Baby boomers born in the 1950s are well positioned to assess the seismic change in values that occurred during the 1960s and 70s. Observing the cultural trends in art and music, it is possible to discern the transition from the post-war idealistic collectivism that spawned the welfare state to the materialistic individualism exemplified by Thatcherism. John Lennon’s creative partnership with Yoko Ono, then a relatively obscure but pioneering performance artist, illustrates this trend.
As the Beatles splintered in the late 60’s, Ono’s and Lennon’s self regarding stunts were indicative of a shift in values. During their “Bed-in for peace” they stayed in bed for several days to promote peace at the height of the Vietnam War and recorded their anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance”. Perhaps the most widely reported performance artwork of the 1960s, Lennon then went on to document the media flack they took for it in “The Ballad of John and Yoko”. The chorus “They’re gonna crucify me” sets a high bar for the level of self aggrandisement and self-pity that artists might aspire to. This gave the green light to a cavalcade of performance artists in the 1970’s for whom careful manipulation of their personal image became the raison d’etre of their art.
In contrast, Ono’s influential performance work, Cut piece first staged in 1964 before she met Lennon, had been less about her and more about the audience. As they took it in turns to cut at her clothes with a pair of tailor’s shears, the audience members placed themselves in a morally unedifying position. Essentially they were complicit participants in the wilful and public demeaning of a young woman in a kind of strip poker where she always loses. What she exposes so simply is the suppressed aggression and even sadism that is released when “permission” is granted to attack a vulnerable woman. Marina Abramovic essentially replayed this idea in her performance work Rhythm O ten years later where she sat behind a table set with a range of 74 objects including scissors, a gun, a scalpel, a rose and a whip inviting the audience to use them as they wished. This table is displayed in blank accusatory fashion at the Tate Modern. The humiliation she suffered was similarly disturbing but from our present day perspective it appears that Abramovic’s performance is blunted by an egotistic and comic overkill compared to the subtle minimalism of the original Ono piece.
Abramovic has since been at the forefront of intimate personal exposure as a valid art genre, once claiming for herself the moniker the “grandmother of performance art,” an accolade that surely Ono deserves. She now disowns the “grandmother” tag preferring the label “pioneer” (an interesting comment on her attitude to aging). A recording of her seminal performance work, Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful was screened at the Lisson Gallery as part of the Performer/Audience/Mirror exhibition of seminal performance artworks in August 2016 and is also viewable on Youtube in a variety of versions.
Her manifesto for her art is stated quite starkly. She faces the camera and over a period of 15-20 minutes violently brushes her long dark tresses repeating with various degrees of desperation and resignation the injunction that gives the work its title. If the artist is the art object and if art is judged by its beauty this is the inescapable conclusion. In the closing frames of one version her agitation appears spent and she stares calmly into the camera. You are struck by her underlying confidence in her beauty which is manifested, like many other beautiful women, in the asymmetry of her face. The irony is that the artist appears for most of the performance to be tortured by the thought that she is not. The poignancy of this piece is that it purports to be a protest against the unrealistic pressures society places on the physical appearance of women. As Abramovic reached her sixties rather than resist this pressure it is sad but perhaps inevitable that her confidence could only be maintained by extensive plastic surgery that sliced thirty years off her physical age. To maintain her market value the artist who is an artwork has to undergo restoration like any other art object.
Performer/Audience/Mirror (1977) is another key performance video from the 1970’s. Dan Graham documents a performance in which he describes himself and his audience seated in front of a mirrored wall. He moves around in front of a mirror as in a dance class with his audience behind him sitting facing the mirror. He comments on the situation, his own movements and those of the audience interpreting the meaning and significance of the non-verbal signals that they are transmitting. NVC was a new “science ” in the 1970s generating interest in the uses of psychology in everyday interactions and his approach was similar to a teacher’s introductory experiential lesson on the topic. As a teacher he comes over as plodding and patronising but this exposes the inequitable power balance between the observer and the observed that is so corrosive in our surveillance society.
The German artist (sometimes dubbed an art prankster), Christian Jankowski, offers the exhibition’s standout work, Telemistica (1999). Its success derives from his careful balance of egotism and self-deprecation while he gently prods at significant social issues. His theme is the artist’s insecurity and need for reassurance which points to a more generalised case study of our own neediness. In Italy there was a vogue for TV phone-ins hosted by clairvoyants who would give you a live Tarot card reading. Jankowski, who was preparing an artwork for the Venice Biennale, videotaped his on-air conversations with these officially sanctioned charlatans as they confidently reassured him on his questions about his future success. Would he finish the work? Would he be satisfied with it? Would other people like it? Would he make money or enhance his reputation from it? What was brilliant about this is that the smug TV stars thought they were in the powerful position whereas in fact they were pawns in the artist’s game. They played their role to a tee by exposing their own vanity and a crude application of pop psychology. The ironic twist that raised this piece above a “gotcha” stunt was that Jankowski’s edit of these encounters formed the artwork he exhibited at the Biennale. Unlike many other performance artists he hides out of shot, anonymous, giving centre stage to other players to dramatise his ideas.
The other works in this show were a mixed bag – from the dire, arid academic exercise produced by Art and Language to the sardonic take on brand fandom on internet forums in a work by self-confessed computer nerd Cory Arcangel who will get a proper review in my next post on art using the internet as its subject.