Grandmother of performance art: Yoko Ono or Marina Abramovic?

ono
Copyright Yoko Ono -still from Cutpiece, 1964, courtesy of the artist

 

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 broke up in the late 60’s, Ono’s and Lennon’s self regarding stunts were the signs 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 record their anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance”. This was perhaps the most widely reported  performance artwork of the 1960s. Lennon then documented the media flack they took for this in “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and with the chorus “They’re gonna crucify me” he set the 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 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 in the new performance art gallery at the  Tate  Modern Switch House. The humiliation she suffered was similarly disturbing but from our present day perspective it appears that Abramovic’s work is hampered by an unfortunate egotistical and comical 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’s Performer/Audience/Mirror exhibition this August and is also accessible on Youtube in a variety of versions.

abramovic
Copyright Marina Abramovic -still from Art must be beautiful, artist must be be beautiful, 1974 courtesy of the artist

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 then stuck by her underlying confidence in her beauty which is manifested, like many other striking 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 underlying 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 took 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.

dan-graham
Copyright Dan Graham – still from Performer /Artist/Mirror 1977 courtesy of the artist

In Performer/Audience/Mirror Dan Graham  documents his 1977 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 and it generated much of the popular interest in psychology and his approach was similar to a teacher’s introductory experiential lesson on the topic. However as a teacher he comes over as plodding and patronising.

jankowski
Copyright Christian Jankowski -still from Telemista, 1999 courtesy of the artist

The German artist (sometimes dubbed an art prankster), Christian Jankowski, for my money had the standout piece in this show, Telemistica (1999). Its success derives from his careful balance of egotism and self-deprecation while he gently prods at some significant social issues. His theme is the artist’s insecurity and need for reassurance which acts as a more generalised case study for 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, videoed his 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 their crude application of pop psychology. What raised this piece above a “gotcha” stunt was that the edit of these encounters was the eventual artwork exhibited at the Biennale. Unlike many other performance artists he is content to be anonymous, giving centre stage to others.

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.

 

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