Some Thoughts on Performance and Materiality


Out of Actions Catalogue Cover

Cover of "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979," ed. Paul Schimmel, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998.

In 1998, Paul Schimmel organized what is now considered to be one of the definitive exhibitions on performance art. Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object was the first major museum survey of performance art, covering practices in the US, Europe and Japan, and opening up the door for a slew of museum exhibitions  in more recent years that feature performance. MoMA’s Marina Abramović show (2010), the Guggenheim’s Tino Seghal exhibition (2010), this year’s Whitney Biennial and the soon-to-open SFMoMA exhibition Stage Presence, not to mention many smaller museum exhibitions featuring performance art, were undoubtedly enabled by the precedent set by Out of Actions. Perhaps the most telling shift has been MoMA’s decision in 2008 to amend the name of the Department of Media to The Department of Media and Performance Art, clearly signalling that in the intervening decade, performance had found its place within the major art institutions.

Influential as Out of Actions continues to be, as an early experiment in the institutionalization of an inherently experimental medium, it did not go without controversy, even within the very space of the museum itself. As Michael Rush noted in his review of the exhibition for Performance Art Journal in 1999:

For “Out of Actions,” two L.A.-based artists with long track records in performance and multimedia, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, were invited to “introduce” the exhibition in what would inevitably be a controversial manner, given their proclivities. . . . To the museum’s credit, they let stand what is essentially a debunking of the exhibition’s very existence, which, in Kelley’s and McCarthy’s eyes, is an attempt “to sway the construction of the history of performance art in the direction of a materialist art-historical reading.” “Museums,” they go on to say in a printed statement available in the gallery, “continue to find it difficult to present work whose . . . form and subject are time, memory, perception, spoken language, sound, human action, and interaction. . . . This prejudice creates an object-oriented history of contemporary art. Many significant works of art do not reference the genres of sculpture or painting and are not meant to be seen within the physical framework of the museum.”

Certainly in comparison to exhibitions such as Abramović’s and Sehgal’s, in which the experiential aspect of the work is relayed by hiring live performers to stage, or re-stage as it may be, the works within the space of the museum, an exhibition that focuses on the material remains of performance–photographs and videos, sketches and scripts, paintings and sculptures made through performance–may seem tame. And presenting such work as indicative of the entire spectrum of performance art may be misleading, but at the same time, performance that operates within the field of the visual arts must always, in one manner or another, grapple with the issue of the art object. Even the pointedly ephemeral work of Tino Sehgal, who insists on leaving no physical traces of his artworks (to the degree that he even refuses to make sketches or take photographic documentation), is still conceived in reaction to the art object. Not only do individual works like Kiss directly quote historical artworks by Courbet, Rodin, and Koons, but Sehgal’s entire practice is conceived as a reaction against the impulse–manifested most incisively within the artworld, but applicable to our greater economic reality–to create more things in a world already groaning under the strain of material production.

Tino Sehgal's The Kiss (2006)

Tino Sehgal. "Kiss" (performance), 2006. 4th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.

This tension between the material and the ephemeral is one of the central issues of performance art, played out across the decades to differing effect. At the root of this question is perhaps the desire to de-mystify art and bring it closer to the everyday. This trajectory was not unique to performance: it could be seen in Rauschenberg’s Combines, Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ‘38 (1964), and Akasegawa Genpei’s 1000-yen and Zero-yen notes, to name but a few of the many works produced contemporaneously with the growth of performance art that made everyday scenes and objects the focal point of artistic inquiry. This interest in the everyday, which seems to have its origins in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s but continues through today, coincides with the period of high industrialization, commodification and mediatization that has radically shifted our relationship to our physical environment.

It can be argued that we have lost our conceptual connection to our material environment as the process of making has become industrialized, taken far out of our view and produced in quantities that encourage a devaluing of the now readily replaceable object. In the introduction to his recent book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett argues “first, that all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices; second, that technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination,” implying that in order to understand, value and appropriately use the material world around us, we must have a sensitivity borne of making: an intimate knowledge of both the positive and negative potentials of materials. He goes on to say that “History has drawn fault lines dividing practice and theory, technique and expression, craftsman and artist, maker and user; modern society suffers from this historical inheritance,” and that it is only by rethinking this relationship that we can learn alternative methods for handling the environmental and social problems borne of this divide.

In her essay for the Out of Actions catalogue, Kristine Stiles sounds a similar note when stating that “objects are not commodities in and of themselves; rather, attitudes about and uses of objects make them so–or do not–in relation to the actions that bring them into being.” She argues that we understand objects by the network of associations they imply, from their origins to their physical attributes and their potential uses. In this context, “what is missing from art objects, what artists engaged in action restore to them, is that relationality between making and doing and the artifactuality itself.” This definition of the problems of the art object parallels Sennett’s explanation of our troubled relationship to the material world, and focuses the problem on building a connection between head and hand, or to put it differently, revealing the process behind the object. Performance, then, resides in shifting focus from object to process, thereby drawing us into a relationship with the making of, and the makers of, our material world. As the social aspect of this relationship is played up, the resulting object may become more obscure–Stiles’ example of Abramović and Ulay’s bun connecting their tiring bodies in Relation in Time is a prime example of such an obscure object–but objects remain a key component of the conceptualization of performance.

Marina Abramović and Ulay. "Relation in Time," 1977. Performance still.

Beyond this issue of the origins of the object, the problem of our relationship to the material, physical world can also be seen through the process of mediatization. With the proliferation of photography, television, and the internet, we have lost a sense of the distinction between first- and second-hand experience. We receive much of our second-hand information through the same perceptual senses with which we experience the world around us. We no longer have to read text or hear a description and imagine a scene–it is given to us as a visual image, even a moving visual image–and so we feel as if we experienced the situation ourselves, rather than merely learned of it.

This problem is essentially the problem of metaphor versus embodiment. Kaprow saw this problem within the field of painting, arguing in his 1966 book Assemblage, Environments, Happenings that “Painting had become a symbol rather than power…something which stood for experience rather than acting directly upon it.” His answer was to make the artwork into the experience by constructing immersive environments and designing participatory performances, aka Happenings. This investigation of the art object can even be conceptually expanded to include objects traditionally considered as documentation or inert objects to be performative. Consider Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) in which the dancer she films (Talley Beatty) leaps, in a single sequence, through a forest, a living room, the Egyptian Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and finally a panoramic landscape. Deren specifically considered these to be “dances choreographed and performed by the camera and by human beings together.” At the heart of these ambiguities, though, remains the essential question of agency, answered by the performative impulse: in Stiles’ words, “an art of actions meant that art could be simultaneously representational and presentational, simultaneously claiming the primacy of the body as metaphorical content and as concrete presentational form.”


My own interest in performance stems from these anxieties and ambiguities regarding the physical, material world. I feel that we in contemporary society are on a trajectory for these issues of material production and mediated experience to become ever more acute, and so I find the relation of object and performance to be fertile ground for investigation.  It is the tension of the object that can be read as performative in its implied action or trace of former action, as well as the performance that shifts the process of artmaking from the studio to the exhibition space, often implicating the viewer in the process, that I find most compelling as a corrollary to these larger societal issues. In the posts that will follow, I will explore different approaches and issues related to–as well as individual artists concerned with–the performance-object problem, but always in relation to larger concerns of interaction and socialization for, as Elaine Scarry puts it in her study The Body in Pain, “a made object is a projection of the human body.”