In Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (1978-9), the Taiwanese artist secluded himself in a cell for a year. He did not converse, watch TV, read, or even write. He just sat there. It was one of the most extreme pieces of performance art ever attempted, an almost unimaginable feat of endurance—and yet, it was finite. Even if it had persisted to the artist’s death, it would have ended with him. In art as in sports, one’s limitations are never more obvious than when they are pushed.
Performance art, by definition, consists of finite events that resist being preserved and cataloged in the same manner as are, say, paintings and sculptures. Some artists embrace this ephemerality—the Walker Art Center paid a very considerable sum for a Tino Seghal piece that the artist performed under the condition that it not be photographed, filmed, or otherwise documented as it was happening—while others make the documentation part of the piece, which is convenient for many reasons even if it might be seen as corrupting or diffusing the otherwise “pure” performance.
Pioneering performance artist Marina Abramović, a native of Serbia who became infamous in the 1970s for innovate, extreme pieces like 1975’s Thomas Lips (in which she cut a star into her bare stomach with a razor blade and proceeded to lie down on a bed of ice under a heating lamp) and 1977’s Imponderabilia (in which she and the male artist Ulay stood naked facing one another across a narrow museum door, so that visitors entering the museum had to squeeze between the two), is currently in the process of founding an establishment in called the Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art. The Institute—located in Hudson, New York—will serve as a museum for the preservation of artifacts and notes related to important performance art as well as a venue for the enactment of new and classic works.
Editor Paula Orrell’s volume Marina Abramović and the Future of Performance Art (Prestel, 2010) is thus well-timed, though its title makes it sound far more ambitious than it actually is. The richly illustrated 168-page book was released to coincide with the performance-art exhibit The Pigs of Today are the Hams of Tomorrow (the first exhibit sponsored by Abramović’s institute), which has been running since January at the Plymouth Arts Centre in Plymouth, England; its first section contains information on the six artists who are participating in that exhibit, though with few details on what precisely they are doing there. It also contains some information about the creation of the Institute and documentation of a remarkably ambitious installation awkwardly titled Marina Abramović Presents… (In their essay on the show, Maria Balshaw and Alex Poots note that the title was adopted for publicity purposes and was not particularly to the liking of the eponymous curator.)
For that show, Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery was entirely emptied of its collection (no mean feat, especially since the pieces on display included wallpaper and fragile textiles) and filled with 13 performance artists, including Abramović. The exhibit lasted for 17 days, and the purchase of a ticket entitled (indeed, nominally required) each patron to be present for four hours on each of those days. Each day would begin with an episode of a piece by Abramović aptly titled The Drill, in which the lab-coated spectators would be led by Abramović in actions like drinking glasses of water slowly over the course of ten minutes. Thus initiated, they were free to roam about the space for the remaining time—watching Yingmei Duan stand (naked) running her hands over her own body, Kira O’Reilly falling (naked) down a flight of stairs in extreme slow-motion, Amanda Coogan leaping (half-naked) onto a giant yellow pad, and other feats of art.
For all those who attended Marina Abramović Presents… and for many of those visiting the Manchester exhibit, Marina Abramović and the Future of Performance Art will be an essential document. It will be of interest to other performance art buffs; for everyone else, a flip-through is probably more than adequate. The essays, with the exception of interviews with Abramović and Hsieh, run through the art-criticism paces without being particularly illuminating; the fact that photographs predominate in the book is just as well, since each photo is worth well more than a thousand words when the words are so awkwardly overripe. (“Her skin, mottled from the effects of gravity and exertion, sheaths a tightly packed lean musculature.”) When the Manchester show closes on March 21, this Future will become the past, and for considered thoughts about what that future will actually entail, you will have to look elsewhere.