Performance Art

Performance art is hard to describe as it does not follow any rules, there are however a few guidelines that can help to define this medium. To begin with it features the artist themselves, usually with props and sometimes accompanied by others. It can include any combination of light, video, sound or other art materials as part of the piece. It could be considered to be similar to theatre but unlike traditional theatre there is no definite narrative. Instead it  is composed as a sequence of events that although are generally predetermined can also become improvised and even sometimes dependent on the interaction and reaction of the audience. A key part of performance theatre is the use of symbolism which is the basis of most pieces.

Performance art is primarily used as a mouthpiece to convey an opinion, challenge perceptions, oppose a political view point or to generally provoke a reaction. Although aspects of Performance Art date back to the early 19th and 20th century within music, art, poetry and burlesque it was in the 1960’s when political unrest arose that it was truly embraced. Women in particular used it as a podium to break down the barriers surrounding their gender and sexuality, often displaying their naked body or in the instance of Yoko Ono have members of the audience cut off her clothes until they got to her bra.

An excellent example of symbolism within performance art is the piece ‘Violent’ by Sinead O’Donnel. Here she uses a stack of plates that tower above her head and then crash to the floor as a symbol of our fragile lives. She used the series ‘Violent’ to explore the use of the word and how saying it can have as much of an impact as an act of violence itself. She describes how for her it was “a way of depicting a past experience of domestic violence combined with living in a society surrounded by violence”

Sinead has a varied educational background which covers sculpture, textiles, visual performance and time based practices. This has no doubt added depth and to her work but it was further enriched by her travelling which she feels has left her with broad cultural perceptions. Sinead has gone on to use these skills and experiences to become a reputable performance and installation artist using photography, film, text and collage to record her work . She explores the relationships between parallels by initiating scenarios that highlight and challenge their differences.

Although Sinead is successful in her field and explores subjects and issues that are of interest to me I find a lot of her work too hard to read and so not all that enjoyable. I think that I don’t fully appreciate performance art as I don’t like to be kept waiting for something to happen which is a part of a lot of the pieces I have seen so far. I prefer to have a noticeable direction, more of a flow to be able to feel entertained otherwise I am easily bored. Because of my dislike for performance art I decided to challenge myself, making it my mission to find at least one piece that I did like. In the end I managed to find two although the second was a piece I had already been made aware of but had not previously looked at it in the context of performance art. They are definitely different from what I had already been researching and are perhaps borderline as to whether they fit within the performance art category but I feel that they have qualities that justify them being a part of this art form.

This 6 hour piece from Hip-Hop rapper Jay Z took place in a New York art gallery which was then filmed and edited into a nearly 11 minute study of the performance. When talking about the video entitled ‘Picasso Baby an Art Performance’ the rapper describes how when performing on stage he takes in the crowds energy whereas in the close proximity of the art gallery and with the interactive nature of the project it is more of an exchange of energies. He goes on to say how he went into the performance with no expectations and with the attitude of whatever happens, happens. In this way he is very similar to many other performance artists who like to use improvisation as part of their work. I think what I most enjoyed about it was how it welcomed interaction with the audience, using their presence to dictate the outcome. Unlike the other other art performances I have seen so far it appeared to have a more positive and upbeat atmosphere and by the end everyone involved seemed to have absorbed a part of this atmosphere, taking it with them as they left. My understanding is that the reason behind Picasso Baby an Art Performance was an attempt to re emerge the boundaries between hip-hop and art. Jay Z talked about the piece saying how when hip hop was underground artists and hip hop artists would party together “the truth is, as far as hip-hop and arts, we were like cousins” but then as art moved into the galleries and hip-hop moved onto the radio the two separated. Overall I thought it was a talented piece of work that brought together people of all ages, races, backgrounds and people from various industries including fashion and film. It gave them all a common purpose and they appeared to find it an uplifting and positive experience.

This next piece was instigated as a social experiment by The Washington Post about perception taste and priorities. They placed famous violinist Joshua Bell, who had a sell out concert in Boston with seats selling at $100 each just two days before, in a busy subway. He played some of the most intricate pieces ever written on his $3.5 million violin whilst thousands of people hurried by, too busy to stop and listen. While a few people gave him a minute or so of their time the most attention he received was from a 3 year old boy who was then hurried along by his mother. In total he received a mere $32 from just 20 people. I consider this to be performance art as it not only makes a powerful statement about our society and how easily context can change our perception but it does it by proving it’s own point. As is the nature of performance art it would have definitely changed the way many people think and possibly treat others by challenging what they consider to be the norm – I am sure that the people involved now view buskers in a whole new light. Not only was it effective at making a statement, the music itself was beautiful to listen to and in my opinion was only enhanced by the contrast of the setting it was played in.


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