What is Performance Art?
By Amanda Coogan
What is this thing called Performance?
'How was your performance today?' I could be asking a teacher, a driver, a
stockbroker or a lover. 'Performance' is a recurrent term within today's general
lexicon, yet practitioners and theorists in the field of Performance Studies
disagree as to what constitutes this nebulous art form. In the context of the
contemporary art world it allows us to suggest a practice full of paradoxes,
wilfully refusing to be fenced in.
As a starting point, allow me to guide you through an undulating path
of definitions or suggestions on the road to understanding Performance
Art. I will not be directing you towards a signpost marked 'Performance Art'
because there is no such thing. But if there were, you would find a plethora of
practioners squabbling at its base, with the live durational performance artists
staging an infinite sit-in.
Performance a broad church
Performance is an 'essentially contested concept'.1 Practitioners and theorists
occupy this space of disagreement, allowing the field to unfold and incorporate
a multitude of practices. Amelia Jones explains that "Body art and performance
art have been defined as constitutive of postmodernism because of their
fundamental subversion of modernism's assumption that fixed meanings are
determinable through the formal structure of the work alone.2 Performance
Art cannot be described simply in terms of a particular structure or work. All
forms and media are at the artist's disposal. Santiago Sierra's work Veterans of
the Wars of Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq facing the corner, 2011 at the
Manchester Gallery of Art simply installed a performer in a bare room for seven
hours a day over nine days. Pauline Cummins and Louise Walsh collaborated
on their 1992 Sounding the Depths video, photographic and sound installation,
projecting mouths onto each other's bodies; proclaiming bodily ownership
amid this turbulent period of lack of control over Irish women's bodies.
Indeed, Performance Art cannot be said to stem from any one particular
discipline: theatre, dance or the visual arts. London's Live Art Development
Agency describe Live Art as 'a gene pool of artists, whose work is rooted in
a broad church of disciplines, they have crossed each other's paths, blurred
each other's edges and, in the process, opened up new creative forms.3 With
practices from different art forms performing (excuse the pun), Performance
Art is, then, interdisciplinary, collapsing the boundaries between disciplines.
This essay, however, focuses on performance .in the visual arts, a practice
ubiquitous in the contemporary art world.
Body Site Audience Time
Performance Art is contingent, simply, on the presence (and absence) of the
body. The body, site, audience and time are its four pillars, with corporeal
action the central axis. Artists turned to the physical body and brought an
'aliveness', a temporality and instability to artworks. Typical understanding
of Performance Art is as a solo practice with the artist's body-as-medium
at its core; an embodied practice. But the practice may also incorporate
other bodies: performers and audience members. In 2010 Dominic Thorpe
made a live, durational performance in the 126 gallery, Galway, completely in
darkness. Redress State, Questions Imagined gave the audience small torches
to illuminate the darkened performance site as they wished, engaging the
viewer in an auditory, sense experience. Thorpe's removal of one of our senses
refocused our experience of his work into a physical, embodied one.
It is the action of the body, the authenticity of an activity, that frames it
as Performance Art. RoseLee Goldberg describes the context thus: '... the live
presence of the artist, and the focus on the artist's body, became central to
notions of 'the real', and a yardstick for installation and video art.4
Performance Art, from its beginnings, occurred in both alternative and
formal locations. Site is a potent element in the framing of the work. A work of
live performance on the street will have a distinct reading to one viewed in a
gallery context. Indeed a performative video or photograph shot on the street
has a different interpretation to one shot in a studio. This essay is littered with
examples of live performance works with the site listed as a significant element
to the manifestation of the works.
Time, or what is called duration in Performance Art, is a critical element.
Performance Art is a time-based practice. Durational work generally anything
over three hours is a particular strand of practice and inevitably brings with it
elements of endurance. Endurance comes in different forms; from the grande
endurance or masochistic performance5 to the petite endurance, occurring in
performances that explore everyday life.6
What kind of activity?
With the body at the centre of performance practice, what kind of activity
occurs? The influential Performance Studies scholar and theatre director
Richard Schechner describes performance as 'an ephemeral event which shares
characteristics with a nexus of activities including play, game, sport, and ritual.7
Consider the following artworks:
Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971. Burden walked into F Space gallery, California
and had himself shot in the arm.
Marina Abramovic /ULAY, Rest Energy, 1980, ROSC '80, Dublin. A bow
and arrow is held taut by the performers' body weight, the arrow pointed
directly at Abramovic's heart. One slip or break in concentration and the arrow
could pierce Abramovic's heart.
Franko B, I Miss You!, 2002, Tate Modern. Franko walked up and down a
catwalk, bleeding from the veins in each arm, painting the canvas-covered floor
with his blood.
Works such as these are often thought of when considering Performance
Art; sensational and risky, they challenge the very integrity of the corporeal
body, and are emblematic of grande endurance works. Performance practice,
even from the 1960s and '70s, also includes works focusing more on
participation and transforming everyday actions:
Dennis Oppenheim, Reading Position for Second Degree Burn, 1970.
A photographic work in two parts. Oppenheim lies on the beach, firstly with
a book over his chest and latterly without the book, displaying evidence of
sunburn with the shadow of the absent book.
Joseph Beuys, Bureau for Direct Democracy, 1972. A live performance.
Over the 100 days of Documenta 5, Beuys invited the audience to engage in
conversation with him on democracy and politics.
Pipilotti Rist, Ever is Over All, 1997. A performance to video. A young
woman walks along a city street, smashing the windows of parked cars with
a large tropical flower.
Performance Art the Performing Arts
The Performing Arts refers to theatre, dance, opera and the circus. Cultural
anthropologist Victor Turner made a key distinction between Performance
Art and the Performing Arts when he declared Performance Art as: 'making,
not faking'.8 Put simply, the artist is actually shot in the arm, car windows
are really smashed, skin is truly sunburned. These are not illusions but actual
bodily experiences. In the 1970s, Performance Art stood in direct opposition
to theatre. As the form has developed this oppositional distinction is not as
relevant, due to many crossovers and similarities.
Is the Performance Artist acting?
Performance occupies an in-between place. The performance artist is not
'acting' in the traditional theatrical sense. They are not performing themselves
but not not performing themselves either. The performance frame is contingent
and temporary, holding the performer in a liminal, provisional and suspended
place. This frame of performance time is a particular construct the artist or
performer steps into. Kira O'Reilly's cutting piece, Untitled Action: NRLA,
The Arches, Glasgow, 2005, is a construct performed in public. While in
action it may relate to forms of self-harm, made public and placed in the
Live Performance frame, it offers the viewer an empathetic human-to-human
encounter. Precisely because O'Reilly performs live, inhabiting the same place
and time as the audience, and is the artist/maker constructing the action,
the work becomes an intersubjective experience.9 Josette Feral illucidates:
'... 'performance' attempts not to tell (like theatre) but rather to provoke
A short and rocky road into the history of performance
There are a variety of proposals as to how Performance Art developed
and, as all good postmodern students know, history is not objective, it is a
contextualised construction. From the perspective of a practitioner in the field
of performance from the visual arts, allow me to sketch the relatively brief
history of Performance Art.
RoseLee Goldberg's book, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present,
first published in 1979, dates the beginning of Performance Art very precisely
to 20 February 1909: the day the first Futurist Manifesto was published in Le
Figaro newspaper. She charts her theory on the development of the art form up
through Constructivism, Dada, Surrealism and Bauhaus and cites the significant
influence of the Black Mountain College in the US as foundational, referring
to John Cage in music, Merce Cunningham in dance and Allan Kaprow's
Happenings. Looking to parallels in Europe, she cites the practices of Piero
Manzoni, Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys as important artists we identify more
immediately as belonging to the visual arts. Goldberg's arc of Performance Art
encompasses the different disciplines of theatre, dance, visual art and music
into the family of Performance Art. Goldberg explains that '... by its very nature
performance defies precise or easy definition beyond the simple declaration
that it is live art by artists. Any strict definition would immediately negate the
possibility of performance itself.11
Another historical perspective from close to the emblematic era is
Performance by Artists, edited by A. A. Bronson and Peggy Gale and also
published in 1979. In her Introduction, Gale opens by making two clear
distinctions in practice between Canada/US and Europe. She cites European
practice as 'more theoretical, more intellectualised if only because of the
apparent rejection of those qualities of narration and entertainment [as seen in
Canadian and US works]... [European practice employs] tableaux vivants... [and
is]... a form of extended sculpture.12
Looking at this from the globalised world of the twenty-first century,
it is informative to note that in the days before the multifarious biennials
and blockbuster exhibitions criss-crossing the world there was a proposal
suggesting two clear branches of practice. Gale cites a foundational figure
in each location: Vito Acconci in Canada/US and Joseph Beuys in Europe.
Thomas McEvilley, in a less historically-focused trajectory, suggests
three fountains of interest as noteworthy in the development of Performance
- Performance emerges from the history of theatre and begins as a
counterpoint to realism.
- Performance emerges from the history of painting and gains its force and
focus after Jackson Pollock's 'action painting'.
- Performance represents a return to investigations of the body most fully
explored by shamans, yogis and practitioners of alternative healing arts.13
McEvilley's reference to painting as a springboard for Performance Art
resonates in Harold Rosenberg's watershed 1952 essay, 'The American Action
Painters', illustrating a turn in practice; '... what was to go on the canvas was not
a picture but an event [...] The image would be the result of this encounter.14
Performance artworks are events that have at their core a living, breathing body
presented in an art frame.
Hans Namuth's 1950 documentary film of Jackson Pollock at work is also
influential, aligning the medium of film with an artist's action. Performative
practice is extant in the contemporary art world. At a cursory glance we
can cite Matthew Barney's mammoth Cremaster series and Cindy Sherman's
Untitled Film Stills, with the artist taking on different guises, staging (or
performing) images of feminine stereotypes.
Looking at this trajectory it is interesting to note that even from its
emblematic period, performance practice was not contingent on the presence
of a live audience. Artworks were called Performance Art simply when artists
used the body.
Works performed to camera in the artist's studio include:
Bruce Nauman, Self-Portrait as a Fountain, 1966-67, in front of an invited
audience; Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture, 1970, at the Nigel
Greenwood Gallery in London, and sometimes in front of an unintentional
audience; Tehching Hsieh's One Year Performance, 1981-1982. Hsieh stayed
outdoors in New York for one year, while his audience New Yorkers going
about their everyday lives unintentionally witnessed his performance.15
Performance Art live or mediated presentation?
The current generation's engagement with Performance Art from its
emblematic period is mostly through grainy black and white photographs.
These images themselves become iconic references to influential works, and
are unavoidably dislocated from the context of their live presentation. They
live bound up in the mythology of the event. It is the re-presentation of these
ephemeral events that excites; the absent made present, the disappeared
reappearing in the form of photography, video and stories.
Alanna O'Kelly made her 1995 live performance Omσs in St Mary's Abbey,
Dublin. In the darkly-lit twelfth-century chapel, O'Kelly's feet and calves were
illuminated as she ran on the spot. The hairs on her legs stood out, the sound
of her breath audibly taxed. I did not witness this live performance and have
only seen fleeting video documentation of it, but it lives in the annals of
Performance Art folklore. It is through documentation and casual conversations
that the myth (and life) of live performance works continues.
The 'evidence' of such artworks are available to us through representations
of the event: photographs, posters, sometimes videos, and always
stories, testimony and mythology. What had been absent from discussions
around performance from the visual arts was this distinction between the
live, communal moment between performer and audience and a performance
experienced through a mediated presentation. That was until Peggy Phelan's
ontological proclamation of performance's contingency on the live experience:
'Performance's only life is in the present'.16
Phelan's seminal essay focuses on the 'manically charged' present of a
live performance. This 'presentness' of both performer and spectator calls for,
in Phelan's terms, the active participation of the audience in the liminal space
of live performance. The audience become interpreters or co-creators when
experiencing live performance; the emancipated spectator that philosopher
Jacques Ranciθre writes of.
This spotlight on the relationship between the live performer and live
audience refocused discussion about Performance Art to its liveness and its
relational bond with the audience. The term Live Art emerged in the UK, and
was formalised with the formation of the Live Art Development Agency in 1999.
Live Art centres on the temporality and ephemerality of Performance Art in its
Amelia Jones, on the other hand, prefers to consider Performance Art
works via their mediated presentation (photographs and videos). She opts
to refer to the works as Body Art rather than Performance Art and claims
the viewer can also have this performative relationship with an image from a
performance work.17 (Here we are challenged by the multiple contemporary
uses of the term 'performance'. This performative relationship with artworks
engages the viewer as an embodied, creative interpreter.) The mediated
document, Jones claims, is equally as valid as the live performance and indeed
is more neutralised and set apart, allowing the viewer to consider it outside of
the manically charged present of live performance.
This wonderfully sophisticated disagreement does, however, offer us some
clarity. With Phelan's declaration of the 'presentness' of Performance Art and
the emergence of the term Live Art on the one hand, and Jones' subsequent
hypothesis and focus on mediated works/documentation Body Art we may
glimpse the possibility of a distinction in modes of presentation, all of which
come under the umbrella term Performance Art.
Live Performance Art:
Live presentation in front of an audience, corporeal acivity made public:
Performance Art/Live Art
A mediated presentation, made privately to the camera or re-presentation
of a Live Performance: Performance Art/Body Art.
Performance Art and the Death of the Object
Ephemerality and immateriality have always been important aspects of
Performance Art. For some practitioners in the 1960s and '70s this immateriality
was a form of protest directly against the art market. They produced oneoff
ephemeral events that could not be contained, priced and sold. In the
contemporary era of service industries and commodified events, this political
stance against the art market is especially complicated.
Tino Sehgal's performance works are hinged purely on live encounters.
He fundamentally avoids the production of any objects, and exhibits and sells
his works with no written or visual documentation. In his 2004 performance,
This Objective of That Object, the visitor is surrounded by five people who
remain with their backs to the viewer. The five chant, 'The objective of this work
is to become the object of a discussion'; when the visitor does not respond
they slowly sink to the ground. If the visitor engages with them they begin
a discussion. Sehgal's works have been collected by a number of significant
institutions around the world, including the Tate, London and the Museum of
Modern Art, New York.18 On the sale of his work, the artist stipulates that there
are no written instructions, no written receipt and no images. Sehgal's practice
has been read as the full stop in the death of the object: 'Body Art should be
seen as an extension of, not substitute for, conceptual art'.19
But can we have it all?
Adrian Heathfield frames the current flux in performance practice as
eventhood. 'Eventhood allows spectators to live for a while in the paradox of
two impossible desires: to be present in the moment, to savour it, and to save
the moment, to still and preserve its power long after it has gone.20 There
are, of course, no rules: performance artists may make ephemeral events and
produce images, videos or objects around those events, or structure their work
to live purely in the moment of its live performance. Heathfield's distinction
suggests that the detritus and documentation of live action functions as a
relic of an event passed into memory but, as Jones asserts, these subsequent
performative artworks hold their own potency independent of the live moment.
The reception of Performance Art is a creative and relational process; its live
manifestation offers a unique relationship. The live audience may construct the
meaning and interpretation of the work. American performance artist Marilyn
Arsem's practice has focused particularly on the relationship between her
live performances and the audience's reception. Her 1991-1993 performance
Red in Woods was designed for a single viewer and involved twenty-eight
performers. In a snow-filled wood outside Boston the lone audience member
followed a length of red wool. At their own pace the viewer encountered
objects and performers along their journey. 'Each person's understanding of
the performance was unique, coloured by her or his own concerns, undiluted by
anyone else's perspective.'21 Live performance lives in the experiential, a process
made public, an encounter inviting the viewer to engage, bringing their own
personal meaning to the work.
An exciting and potent part of live performance is the mythology that
develops around a one-off temporal event; the creative reverberations that
come from the audience. Art writing plays an important role, from the formal
essays and reviews to the social media forums such as blogs, Facebook and
Twitter, where the audience's transformative experience is communicated.
Irish Performance Art
Live performance from the visual arts in Ireland is currently a vibrant practice,
grounded in responding with the physical body and psychological self. There
are many theories on how and why this kind of practice has developed, with
suggestions that such evolution is closely connected to the Troubles, amid
which artists felt conventional forms of art making failed to express the
experiences happening outside the door of the studio.22
The significance of Alastair MacLennan within Irish practice cannot be
underestimated: a teacher in Belfast from the mid '70s, MacLennan asks his
audience to witness and co-inhabit the visceral territories he explores. In
1988 MacLennan made a seminal work, The Burn, in the shell of the building
adjoining the old Project Arts Centre in Dublin. In an eight hour non-stop
actuation (MacLennan's term for his performance installations), he moved
slowly around the burned-out shell of the building amid rubble and specifically
placed objects, including pigs' heads and burned-out flags, electrifying the sitespecific
installation with the human body.
Another important point of reference is Brian O'Doherty/Patrick Ireland's
performative stance in response to the political situation in Ireland. In 1972,
O'Doherty changed his name to Patrick Ireland in a ritual performance, again
at the Project Arts Centre, in protest against the Bloody Sunday massacre in
Derry. He vowed to sign all of his subsequent artworks as Patrick Ireland. In
2008 O'Doherty buried Patrick Ireland in a Live Performance in the grounds of
IMMA in recognition of the progress of the peace process.
Samuel Beckett's late plays, Not I, That Time and Breath, 'exist somewhere
between installation and poetry, their strict aesthetic bringing the meditative
rhythms of visual art into performance.'23 His works are essential pivots for
performance practitioners globally, but clearly have special significance for
Current practice is an ever shifting beast, difficult to contain within the
crosshairs of an essay written contemporaneously. Nevertheless, Performance
Art currently stands at a particular moment of evolution. As collections
around the world attempt to reflect and collect performance works, there has
been some significant examination into methods of extending, capturing and
archiving the ephemerality of performance works both in theory and in practice.
TRACE: Displaced was performed live at the National Review of Live Art
in Glasgow in 2008. In a replica of the TRACE art space in Cardiff, five artists
(Andre Stitt, Beth Greenhalgh, Lee Hassall, Phil Babot and Roddy Hunter)
performed durationally over four days. On a table outside the installation,
Heike Roms made a live documentation of the live performance using Post-it
notes, polaroids and typed sheets of paper. At one point she noted one of the
performers making an action in the centre of the installation the site, she
noted, in the gallery in Cardiff that Northern Irish artist Brian Connolly had
buried his time capsule during his 2002 live performance Initiate. Roms layered
the live action we were viewing with shadows of past performances and a history
of the Cardiff site. Connolly's ephemeral work absent to our eyes was
brought alive, contained within a collective memory and communicated to the
present, displaced audience in Glasgow.
Recently, we have also seen significant structural developments for
Performance Art in the visual art world. In 2009 the Museum of Modern Art
(MoMA) in New York appointed their first Curator-in-Chief for Performance Art,
and the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester cleared its permanent collection and
installed fourteen durational performances for a three-week exhibition.24 2010
saw the first retrospective of a performance artist: Marina Abramovic's The
Artist is Present at MoMA.
Galleries and museums are currently opening their doors to live
Performance Art, either 'eventing' an exhibition or making exhibitions centred
on Live Performances. This development opens the white cube to a messy
unpredictability. Live performance is often a chaotic beast, with the collision
of the fluctuating unknowns of action, site, time and audience. Part of the
excitement of anything witnessed live is this tantalising unknown; each iteration
of a live performance is unique and unrepeatable.
Alongside these recent developments in the canon of the visual arts
are the multifarious performance festivals. In many countries around the
world significant festivals of Performance Art show a wide range of Live
Performances over concentrated periods of time. The National Review of Live
Art in Glasgow, set up in 1979, is one of the longest running festivals of Live Art
in the world, showing a variety of Performance Art practices. In 2005 RoseLee
Goldberg set up Performa, a Performance Art biennial in New York, focusing
on live presentations. In 2001 IMMA hosted the performance event Marking the
Territory. Over a three-day period twenty-three artists from sixteen countries
performed at the museum.
Live Performance can happen anywhere, at any time, for any duration.
Bbeyond, the Northern Irish performance collective, perform regularly on
the streets of Northern Ireland often unannounced but sometimes framed
within an arts festival making dynamic interventions in public spaces, outside
galleries or cultural institutions. Abramovic, on the other hand, performed live in
the cathedral of contemporary art, MoMA, New York in 2010 for three months.
Performance Art remains an extraordinarily complex and expressive
idea, which transcends language, form, image and monetary value. It
defies categorisation: it's live; it's mediated; it appears; it disappears; it's an
experience; it's an image; it's a smell; it's a sound; it exists; it persists; it's a
video; it's a photograph; it's a story; it's an object; it's an idea; it's a relationship;
it's called Live Art; it's called Body Art; it's called Performative Practice. It is
Performance Art, asking 'us what it means to be here, now'.25
© Amanda Coogan, 2011
- Strine, Long and Hopkins in their 1990 survey article 'Research in Interpretation and
Performance Studies: Trends, Issues, Priorities', cited in Dwight Conquergood, 'Of Caravans
and Carnivals: Performance Studies in Motion', TDR, Vol. 39, No. 4, Autumn 1995, pp. 137-
141. Also see Marvin Carlson, 'What is Performance?', in Henry Bail (ed.), The Performance
Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 2004.
- Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject, University of Minnesota Press, 1998, p. 21.
- Live Art Development Agency, London, http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/about_us/what_is_
live_art.html (accessed 11/5/2011), The Live Art Development Agency 2009.
- RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, London: Thames and
Hudson, 2001, p. 9.
- See Kathy O'Dell, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s,
University of Minnesota Press, 1998, which describes masochistic performance practices,
including Gina Pane, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and early Abramovic/ULAY.
- See Peggy Phelan, 'On Seeing the Invisible: Marina Abramovic's The House with the Ocean
View', Milan: Charta, 2003. Phelan cites Linda Montano, Allan Kaprow and Tehching Hsieh
as American-based artists who explored the structure of ritual and everyday life in their
- Richard Schechner, as cited in Mike Pearson, 'Theatre/Archaeology', in TDR, Vol. 38, No. 4,
- Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play, New York: PAJ
Publications, 1984, p. 93.
- See Rachel Zerihan, 'Revisiting Catharsis in Contemporary Live Art Practice: Kira O'Reilly's
Evocative Skin Works', in Theatre Research International, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 32-42.
- Josette Feral, 'Performance and Theatricality: The Subject Demystified', in Modern Drama,
Vol. 25, 1982, p. 179.
- Goldberg, pp. 8-9.
- A. A. Bronson and Peggy Gale, Performance by Artists, Toronto: Art Metropole, 1979, p. 1.
- Thomas McEvilley, Stages of Energy: Performance Art Ground Zero?, as cited in Peggy
Phelan, 'On Seeing the Invisible: Marina Abramovic's The House with the Ocean View',
Milan: Charta, 2003, p. 174.
- Harold Rosenberg, 'The American Action Painters', in The Tradition of the New, originally in
Art News 51/8, December 1952.
- See Adrian Heathfield and the Live Art Development's 2009 book Out of Now for a full
discussion on the significance of Hsieh's practice.
- Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 146.
- See Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject.
- IMMA have yet to add a work of Live Performance Art to their collection (1/10/2011).
- Jon Erickson, 'Performing Distinctions', in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 21,
No. 3, September 1999, p. 101.
- Adrian Heathfield, Live: Art and Performance, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 9.
- Marilyn Arsem, Red in Woods. See www.marilynarsem.net (accessed 23/7/2011).
- Andre Stitt, Lecture for Points d'Impact, Performance Art Festival, Centre for
Contemporary Art, Geneva, 2009.
- Alison Croggon, Review of 'Beckett's Shorts', Theatre Notes, 23 April 2009 (Web accessed
- Marina Abramovic Presents ... at the Whitworth Gallery of Art, Manchester, 3-19 July 2009.
Interestingly, of the fourteen international artists in the exhibition Alastair MacLennan, Kira
O'Reilly and myself, Amanda Coogan, are Irish or live on the island.
- See http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/about_us/what_is_live_art.html (accessed 11/5/2011). The
Live Art Development Agency 2009.