Performance art, life crisis rituals

Edward Scheer: Mike Parr, Water from the mouth

Stelarc, MOVATAR performance 2000, Casula Powerhouse

Stelarc, MOVATAR performance 2000, Casula Powerhouse

Thanks to Mike Parr’s recent 10 day performance at Artspace, performance art has been back in the news (“Watered down Avant-garde or history in the making?”, Bruce James & John McDonald, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 4). Once again the sad spectacle of paranoid and pompous John McDonald trotted out for the benefit of those who like their opinions raw and clueless. Poor Bruce James got to present the case for the affirmative, but he’s too decent and subtle a critic to go into the ring against someone whose comment on a piece of live art is based on a long distance log in and years of squealing discomfort at the very thought. It’s true that performance art hit a peak of intensity of expression in the 1970s but does this mean it is an obsolete form as he repeatedly suggests? If the fashionable were the only true value for art, why would anyone continue to paint or sculpt or draw or photograph or even contribute relentlessly mediocre art criticism in the pages of
the SMH?

For years Parr has been the subject of enormous controversy generated by one or 2 conservative art critics in the mainstream press often hysterically denouncing the work, failing to see it in terms of performance but always returning it to a base representational stratum, even in one case (guess who) “a sickly parody of the genuine ordeals endured by political prisoners and other victims of oppressive regimes.” Hello? The crisis for artists engaging in this type of extreme parodic ritual is always that the passage through the symbolic is seen by the conservative critical establishment through a veil of what Parr calls “the dead forms of the symbolic”—cliched ideas in fixed positions.

Think of the celebrated case of Karen Finley, the most visible of the NEA4 in the culture wars of 1990, whose grant was rescinded after conservative scaremongering in the press. She appealed and eventually lost her case in 1998, defending her first amendment rights to freedom of speech but gained an enormous amount of bad publicity. Two conservative critics in a widely syndicated column labelled her “the chocolate smeared woman”, provoking howls of Republican outrage from the likes of Bush (Poppa Bush that is, not so long ago is it?), Helms, Rush Limbaugh and even Ollie North, about taxpayer sponsored “filth.” Her ongoing response has included a number of books, a renewed commitment to performance art and, of course, the obligatory Playboy spread.

Finley was and is repeatedly associated in the press with extreme feminist outrages, nudity and bodily fluids. But anyone reading her new collected writings in A Different Kind of Intimacy (Thunders Mouth Press, New York, 2000) can’t fail to be provoked by the politics or the pathos of her AIDS awareness actions and installations, or her “absolute radical humour” (Artaud). Did you know she played the doctor treating Tom Hanks in the film Philadelphia?

As this surprisingly palatable survey of a 20 year career of textual transgression attests, Finley’s performances often feature violent language and aggressive gestures, strip tease, smearing the body with food (famously chocolate, more recently honey) and monologues, delivered as if in a trance, on topics such as incest and abuse or, in her most recent piece Shut up and Love me (P.S.122, New York, October 2000), on other forms of botched intimacy and frustrated desire. In scene after scene the more Finley speaks the more unspeakable it gets, culminating in a honey bath recital in an S&M version of Winnie the Pooh. She has a talent for tapping in to American anxieties and repressions and ecstatically dramatising them:

“Dad let’s fuck, and then I can get my life going. I’ve been in therapy for over 10 years and it’s all about you. You. The way you never had any time for me. You abandoned me emotionally. Physically. And the way you treat women.” “Oh so that’s what this is about, my relationships with women.” He half chuckled while going over to the liquor cabinet and pouring himself a VO. He brought her a drink, swirled the glass and casually said, “You’re not my type.” “What do you mean I’m not your type? I’m your own flesh and blood.”

Her art is usually abreactive, purging herself of a trauma which is neither actual nor fictive but present, ie not a genuinely or personally felt trauma, nor a purely characterised or represented one as in conventional drama, but one which is carried into the present moment with a genuine force by re-enacting it or re-inscribing it into a ritual gesture.

In his essay “Post Human? All too Human,” McKenzie Wark argues that this abreactive approach to performance is based on an outdated experience of the body and that “the limitations of an artist like Karen Finlay (sic) lie here: in a defiant and ultimately nostalgic assertion of a body’s right to itself.” This, for him, is kind of “retro humanism”, not a sufficiently funky post-humanism. Wark adds that, “a rage against the machine, an oedipal shriek against daddy is not the same thing as a figuring and a figuring out of the patriarchal structures of second nature. It is, once again, a self ghettoisation within art as a romantic refuge. The refuge late 19th century romantics sought in framing landscape on the wall, late 20th century romantics seek in performing the body in the gallery.” This argument made in a defence of Stelarc ignores the fact that performing the body in the gallery is precisely what Stelarc has been doing for the last quarter century.

Stelarc of course deploys an extended concept of the corporeal but always in relation to a very present physicality, which doesn’t repudiate the body as Wark seems to want. On the other hand, Finley performs the body in a way that underscores its linkages to psycho-social processes and systems, and is concerned with narratives of ecstatic emotion such as anger, lust and loathing which animate a different conception of the body as visceral and interiorised. This is not quite the kind of dead-end narcissism to which Wark alludes either.

Some people just seem to find overt displays of physicality and emotion distressing. Such people should refrain from discourse about performance art (whereof one cannot speak etc). Finley’s work also exhibits emotion not simply as a personal catharsis but as site of transduction, developing an energy in one symbolic system for use in another, from body to language, from artistic corpus to social body, to generate a shift in potential and a symbolic transformation. Put simply, Finley’s work is intended to allow more freedom for the body, however it is conceived. Her anger is hilarious, hysteric and performative, but also designed to shift the parameters of permissible behaviour by staging the unspeakable and the unthinkable. It operates on and in the world.

Performance art develops what Victor Turner calls “life crisis rituals” in response to drastically changing social and personal conditions. In Stelarc’s work it is the life crisis of an obsolete body finding itself without sympathetic environments in an age of technological innovation that is accelerating beyond the capacities of the organism to adapt. For him, it is a life crisis of the species. For Mike Parr it is the compulsory socialised performance of self, the pervasive and suffocating requirement on all individuals to perform the endless role of consumer, citizen and subject. For Finley, it seems to be the sense of a loss of capacity for affect, tantamount to a loss of humanity, that her work seeks to dramatise. These artists are driven to imagine and perform rituals which can also transcribe the crisis of the time, embody it and make it livable. This is the function of performance art for all of them.

Mike Parr, Water from the mouth, Artspace, Sydney, April 26-May 5

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 29

© Dr E A Scheer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001
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