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Monash University Museum of Art | MUMA 26 April – 6 July 2013
I always find it refreshing to see art so clearly and unashamedly articulated as political. Direct Democracy an exhibition at MUMA was full of politically potent works calling our attention to both the necessity of, and the inherent problematic nature of a notion we cherish in the west – democracy. I was taken in by many of the works no holds barred politics. Natalie Bookchin’s 18 channel video installation Now he’s out in public and everyone can see (2012) was one example. Here one stands amidst multiple screens of video bloggers simultaneously discussing a prominent ‘black male’ who I never worked out the identity of. The chat room? The democracy of social commentary? Bookchin created an engaging and effectively confusing audio/visual assault of identity based chatter which held me for some time.
Whilst many of the works on display engaged me for much longer than my sometimes short attention span allows, my personal joy lay in the video of the previously live performance art of Mike Parr. Video footage of the sewing of Mike Parr’s face and the branding of his leg in an earlier live work, which took place at MUMA in 2002, had me riveted. Close the Concentration Camps was originally performed live by Parr to bring attention to the cruel treatment of asylum seekers in detention in the early 2000s. I find it incredibly depressing that today, over ten years later this work’s potency lies in its relevance to contemporary policies surrounding asylum seekers. Still holed up in indefinite detention by our governments, asylum seekers exist in camps that become places where acts of self-harm and daily suffering are something we may vaguely hear about, but rarely if ever see evidence of. Parr’s original live work sought to bring our attention to such notions of suffering and injustice, which were and still are, occurring in Australia. Our detention centres are truly ‘locked down’ when it comes to the media, with government legislation censoring any images or stories from the inside that people attempt to release. An act such as Parr’s public lip sewing in 2002 attempted to scream attention for those who are made invisible to us by the state.
Twelve years later what was on exhibition was not a reenactment of the original live work, but screened video footage. It was well placed alongside a selection of letters written by Parr to a colleague whilst planning the work. Also sections of text chosen from a report written in 2000 on the conditions of detention centres entitled Not the Hilton played on another screen. Essentially we were viewing an edited and recontextualised documentation of the original work, framed by the curators as such. The Performance Art genre of which Parr has been a key part of, can be considered limited in its live audience reach. It is not unusual for a live work such as those presented by Parr, to be viewed by a small and specific audience. Close the Concentration Camps as part of Direct Democracy illuminates how the resulting documentation of live art becomes an important part of the bigger picture with its capacity to act as an important historical, cultural and political reference to a time and place. In the absence of images of the aslyum seekers he was showing support for, Parr created within the institution of art, images providing a direct reference to a series of controversial political events. Years later his work gives a visual reference to the time and place of thesse political events. He creates ‘stand ins’ for visual images which were not part of the media coverage or the public discourse of the time.
This documentation of his work remains as an artistic and political artefact with the artefact bound to the historical event it refers to. John Berger muses in his famous essay ‘Uses of Photography’ that the use of photography must be to create a memory that is socially and politically alive. As documentation, the recontextualised and exhibited moving images resulting from Parr’s original work, have the capacity to encourage an engagement with the social and political memory of the early 2000s.
I had a flutter of great excitement when I realised the footage from Mike Parr’s original live work was on display at MUMA. Having missed the original live piece, this video work had its own intensity and capacity to ‘move’. Close up images of Parr’s face being sewn and the clarity of the audio of his utterings of pain and discomfort were unsettling. I wonder if such proximity would’ve been possible at the original live event? Having been allowed a new site and a new format, the installation of the video encouraged a recalling of the political and historical period of the original work. It held form as an important artefact pointing to the past, but also cried out about the politics of today. The situation for asylum seekers in Australia remains unchanged. The concern of our governments seems to not be in maintaining human rights and dignity, but about who can best keep those seeking asylum out of Australia. Sadly it seems Parr’s incredibly moving work is one whose political potency is stuck in time.
Exhibition in Sydney 11-21 April 2013
13 Rooms is an exhibition, “a magic formula of iconic artists who have pioneered the field of performance art” according to the brochure. I headed to Sydney ready to be inspired and amazed by being present at an exhibition of what is one of my favourite forms – performance art.
My first response was a low groan. Entering the space I could’ve been forgiven for expecting to receive an allen-key on entry. There was something oddly ‘Ikea-esk’ about the exhibition. A rustic warehouse on the pier full of evenly sized and well-placed white boxes with silver handled doors just like an Ikea furniture showroom. Open the door, enter the room and view a piece of ‘performance art’. Whilst being dismayed at the somewhat banal mise-en-scene before me, like a well-behaved spectator I opened various doors, entered identical rooms and saw what was on show. Much of the art inside the rooms to me was everyday and kind of bland. Some moments were ‘interesting’ (a term I loathe when describing art) and at times bordering on engaging. Clearly this wasn’t performance art. It was I guess as the curator Klaus Biesenbach said a ‘sculpture gallery’ where one views ‘living sculptures’. The directive was that the works were to be performed by someone other than the original artist, an unusual course for performance art works to take. I reflected on my own thoughts about performance art and its history of attempting to challenge and break boundaries, its history of being cutting edge. There was nothing edgy here.
Performers re-performing works of performance artists such as Marina Abramovic is full of questions and contradictions, given that performance art is known for exploring the ephemeral nature of live art moments. Abramovic however has made this act of re-presenting performance art part of the contemporary art culture. Initially through her Seven Easy Pieces at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where classic works by the likes of Vito Acconci and Gina Pane were reproduced in 2005.
I spoke with one of the women re-performing Abramovic’s work Luminosity and was interested in what the context was for the performers. Each performer did a 30-minute ‘shift’ per day of the show they were working on. When the ‘change of shift’ happened we spectators were bustled out of the space whilst performers changed over. This blows a hole in the foot of durational work surely? Considering Abramovic’s original work went for about 7 hours. I wondered how such work was a true rendition of the original, and what as a viewer I missing out on. Without the capacity to engage in the endurance aspect of Abramovic’s work, which is so much at the heart of her own rhetoric, I felt a bit robbed. From the point of view of the performer, surely they weren’t experiencing the different stages of the marathon performance of the original 7 hour work. From the point of view of the audience our desire to engage in a work as an ‘endurance spectator’ was removed. The performer I spoke with expressed that she felt a lack of engagement with the work as she wasn’t its creator. As a trained dancer she felt that she was enacting some extreme choreography. I enjoyed my 30 minutes being a spectator of a woman recreating Abramovic’s work, but as an artist who has engaged in durational performances I had a lot more ‘spectating’ left in me than I was permitted to give. I would have relished a few hours in the room to really feel and meditate on the work.
The question of Australian performance artists also lingered in my mind, due their notable absence. If an exhibition of performance art is to occur in Australia, should three of our most internationally renowned artists of the form be excluded? The likes of Mike Parr, Stelarc and Jill Orr were nowhere in sight. All three were producing cutting edge performance art works both here and in Europe when Abramovic was during the 70’s and beyond – so where were they? I noticed that Kaldor used them to market the exhibition on the program Artscape aired on the ABC, yet excluded them from the exhibition. The only locals were two young artists collectively named Clarke Beaumont who get 10 points for being in their own work for the full duration of the exhibition. Unfortunately though sitting on a plinth in a very ‘everyday’ manner in the middle of the white room didn’t really rock my socks.
What stands out with 13 Rooms is that the art world is ready to commodify performance art. I guess the easiest way to do this is to turn the original works into saleable live sculptures as the curators suggest. But is this in the spirit of performance art? Many scholars would argue not I am sure, and for my part I see it as a slight lack of imagination on behalf of the curators. Perhaps creating exhibitions with current performance artists on display would be more risky. Perhaps the general public and their kids wouldn’t come. But must the space be converted into an Ikea furniture showroom? And must the entire exhibition have an overarching feeling of politeness? Nudity alone is not really challenging when propped on a wall, and the audience interaction I witnessed or was part of just felt repressive and boring. Writing this last paragraph just filled me with a profound sense of how truly pedestrian the event was. I guess marketing and money is key for the Kaldor crew and if they want the school holiday brigade to come to these things, then pedestrian they must be. Or must they?
meets “Oh my God! I can’t believe she just did that! ” Yep, that’s right, the Voodoo Trash Dolls hit the stage last week after four years. As one who is not a fan of the current wave of burlesque, which seems more about posing than performing, sporting my performance art style cabaret in a show with the word ‘burlesque’ in the tag line wasn’t lacking in intellectual complexity for my overactive brain. Was it burlesque? – Not sure. Was it performance art? – Certainly a lot of it was. Was it a awesome to perform with a bunch of ladies who leave the tease and sleaze at home and throw their raw bodies onto the stage with equal doses of raunch, ferocity and skill? – Absolutely it was!
All photos by Mark Burban
Today I was trawling the internet and I discovered a new fact about my body. I am a plus size. Really? What does that mean? My response –who cares?
It seems the media certainly does care about a size 12 woman with the current hype about the model Robyn Lawley and the unbelievable possibility that shes says she loves her body, and oh my god Ralph Lauren supports that plus size body. I guess yes it’s amazing that in the media a woman is seemingly happy and embracing her body type. Because let us remember skinny female models don’t report back to us on about how fabulous their bodies are. They tend to be pretty silent about the issue or releasing secrets on how to wipe those winter kilos. Actually rarely do women in the media discuss that they are happy with their body.
So whilst Ralph Lauren may be plastering an apparently ‘plus sized’ model all over their season’s release, this isn’t some feminist revolution. It’s marketing. These plus sized models are still paid money because they are ‘beautiful’, their bodies are deemed desirable by the money making fashion houses. And how ‘plus’ are their bodies really. Here we have just another moment in history when what’s important about a woman is her body and how it looks to others. Once again the message that is being reinforced to women is that her most important attribute is her capacity to be desirable through her body.
Pitting women against women, this constant message of comparison between skinny and fat, plus size and normal size, healthy and fit, distracts us from engaging fully in a life free of the pressure of worrying about how desirable we are, and how our bodies look to everyone else.
And the ‘real woman’ campaign? My response – read my arse.
I had the amazing opportunity recently of assisting in the suspension of Stelarc. I was part of the small team who were asked to perform the insertion of the hooks into his skin and ready the artist for suspension. The suspension occurred as part of the ‘Stelarc Suspensions’ exhibition held on 8 March 2012 at the Scott Livesey Gallery, Melbourne.
What draws me to perform this kind of ‘procedure’ is the intensive level of focus one must engage in to achieve inserting thick hooks into a body’s skin. The skin is tough and resilient, it doesn’t allow for hooks to pass through easily. It resists the action. But key to the performance is the absolute conviction that we will achieve this. Certainly at times the force was far greater than expected to get the hook as far in as we required for safe suspension – at these moments the sense of ‘this will work’, ‘there is no option but for this to work’, ‘there is no turning back’ is exhilarating. Fully engaged with the body as matter. I rarely such states of complete immersion in a task – my world is one of consist existential ruminations and uncertainty which no doubt flood this blog at time. Except when performing. Except when engaged with a body in such an intense moment as his. The focused pushing, pushing, pushing – a relief from the everyday scattered nature of my self.
As Stelarc is winched into the air we witnessed many moments of sculptural beauty. The body is suspended. The body hanging perfectly over Stelarc’s Arm/Ear Sculpture; the room is quiet; people seem thoughtful and reverent as they watch the body become art.
It rises up. Falling down, seeping in, surrounding. Not willing to let up. Refusing to reconcile. Refusing to find a place to rest. A muscle, an organ, a space somewhere inside. Anywhere.