definition alters itself according to the circumstance: the time and space demands a new definition. Among all other disciplines performance as art is a unique one since it has to define itself at every step, and each time the confrontation is novel and fresh. Somehow it pretends with a symptom of forgetfulness towards history. Standing in front of a painting hung upon a gallery wall a spectator keeps in mind that it has a long history behind. But in case of a performance by an artist the same spectator forgets the same might have a history, even much longer than that of a painting. He or she forgets that an action under certain circumstance signifies something. Exactly here tracing back of events in history becomes important.



Where the Bottle Stops Spinning

On this very ground we are forced to re-assume that the primitive cave paintings from which the visual history of artistic journey tends to begin were not mere paintings as we know today by that term, but some remains of performative events; may be some rituals. Richard Schechner also had to mention the Paleolithic ‘art’ at the outset of his series on Performance Theory[1].

Tracing back is an essential task of a historian. It is same for a research scholar, archivist or even for a sincere onlooker. Holding the strongest history in all senses, ‘Performance Art’ still feels like an orphan: as if it is very difficult to trace back in memory. In parts if it has some certain definitions in formal aspects or in conceptual propositions but further difficulties lie in conceptualizing  it as an independent discipline. In every phase of the performance art it is looked as a new intervention in the history, where as it might not. It is interesting when Lauri Anderson states her feelings in this regard: "As a young artist in the '70s New York downtown scene, I was pretty sure that we were doing everything for the first time, that we were inventing a new art form. It even had a clumsy new-sounding name "Performance Art", and critics and audiences struggled to define this "new" hybrid that combined so many media and broke so many rules about what art was supposed to be. So when RoseLee Goldberg's book Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present was first published in 1979, I was completely amazed to find that what we were doing had a rich and complex history."[2] 

Many people tried to trace back the history of performance art differently. Joseph Jarman[3] says,"We were doing performance art as far back as 1965, just not calling it that.” Likewise Jerry Saltz[4] emphasizes the early 90s: “… 'Untitled' is a time machine that can transport you to 1992, an edgy moment when the art world was crumbling, money was scarce, and artists like Tiravanija were in the nascent stages of combining Happenings, performance art, John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and the do-it-yourself ethos of punk. Meanwhile, a new art world was coming into being.”
Jerry Saltz

So when Performance Art was started in India? There might not be any definitive answer. There could be a satisfaction if we find out exactly when and who used the term 'Performance Art’ for the first time, but being a term borrowed from western world it also remained obscure. Thus this becomes a spin the bottle game, spin the bottle and point out the evidence where the bottle stops spinning.

Then there comes another inevitable term that is "Performativity" which would make the situation even blurred. There might me many situations and circumstances that were performative, if not performance. Sometimes a performance is a Performance Art because it is named so, and it is named so because it involves the subject of an individual artist or for it is situated in certain 'art-space'. In that way the performance of a roadside juggler differs from that of a performance artist.

Now tracing the term 'performativity', again a rather subjective coining, one can find it anywhere and everywhere. If saying about performance art we go back to the action painting of Jackson Pollock then in Indian context we could go to Ramkinkar Baij. Coming out of the studios and placing the larger than life forms in environment and creating them in a process of throwing the concrete creating a rough tactile surface was nothing but a performance. If Goldberg recalls photographer Richard Avedon saying about performativity of Rambrandt's portraiture[5] then it might give us liberty to go back to Raja Ravi Verma in India, in the same context and looking at the Actorly presence of all the figures under a dramatic set up.



[1] … I looked into pre-written history, drawn to Paleolithic “cave art” of southwestern France and northern Spain. I studies similar phenomena from Africa, the Americas, and Asia. I soon saw that this was not illustrative art; that the caves were not galleries for the exhibition of visual arts but theaters, sites of ritual enactments. I assumed that these rituals were not only efficacious, but that they also gave pleasure to the performers (and, if there were any, the spectators). Of course, I could not listen to the music or witness the dances or storytelling enactments that may have taken place in the Paleolithic sites. These were silenced centuries ago. But I believed that these sites could only be understood performatively. [Richard Schechner, “Preface to the Routledge Classic Edition”, Performance Theory, p. X]
[2] Roselee Goldberg, ‘forewords’, Performance: Live art since the 60s, Thames & Hudson, p. 6
[3] Joseph Jarman, see John Bloner, Jr."Art Ensemble of Chicago", http://www.2ndfirstlook.com/2013/01/art-ensemble-of-chicago.html
[4] Jerry Saltz, "Ask an Art Critic", New York magazine, also available in: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/ask-an-art-critic3-15-11.asp
[5] "According to photographer Richard Avedon who insisted that “all portraiture is performance," even Rembrandt, "must have been acting when he made his own self-portraits.... Not just making faces, but always, throughout his life, working in the full tradition of performance."
Roselee Goldberg, Performance: Live art since the 60s, Thames & Hudson, p. 10


Santhal Family, Ramkinkar
M F Hussain
Somnath Hore, Engraving, Tebhaga Series

It is apparent to imagine Rambrandt enacting himself while making his self portraits: an actorly Rambrandt at action. Other than the action painting events and the ‘action’s of the Dadaists, coming down to the modernist period of Indian art, it was definitely a performative gesture when Ramkinkar Baij brought out the larger than life forms to the outdoor environments from the studios. Additional to this bringing out, the throwing of kangkar, small stone pieces and concrete to an armature in the making of the classic sculptures like “Call of the Mill” or “Santhal Family”, the action of throwing, the aspect of making the red-earth-stone a part of the sculptural body, exaggerating of the bodily movements and forms, certainly indicates some performance. More than the sketches by Somenath Hore in his “Tebhaga’s Diary”, the act of sketching while the peasant’s movement in Tebhaga was going on, could be understood as performances. A man walking barefoot, holding a long brush like a walking stick with long beard, M F Hussain, was constantly into an action: into nothing but a performance. 



These are evidences in and around the ‘art world’ known to us. Other than that, the women protesting Nude against the Indian Army in Manipur might be the strongest striking performance in the century. Ashutosh Poddar quite rightly said, ‘one can call Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March a performance art’[1]. But as today’s common understanding those are not Performance Art as such. Why they are not, we shall come up with two sets of mode, primary and secondary, to answer this question. Here is the first set of Primary Modes:



[1] Ashutosh Potdar, "Performance Art and Body: Inder Salim & the politics of his performance", http://indersalim.livejournal.com/, http://artkaravan.wordpress.com/category/inder-salim/  

Dharitri Boro giving a hair-cut at public

Dharitri Boro giving a hair-cut at public

Intervention as an indispensable mode

Performance art always comes up with a sense of intervention or interference. To understand this let us compare a roadside juggler juggling and a performance artist doing the same. We study and analyze all the aspects of a traditional juggler juggling roadside, let us assume the roadside is a traditional space for him, and among the aspects actually we speak of everything related to a performance: the form, the sensibility, the management of time and space, the artistic skill, and of course about spectatorship. But at the end of the day it is not performance art. It might sound vague or ridiculous but somehow true that it is performance but not performance art because it is not done by an ‘Artist’: an artist by self proclamation, or by some institutional recognition system. It is performance but not considered under that specific category what we frequently call as ‘performance art’ today because it is still a part of certain convention or tradition. But when the same thing is done by an ‘artist’, who is not a part of that tradition by nature the gesture is read as an intervention. So the matter of intervention is an essential element in performance art. Thus a vegetable vendor shouting in an artificially produced vocal sound and roaming around the corners of the colony might bear some of the performative characteristics, but they are not performance art. Further on, if someone, being in a traditional space doing his regular job, tries to extend the practice in a certain direction and pushes a beyond-the-boundary sense or meaning to the action it proclaims the potential of being a performance art. But unfortunately it remains non-art in most of the cases and here lies some debates what we shall raise later on. 

Pratul Dash at R. A. P. E. 2012, Zoo, Guwahat

Artist be(com)ing the subject

The intervention happens when the artist stands within the time-space as a ‘subject’. The artist is not a role-player of some ‘other’ but of the ‘self’. In fact ‘speaking of own’, the tendency of it is the prime insist behind performance art practices. The persistence of resounding own voice remained the core element in performance art. Exactly here lies the reason why performance art never occurs as a mere formalistic practice. We tried to explain the formal aspects of the art but the explanation stops at the questions of the artist’s subjectivity. 
the Disposable Theatre troupe of Kankhowa, mapping site at Kathmandu
Space as discipline

This segment is a combined notion of the above mentioned two characteristics. Firstly a piece of performance art intervenes by negating the traditional or conventional receptivity, by destroying the customary predictability; secondly the performance artist intervenes with his subjective assertions. Thus here is a collapse of space and re-construction of an atmosphere. It tends to become a part of a certain discipline defined by none but itself. By its very existence within certain disciplinary thought process, being reflective in certain transactions it claims itself as a performance art.      

And here is the set of Secondary Modes:
Inder Salim at Harkat, at MATI, Lado Sarai
Negation

Negation is a common tendency amongst the performance artists. This negation or denial is seen in multiple things. A performance artist works in unconformity: mostly s/he denies entering the gallery space, denies making a ticketed show, refuses to role-play or to create a make-belief game and very precisely, refuses to perform. Here onwards the performance artist has a problem with the performing art traditions and claims it to be fake[1].  A performance artist clearly states that it is not theatre or like any other performance with showmanship. Here onwards the performance artist has problem with all sort of object-making, thus the object hood of a concept is negated. On the same extension, the product-quality that the commercial consideration defines is questioned and rejected. 

Thus it is frequently seen that performance art starts when the artist stops performing: when a painter stops painting, when a singer stops singing and an actor acting.


[1] In this stretch we can remember what Marina Abramović, the self-proclaimed "grandmother of performance art", says about her hatred towards theatre. While promoting a retrospective of her work that was going to take place in New York's Museum of Modern Art she says, "To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else's life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It's a very different concept. It's about true reality."
  


Body as a primary tool

The body of the performer is another key area where the definition of performance art is dependent upon. They use the body as a primary tool[1]. Though many props or elements may occur in the act but the body remains central. Perhaps it happened in the 70s in western world and remained the most sustainable aspect in the tradition(s).



Naming the Rose as Rose

Noteworthy that, all the aforementioned modes or characteristics could be found, either in whole or in bits and pieces, in conformist practices. But they are not recognized as performance art in contemporary terms. It is an invisible custom that to receive the recognition there is a declaration either by the artist(s) or by the organizing or patronizing agency or even by a bystander spectator. In this way we can say a rose is a rose only when you name it. Marina Abramovic[1] states it right when she says, “If you're a baker, making bread, you're a baker. If you make the best bread in the world, you're not an artist, but if you bake the bread in the gallery, you're an artist. So the context makes the difference”. Perhaps that is why the Long March by Gandhi or the women’s protest in Manipur remained non-art as performance.


[1] Conversation: Marina Abramovic, BY JEFFREY BROWN  April 8, 2011 at 2:06 PM EDT. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/conversation-marina-abramovi/  also see: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/marina-abramovic-the-artist-is-present-sundance/#_ 
Gandhi at Long March
This way, several aspects can be explored in judging a performance art and thus some ways of articulation what performance art is can be put forward. In all the cases a sense of breakthrough is felt and that is why a fixed definition is difficult. The form denies itself for a fixation of definition. It remains ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ every time. Under this consideration it is really difficult to define a pedagogical method to teach or train performance art under some disciplinary space. Instead of making and definition and then seeing a piece of work, that is why, it is always, available as a method, and also reasonable to see the piece first and then appreciate it. In the methods of appreciation some facets might occur that are feasible enough to construct a definition within the work of art. A model for pedagogy could be developed in the notion that only a space should be provided to the practitioners to explore: to speak aloud, to come up with some action with subjectivity. A granted space for anarchy is sought within the discipline(s). 


Samudra Kajal Saikia
New Delhi
Mobile: +91-9811375594




[1] … I looked into pre-written history, drawn to Paleolithic “cave art” of southwestern France and northern Spain. I studies similar phenomena from Africa, the Americas, and Asia. I soon saw that this was not illustrative art; that the caves were not galleries for the exhibition of visual arts but theaters, sites of ritual enactments. I assumed that these rituals were not only efficacious, but that they also gave pleasure to the performers (and, if there were any, the spectators). Of course, I could not listen to the music or witness the dances or storytelling enactments that may have taken place in the Paleolithic sites. These were silenced centuries ago. But I believed that these sites could only be understood performatively. [Richard Schechner, “Preface to the Routledge Classic Edition”, Performance Theory, p. X]
[2] Roselee Goldberg, ‘forewords’, Performance: Live art since the 60s, Thames & Hudson, p. 6
[3] Joseph Jarman, see John Bloner, Jr."Art Ensemble of Chicago", http://www.2ndfirstlook.com/2013/01/art-ensemble-of-chicago.html
[4] Jerry Saltz, "Ask an Art Critic", New York magazine, also available in: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/ask-an-art-critic3-15-11.asp
[5] "According to photographer Richard Avedon who insisted that “all portraiture is performance," even Rembrandt, "must have been acting when he made his own self-portraits.... Not just making faces, but always, throughout his life, working in the full tradition of performance."
Roselee Goldberg, Performance: Live art since the 60s, Thames & Hudson, p. 10

[6] Ashutosh Potdar, "Performance Art and Body: Inder Salim & the politics of his performance", http://indersalim.livejournal.com/, http://artkaravan.wordpress.com/category/inder-salim/ 
[7] In this stretch we can remember what Marina Abramović, the self-proclaimed "grandmother of performance art", says about her hatred towards theatre. While promoting a retrospective of her work that was going to take place in New York's Museum of Modern Art she says, "To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else's life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It's a very different concept. It's about true reality."


[9] Conversation: Marina Abramovic, BY JEFFREY BROWN  April 8, 2011 at 2:06 PM EDT. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/conversation-marina-abramovi/  also see: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/marina-abramovic-the-artist-is-present-sundance/#_ 

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