Live and performative art practices are enjoying a resurgence today internationally. While the range of influences is as diverse as the approaches employed, a new generation of artists are making works that utilize a startlingly direct gaze in their forthright engagements with viewers. Alongside the literal positing of entanglements between subjects, authors, and viewers, these younger, experimental, and, in an Australian context, frequently female artists are referencing performative art practices of the 1960s and '70s. Of particular interest are works that bridge the gap between artist and viewer—creation and reception—whereby the audience is an indispensible participant in the enactment of art (1). The diversity of approaches includes redeploying the intense focus on the body as subject and object, emphasizing the theatricality of performance, and intermingling mirroring self-portraiture where unconscious selves are actively projected externally.
In a general sense, renewed interest in performative forms of art is being driven by a number of overarching factors: the abundance of new technologies has had a huge impact on the reception of contemporary performance, given it is now easier than ever before to document and distribute; a growing trend towards self-surveillance and public sharing via online platforms and social networking, along with the rise of mass media and a celebrity-obsessed culture. We live in a time that is essentially awash with ‘performance’, so it makes sense then that artists are responding to the situation, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Perhaps a broader question to ask here is whether feminism has played a role in this resurgence. Trying to define what feminism means today is infinitely problematic, and the fact that it is nonprescriptive is perhaps the only thing we can all agree on. Yet in the art world, a number of major exhibitions examining feminism and contemporary art—"WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," "Global Feminisms," "Rebelle: Art and Feminism 1969-2009," and "elles@centrepompidou"—evidence a recurring question, regardless of the different approaches applied: Have ideas of gender equality become more acceptable in a wider range of areas, or have the multiplicity of contemporary feminisms served to fragment a central idea? (2) Discussions abound, with no clear-cut answers to be found other than to say that there is more than one way to be a feminist today.
In the 1960s and '70s feminism was a political force, and though its image has shifted radically over the years, in some quarters "feminism" has been transformed into "the f-word." Increasingly weighed down by its own history, its mere mention can elicit sighs of exasperation. Or is this position simply part of the inheritance for a younger generation—the bounty of battles fought by first-, second-, and third-wave feminism—that women feel they have earned the right to disavow feminism altogether? Feminist and postfeminist theory has become increasingly institutionalized, which in turn, has stripped the word of some of its political sting. The writings of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, and Simone de Beauvoir are now commonplace in university tutorials, yet pop culture is nonetheless riddled with conflicting messages about empowerment and femininity. From Sex and the City to Desperate Housewives—we’re left questioning whether the early aims of the women’s movement, or later waves of feminism, have been achieved. (3)
The activist bent of early feminism emphasized the importance of doing, and for artists this meant cultivating an agency. Performative forms of art (and video) in particular are genres we now associate with the history of feminism—in fact, these formats were pioneered by avowedly feminist artists. With greater access to early performance documentation, there is now a history of these kinds of works for artists to respond to, and contemporary visual language has increasingly been recharged via appropriation. Many younger practitioners have moved to distance themselves from feminist discourses, yet whether consciously or not, reference the performativity of seventies feminist practices with the intense focus on the body as both subject and object. While the range of influences is as diverse as the tone of their approach, this new generation operates freely in a culture of obsessive self-documentation, under the "omnipresent gaze of myriad media formats." (4) These artists are fluent in the execution and reception of the gaze, employed both as a self-conscious tactic and method for articulating and disseminating their own representation.
Narrowing the field somewhat, let’s look collectively at a group of emerging Australian women artists working across analogous thematic lines, and whose practices criss-cross between disciplines and interests, foregrounding site-specific, performative and ephemeral art forms. Whether employing humorous, critical or sensual approaches, these artists present work that interacts with the everyday in order to offer new vantage points on the worlds we inhabit and negotiate. This focus on the performative seeks variously to titillate the viewer’s curiosity, to activate visual and auditory senses, and shake up notions taken for granted about life and art. In these supposedly post-feminist times, these artists are engulfed in a world of options where identity and gender constructions are precarious, and viewpoints are multiple, contingent and fractured. (5)
While some artists would not agree with attributing a feminist reading of their work, there is often acceptance that some kind of feminist trace may linger. Though she describes herself as a painter, in recent times Lauren Brincat has worked predominantly in performance, drawing inspiration from durational, body-oriented forms of practice that came to prominence during the 1970s. Her action-based works are often presented as video documentation and sometimes accompanied by a live element. High Horse (2012) documents a feat of endurance, with the artist standing proudly atop a horse, bearing a tambourine like a talisman. Her monumental stance recalls two of her heroines, Joan of Arc and celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović, appearing in The Hero (2001). The nearby sculptural objects—timber pyramids topped with tambourines—signify both the artist’s presence and absence, and their circular arrangement denotes the zone within which she presented a sound happening in real time, incorporating both pyramids and tambourines to create an intuitive sonic soundscape in collaboration with percussionist Bree van Reyk.
Lauren Brincat, High Horse, 2012. Documentation of an action. Single-channel high-definition video, 16:9, colour, sound; 26 seconds, looped. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery.
Kate Mitchell, like Brincat, is known for performance videos that see the artist conceiving a scenario and then living it out. She places herself at the center of precarious cartoon situations that involve an element of risk, becoming both the agent and object of the work. Defiantly tongue-in-cheek, Mitchell weaves a spirit of larrikin abandon into her projects, which have seen the artist swinging from a chandelier, falling through an awning, and sawing a circle in the floor and falling through. Often set at the edge of what is possible, or socially permissible, Mitchell uses her art both to test her physical limits and to ask questions about the society in which we all perform.
Top: Jess Olivieri and Hayley Forward with the Parachutes for Ladies, I thought a musical was being made, 2011. Photo by Jess Olivieri, courtesy of the Parachute for Ladies.
Bottom: Jess Olivieri with the Parachutes for Ladies, I am an Island, 2011. Photo by Lucy Parakhina, courtesy of the Parachute for Ladies.
An exploration of how norms of behaviour structure experience is a core interest for Jess Olivieri and Hayley Forward with the Parachutes for Ladies, who make works that sit at the juncture of live art, dance, sound, performance and installation. Often considering individual behaviour within broader public contexts, they also work with a continually changing group of participants, who form the ‘Parachutes for Ladies’ on any given project. The duo frequently deploy media platforms in unexpected ways, a strategy that is tied to a sophisticated understanding of participatory practices whereby the audience is complicit in producing both meaning and ideas. Their works, which often take place in public settings, have variously spanned humming choirs, self-help audio guides, large-scale pseudo-musicals and video installations in order to investigate the vulnerability of individuals in society and the sociopolitical territorialisation of space.
In a number of ways, space is also a recurring theme in Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano’s art, though drawing forms the basis of many of their collaborative works. Typically low-fi and self-produced, the duo records their carefully choreographed actions on video, utilizing a pared-down visual language that at times recalls Italian neorealist cinema. The Manganos are twin sisters, and frequently use their own bodies as subject and object, creating elegant mirrored conversation with selected props—pencils, paper, fabric, and furniture—to explore their relationship to each other and the spaces in which they perform.
Sharing the Mangano’s interest in mirroring self-portraiture is Anastasia Klose, an installation, video and performance artist known for her "aesthetic of the pathetic." Using a lo-fi style derived from YouTube videos as much as from the history of performance art, her works strike the viewer with their startlingly direct gaze, as much as their pointed performativity and confessional aspect. Klose often draws on painful and funny moments from her own life, creating works about being single, love, sex, as well as the process of making art. One video, Film for Nanna (2006) sees her walking along a major Melbourne thoroughfare, decked out in ill-fitting bridal garb, bearing a sign that reads "Nanna I am still alone." In another work, we watch, or rather we bear witness, to the artist having sweaty sex on the floor of a public bathroom with a boy we know only as "Ben." These are moments laid bare—it’s not about cheap thrills, but about uncovering human experiences, whether absurd, humiliating or perverse. Self-deprecating, melodramatic, and romanticized, the dry humor of Klose’s works is balanced by her sensitivity to the foibles of human nature and a resilience of spirit.
Anastasia Klose, Film for Nanna (still), 2006. Images courtesy of Tolarno Galleries.
Humour forms the lynchpin of Brown Council’s practice, a collaboration between four artists who make video and performance works that deliberately blur the distinction between stage and gallery, high and low culture. The group draws on the histories of both visual and performance art, combining these sources with elements of street theater, amateur magic, and stand-up comedy. Ranging in tone from biting political satire to slapstick farce, Brown Council’s works often engage with notions of endurance, humiliation and spectacle, dissolving boundaries between artist and audience in the process. Performance Fee (2012) for instance, an endurance event, where for two dollars viewers can procure a kiss from one of the blindfolded artists, sees performance combined with installation and elements of vaudevillian sideshow. And while the work engenders a range of emotional responses—curiosity, laughter, disbelief—there is also a discomforting undertone: in this lineup, the artists are vulnerable and very much on display, at the same time they are literally playing out the cliché of the starving artist. Forthright and unapologetic, Brown Council succeed in their aim to re-vision objectification as objective, asking us to consider the politics of representation in the process.
Above and top: Brown Council, Performance Fee, 2012. "Contemporary Australia: Women," Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, 2012. Courtesy of Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: B Wagner.
This is just a snapshot showcasing the diversity of performative practice among a group of younger women artists working in Australia today, and is far from exhaustive. While it is impossible to speak collectively, for this emerging generation experience, gesture, action and bodies are inexorably tied to production. By repositioning the artist repeatedly, and often literally, in the frame or in a live situation, the viewer is forced into a ‘series of negations that create a turbulent understanding of human personae and human vulnerability.’(6) In a variety of ways, these artists successfully bridge ‘multiple points of interruption, moving through media platforms, spaces and the center of our vision with occasional savvy impudence.' (7) While some, such as Brown Council, contextualize their practice within an avowedly feminist framework, others are less comfortable with this attribution, yet at the same time continue to reference strategies associated with its history in art, particularly an embrace of new media technologies, and tropes associated with the performative. And whether acknowledged or not, and in spite of the diversity of approaches to artmaking, each in different ways speaks actively of freedom from social constraints.
Distance is often sought from such interpretations, yet these shifting concerns and debates in art about the body are certainly pertinent and continue to have currency in the contested landscape of international theory and art production. This new generation often performs—whether for an audience or for the camera—and they hold unprecedented control as author, performer, director, and even distributor. The artist is the image in this case, spanning production and representation in a way that enables them to reveal themselves without flinching. The antithesis of passivity, instead, the artist orchestrates, interrupts, or turns the perceived order of things inside out. By neatly sidestepping disavowal, repression or the taken-for-granted, these artists are authors of their own representation: their collective sidelong glances, quotations, nods, random encounters or riffs on the multi-layered histories of the body and the performative in art history gives presence to the past, reimagining the terrain for new parallels. (8)
1. Warr, Tracey and Jones, Amelia (eds), The Artist’s Body: Themes and Motives, Phaidon Press, London, 2000, page 70.
2. Glass, Alexie. "Extimacy: A new generation of feminism." Art and Australia, Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2009, page 135.
3. Linz, Talia. "Ways of Doing: T&A and the F-ing Gaze." Runway, Number16, 2011, page 23.
4. Glass, p.135.
5. Linz, p.23.
6. Glass., p.136.
7. Ibid., p.139.
Bree Richards is a 2012-2013 Performa Writer in Residence.