“…the play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience…”
- William Shakespeare. Hamlet. Act 2 scene 2
Since the first decade of the twentieth century and further on, in the sixties and seventies, performance art has emerged as a medium of the artistic dissent, non-conformity and experimentation. It seems that the second decade of the twenty-first century is becoming one of those times when performance is again coming to the forefront of artistic exploration. Yingmei Duan is an artist in whose work many of the inherent features of art performance can be traced, a cosmopolitan, or rather international, artist in whose work Eastern and Western cultures merge in a unique way. She creates various types of performances, embracing seemingly contradictory attitudes toward authenticity, which lies in the very core of the debates around not only performance art but all so-called “post-modern” art. The aim of this essay is to contribute to the discussion on current performance art and, I believe, Yingmei's work provides an excellent example for such an enquiry. A recent exhibition at Hayward Gallery featured a few performance pieces of Yingmei.
The exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Hayward Gallery opened in September 2012. The title Art of Change: New Directions from China covered all possible meanings of the phrase, implying Chinese traditional philosophy; traditional oracle I-Chin, the book of changes; social changes in the country; changes in Chinese art; and the actual, often mutable and moving, exhibits. The live silkworms munching mulberry leaves (Liang Shaoji) and videos of fighting dogs running on treadmills strategically facing the opposite direction; the unidentifiable objects being thrown aloft by an invisible hand (Madein Company) and contemplative installations by Chen Zhen; the live performance by Xu Zhen which served as a cover piece for the exhibition brochure and the story of concrete blocks installation being produced for a specific cause by Madein Company – all spoke of the dynamic environment in which modern Chinese artists create and to whose life they contribute.
There was, however, a single piece that invited the viewer to enter a space within the space, an environment within the environment, a stage within the stage of the Hayward Gallery, on which all other pieces were put on display. That piece belonged to Yingmei Duan. It was entitled Happy Yingmei. It began with a short and narrow opening in the wall. One had to bend over (bow) in order to fit in and to be able to get through. The orifice itself and the action of coming through it evoked a number of both European and Oriental references:
Carol’s Alice in Wonderland and Collodi’s Pinocchio with their small secret passages into a different realm, the Oriental tradition of bowing low to the host of the place you visit, the humble attitude of service people, and so much more. The portal that was to transport the viewer into a different reality was not only indicated but worked accordingly, as immediately after entering the room one found oneself on stage. Or so it seemed, looking in the dimmed light of the room and the way it was set.
The write-up on the wall next to the passage announced that the artist based her performance on the Oscar Wilde fairy tale Happy Prince. The tale is of the golden statue of a prince who was happy and admired by his subjects when he lived, and whose memory was revered in the form of a precious gilded monument when he died. The statue of the prince, however, wasn't happy at all; he asked a swallow to be his messenger to the poor and deprived, and piece by piece he lost all gold and precious decorative stones when he sent the swallow on his mission to save the penniless. But it is impossible to guess the literary reference without the curatorial note at the entrance. It is a curious detail, as the fact makes the note itself a part of the action.
The story sets up a social context for the performance one is about to see, and when the viewer comes into the room it's not immediately obvious in what capacity s(he) is there: the swallow, the prince, the adoring public or all of the above. In the twilight environment with the twigs projected onto the wall where the spectators find themselves upon their entrance, their shadows are mixed with the shadow of the branches, amongst which, on a rock, someone is singing a wordless tune. Time seems to be slowing down as one is led by the melody and darkness. Mundane everyday reality is left behind the wall, though still vaguely audible through its tiny opening. The focus of one’s vision moves inside the room to the singing figure while the eyes adapt to the dimmed lighting. The happy Yingmei quietly rises and slowly approaches her audience coming as close as necessary to look into people's eyes. She then extends her arm and gives a member of the audience a small note. One, two, three... The song continues, she slowly retreats to her original position. One can leave or stay as long as s(he) likes, the more or less cyclical structure of performance only emphasizes the rhythm. My note read: “Go on internet and learn about the hardships of Japanese people after the earthquake,” or something of this nature. The spell seemed to be broken at first, as I attended the exhibition on the second of December, some nine months after the Japanese earthquake, but I kept on musing on the fact that hardships are still there despite that the media has stopped reporting the news. Obviously, the artistic performance reached its goal, to stir or touch the public. But how is this different from theatre?
I believe that a comparative study of art performance in the context of both art and theatre theory and history is yet to be written. The fact that artists themselves become performers doesn't help to define the specificity of the genre and doesn't change the fundamental nature of performance as such: a manifestation of human creativity where one’s body is the instrument of communication. It is fair for theatrical performance as well as for art performance. Umberto Eco states in his “Semiotics of Theatrical Performance:”
I think (and I have elaborated this point elsewhere) that the elementary mechanisms of human interaction and the elementary mechanisms of dramatic fiction are the same. This is not a witty idea of mine: from Goffman to Bateson and from the current researches in ethnomethodology to the experiences of a Palo Alto group (think also of Eric Berne's behavioral games models in Games People Play) everyday life is viewed as an instance of theatrical performance. This finally explains why esthetics and criticism have always suspected that theatrical performances were instances of everyday life.
It is not theatre that is able to imitate life; it is social life that is designed as a continuous performance and, because of this, there is a link between theatre and life (Eco, 1977: 113).
Although confusing the cause and effect, Marinetti, probably intuitively feeling the power of live improvisation, unrestricted by formalities, which dates back to folk tradition, and later to the traditions of the street and cabaret theater, considered variety theatre a foundation of his futuristic Synthesis performances. He counterposed it to stale established theatrical practices and thought that it “is lucky in having no tradition, no masters, no dogma” (Goldberg, 1996: 17). Just like dramatic performance, art performance requires physical and emotional endurance and an understanding of structure and composition. It is in parallel to acting exercises by Stanislavsky and Meisner that Marina Abramović’s performance art has grown. In fact the photo compilation of Marina's Italian works published in 2012 is titled The Abramović Method, as if giving a nod to the old master of stage echoing the term “Stanislavsky method.”
Yingmei Duan was a pupil of Abramović. In fact, after becoming an engineer, she began her artistic practice as a painter in Beijing's East Village and then switched to performance while studying with Marina in Germany at the Hochschle fuer Lildende Kuenste Braunschweig. Duan's appreciation of structure, and thus composition, is evident in her work. Answering Mark Rainey's interview question about her engineering past, she said: “I believe my engineering background lead me to do research into performance today. I also feel that mathematics still helps me understand art” (Duan, 2011: 1). She adds: “There are different forms of performance, for example theatre, dance and fine art. I love doing performances but not always talking about what is performance art. The audience has the freedom to decide” (Duan, 2011: 1). Both statements are quite revealing about artist's values and methods, as one who feels that mathematics is helpful for an understanding of art is supposed to be keenly aware of the importance of structure, relationships and interactions, all three being fundamental components of a successful performance. Seeing action and not description as a core feature of performance is also a significant qualifier of the artistic attitude. She is also clear about the role she attributes to her audience: “freedom to decide.” Although allowing for the viewer's freedom to decide, Yingmei employs a multitude of theatrical means to make her performance effective.
The stage is set in such a way as to ensure viewers' immediate participation. Both the entrance and the proportions of the room imply a different reality, a specific moment in time and space. Initial positioning of the viewers on stage, rather than in an auditorium, ensures their immediate involvement in action, even if this action is mere observation. Capturing her audience in this manner, Yingmei then sets to perform her story: the rhythm of her movements, the sound and the lighting are working in unison to straighten the illusion. You observe the artist and you see her giving her paper notes to others, and you feel it's now your turn, although, unlike in the theatre, one can leave at any moment: the implied extemporaneous nature of live art performance provides that “freedom to decide,” free of social considerations. Extemporaneity however is another component of art performance that is not compulsory. Below, is Jonas's Draw without Looking streaming performance.
During the recent post-show interview at Tate Modern, Joan Jonas, who is considered one of the most significant performance artists of the twentieth century, clearly expressed her preference for rehearsed performance (Jonas, 2013: n.p.).
Rehearsal as a working device is, by nature, ritualistic and based on repetition: repetition of action, whether voiced or silent, or a whole sequence of actions. Just as in any ritual, repetition has energy of its own which is transmitted by the artist to the viewer or participating audience. The power of repetition is one of the formative devices in art – any art, be it poetry, painting, music, or performance. By providing rhythms and patterns, repetition creates a field of common reference and thus a comfort for and of audience participation. In Ei Arakawa's installation-performance at A Bigger Splash exhibition at Tate in 2012, “painting is wanting” is repeated as a mantra by the artist's voiceover in the video recording of people painting. Marina Abramović’s performances are all based on repetition, starting from her famous knife act in the seventies, up to MoMa's The Artist is Present performance.
Linda Frye Burnham, an American art critic and an activist who founded High Performance magazine in 1978, entirely dedicated to performance art by visual artists, acknowledges the inherent difficulty of defining the genre. She gives it justice by positioning it in the realm of natural human communication, which, in my view, is one of the reasons for artists turning to performance as soon as they feel that art has become stale, over- commodified or endangered:
However you define it, there are traces of performance throughout art history, and historians are having fun mining as far back as the Renaissance for performance art by Bernini and da Vinci. While performance is actually the oldest form of communication, probably predating language itself, its contemporary phase is usually traced back to the turn of the century in Europe, in works by the Dada artists and the Futurists. Indeed, the ideas of those movements – eloquent responses to the birth of the 20th century: the age of machines, world wars, and mass communication – are still being exercised today (Burnham, 1986: 20).
One of the specific features of Yingmei Duan's performance Happy Yingmei is engaging cultural references as a starting point for her performance. Although addressing seemingly universal themes of compassion and responsibility, she turns to country-specific literary material: "I think live art is very strongly related to surroundings. Before I decide what to do for an exhibition/performance, I always spend a lot of time researching where it will take place. This encompasses the people, culture and surroundings of the new country I am in. All these different factors can influence me for making new work. I have spent a great deal of time traveling and am always inspired by the different countries I visit (Duan, 2011: 1).
Thus, a few theatrical conventions and devices were employed by Yingmei in her Happy Yingmei piece: use of a storyline in the form of literary reference, change of the spatial scale, set design, blocking of herself and her audience members, and acting, as Yingmei used her body just the same way as actors do: for representation of something that is not present. Although this topic would require a bit more involved discussion.
That being said, the second performance work, or rather the whole set of works, of Yingmei at the same exhibition, was of a completely different nature. It actually consisted of three performances. It was acted by hired help or volunteers in the next room, presumably on Yingmei’s instructions, which amounted to a version of “directorial notes.”
Marina Abramović. Green Dragon. 1988-89.
Almost as a direct quotation of Abramović’s Green Dragon performance settings, however of different aesthetics and purpose, a set of large shelves was attached to the walls of the room.
Yingmei Duan. In Between. 2011-12.
On one of those shelves someone was lying still on her side under the blanket, presumably sleeping. The levels on which the shelves were attached to the walls varied, but weren't higher than average human height. There was an opening in the one of the shelves, which enticed some viewers to stick their heads into it, thus creating a visual effect of the body put into some medieval inquisitorial device, or in any case the effect of the head separated from the body. These works were entitled Sleeping, in Between [sic] and Patience. Unfortunately, only the Sleeping piece was performed at the time when I was there.
According to the exhibition booklet, Yingmei had set out to explore the concept of “wei wu wei, 'action without action'.” This philosophical principal of Taoism, although having inspired many from the 6th century BC on, is of Chinese origin and by this very fact brings to mind the topic of authenticity, which immediately resonates with a stroke of Yingmei's
artistry: it is not Yingmei herself that performs here. This multilayered enquiry into both a concept of Lao Dzu’s, deeply rooted in Chinese culture, and authenticity in general, breeds a different set of questions. What is the significance of absence in this context, as well as fundamentally in human experience? Do the viewer’s actions, such as playing with a controlled environment, contradict the premise of exploring inaction? Can directing the action of hired help in these circumstances be considered presence? In a way the artist's enquiry seems diametrically opposed to the artists is present concept. In the case of Yingmei Duan at Hayward Gallery it was an especially striking experience, as the artist was in another room performing Happy Yingmei. To what extent does a piece of performance art branch off into participatory group activity? Pertaining to the same line of inquiry, some different questions were asked by Claire Bishop in her article in October (Bishop, 2012: 91-112) which discusses a few examples of “delegated” performance where the actual performers' personal or social identity becomes a crucial part of the work. All of them have some social or political messaging and are reminiscent by their nature of Avant-garde performances aiming to create social awareness. Bishop groups them into three categories: the first one is structured by the artists who employ disenfranchised social groups for a minimum wage to participate in some scripted or prescribed action; for the second kind, real experts or people knowledgeable in a certain field, are employed to provide a controlled context for the viewer; and the third one is defined as a performance for film or video, when a larger cast is deemed necessary. She doesn't discuss, however, the type of performance where the hired performers are essentially filling the role of the artist him or herself, as with Duan's Sleeping performance. This role doesn't require acting of any kind, just a bodily presence. A similar type of performance happened in MoMa at Marina Abramović’s retrospective when her earlier performances were re-enacted by hired actors and dancers, highlighting yet another line of enquiry: re-enactment.
This practice was discussed by Amelia Jones in her review: “Artistic Re-enactments and the Impossibility of Presence.” Jones questions the same fundamental notion of presence, despite the artistic and curatorial claims:
“Presence” as commonly understood is a state that entails the unmediated co- extensivity in time and place of what I perceive and myself; it promises a transparency to an observer of what “is” at the very moment at which it takes place. But the event, the performance, by combining materiality and durationality (its enacting of the body as always already escaping into the past) points to the fact that there is no “presence” as such. I felt this paradox strongly as a visitor at The Artist is Present. This paradox haunts performance studies and other discourses (such as art history) seeking to find ways to historicize and theorize — to exhibit and sell — live performance art (Jones, 2011: 18).
Here Jones is discussing and probing multiple levels of perception from anthropological and philosophical to artistic to commercial. She notes the “paradox” of presence declared vs. presence felt. This is a phenomenon on which theatre has thrived for millennia, and in which art performance (and even more so, art criticism) is not very well versed, as, historically, the latter deals with artifacts and documentation rather than live art. Fortunately, Stefanie Rosenthal knows better, and the title of the exhibition, Art of Change, nipped the possible interpretation problem in the bud. It also helped to bring art performance into a general structure of arts as a mutable part of our mutable life, which arguably is “designed as a continuous performance” (Eco, 1977: 113).
It would be pertinent to recall Eco's discourse on theatrical events:
[A founder of American semiotics, C. S. Peirce] once wondered what kind of sign could have been defined by a drunkard exposed in a public place by the Salvation Army in order to advertise the advantages of temperance. He did not answer this question. I shall do it now. […] As soon as he has been put on the platform and shown to the audience, the drunken man has lost his original nature of "real" body among real bodies. He is no more a world object among world objects-he has become a semiotic device; he is now a sign. A sign, according to Peirce, is something that stands to somebody for something else in some respect or capacity-a physical presence referring back to something absent. What is our drunken man referring back to? To a drunken man. But not to the drunk who he is, but to a drunk. The present drunk — insofar as he is the member of a class — is referring us back to the class of which he is a member. He stands for the category he belongs to. There is no difference, in principle, between our intoxicated character and the word "drunk” (Eco, 1977: 110).
This passage not only concisely defines the fundamental principle of performance as such, but by doing so, automatically includes all its manifestations into one and the same framework. Yingmei Duan's work at Hayward Gallery seemed to invoke all the questions that one may ask while exploring performance as a phenomenon of human creative activity.
“Stay in the moment” and “be present” are mantras of actor's training. “Staying in the moment” and “being present” are fundamental skills to learn if one is to feel alive and not just go through the motions, according to Eastern Zen tradition. It seems that nowadays, with Eastern and Western philosophies, if not merging, at least experiencing a wave of mutual penetration again, performance as a means of “being in the moment” is again becoming a medium of artistic curiosity and exploration.
Even back in 1985 Linda Frye Burnham called for filling the gap of knowledge existing in understanding the differences and similarities between dramatic and art performance: “The history of the theater in the 20th century is every bit as experimental as the history of art. The time has come for the exponents of each field to learn each other's histories, especially critics, whose job it is to comment upon the mélange that performance and theater have made” (Burnham, 1986: 36). Up to this day there is very little work that has been done on the subject, however fluid it may be, thus maintaining the existence of the grey area between art and theatre criticism. Perhaps performance acts of the quality of Yingmei's will stir art and theatre historians and critics into paying a closer look at all manifestations of performance as ways of art and life.
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*The article was first published in 2013