Performance Art and the Quest for Authenticity

By Lee Wen

By some unforeseen serendipitous design the artists invited to this year’s “Future of Imagination 8” are from Poland, Vietnam and China. One hasten to see them as countries with differing commitment to performance art almost like some mathematic equation not discovered yet in which the other factors are their commitments to communism and global capitalism. This has prompted our forum discussion we are planning to be entitled: “Solid Air: – comparative reflections on the intertwining of performance art and politics." A play of words derived from the quote taken from the Communist Manifesto: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life.”

The quote to me is a poetic call for authenticity that strikes a chord with the cause of performance art surely. The question underlying many long drawn discussions and conferences of how and why we do performance art or participate in producing this obscure activity and elusive entity seems to be the search for authenticity. This question enter our discussions often disguised or hidden itself behind related but secondary issues such as the definition and differentiation between various forms, methodology, spontaneity and hybridity of working strategies, or the politics of art sponsorship, etc. Often initiated by an intentional exercise as if to claim a special unique status for performance art in order to regain its edge on our jadedness over conceptually explained, ideologically bias, and inadequately historicized perception of art and culture.

Displaced post war baby-boomers enlightened by liberating ideas in sociology, psychology and philosophy influenced artists from 1960’s in embarking on strategies of art production that challenged conventional definitions of art and culture. i The idea or context of the work became of utmost importance more than the resulting material form or object, which was usually “secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious”. ii The experimenting responded to new materials and inventions at the same time sprouting hybrid forms, exploring alternative spaces and locations, opening new directions in terms of collaborations, ignoring prevalent judgments of values based on market demands for stable enduring qualities for preservation or commoditization considerations. Together with conceptual art, process art, land art, and other time based art, performance art appeared to be motivated by a driven intention in seeking temporal and ephemeral nature of time-based medium as an intrinsic value in itself indicating its authentic purity.

The initial rejection by mainstream cultural institutions and academia and sometimes even severe official sanctions gave the new propositions added credibility if not heroic stances of radicalism and stoic resistance. These may somewhat become troublesome historical baggage throwing suspicions on its once shining pride if not proof of authenticity when one of its initial motivations was a conscious disregard for commoditization. Yet under growing dominance of consumerism and market capitalism and the desire to acknowledge significant works and preserving historical memory by transferring their ephemeral into longer lasting media like photography, film, video and sound recordings. The changed status of conceptual, performance art with its inevitable gradual acceptance and consensus may be due to society’s changing perception of the intrinsic cultural values and potential contribution that an ephemeral work in the form of performance or any other time based art may have and deserving support. However detractors suspiciously look at them with being subverted by market enterprise entrepreneurs to create possibilities of profitable transactions if not becoming pawns for the propaganda of institutions that represent the powers that be and the established status quo.

Contextual derivations

The word authentic derived from Greek origins referred to the “one who accomplishes”. It describes an action that refers to embodiment and participation in life, adhering to fidelity, actuality and fact, compatibility with a certain source or origin, accordance with usage or tradition, a complete sincerity and devotion without feigning or hypocrisy. At the risk of being seen as narcissistic and attention-seeking, performance art recommend a directness of the artist presenting himself as participant when producing and presenting the work itself. The creator and creation are one. This directness not only demands courage of overcoming stage fright but also the historical cultural difference of presenting one self in art making even as the idea of painting realistic images of human and in particular self portraiture may be so alien that most countries in Asia only started manifesting performance art in the late 1980’s. iii

In loosely roving round table open discussions on performance art often get caught up in the two recurring questions that tend to harp on repetitively:

  1. Performance art is the antithesis of theatre, and closer to real life.

  2. Advocate objective use of material, space, time-frame and body instead of symbolic images of narratives that involves personal, private, ethnic or emotional meanings.

Advocates on both sides tend to claim superior or purity, which are merely different positions on a wide spectrum of art forms that performance art stand on. As much as any art form may also offer authentic expressions of human consciousness, performance may be more suitable in our time of extreme individualism and may manifest an immense permutation of creativity and imaginative expression. It would be more fruitful if we learn to discern the nature of each artist’s motivation in presenting the performance and evaluate its level of authenticity in relation to her personal, individual as well as social, historical and cultural background. Works of art in the form of traditional media as objects are said to possess nominal and expressive authenticity. Nominal authenticity is the correct identification of the authorship, or source and ownership history of an object, ensuring that, as an object of aesthetic experience should be properly identified. However most of our discussions deal with its expressive authenticity when appreciating or discussing the nature or character of the artwork as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs.iv The analysis when applied in performance art sometimes become body specific, even including privacy of the artist.

Historical authenticity

The evolution of human consciousness did not happen in isolation to form homogenous civilizations as most of us imagine and like to claim.v Most civilizations would proudly claim their own originality and likely to also lean towards xenophobic inclinations and differentiating those outside their borders as uncivilized barbarians. Thus when we compare origins of performance art in different countries it is more likely to be in a quark mire not only of its iconoclastic avant-garde ideals but before all else being accused of imbibing foreign derivative influences that are of no relation to local contexts. Amongst the various countries I have worked in there are overlapping similarities how our societies functions and individual artists respond.

In China, performance art became a more apparent art practice in the late 1980’s markedly complicated at the same time by public student demonstrations in Tian An Men Square in 1989. In the same year the closing of the national exhibition of “experimental art” (实验艺术 shiyan meishu) featuring a performance by artists Tang Song and Xiao Lu during which Xiao fired on their installation consisting of a telephone kiosk. The performance was ironically entitled dialogue (对话 duihua) setting the image of notoriety of performance art in China. vi Performance art was closely watched in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai often harassed by officialdom sometimes to be held in clandestine situation as underground activity.

My first visit to China was in 2001 to participate in ‘The 2nd Open Art Festival’ organized by Chen Jin, Shu Yang and Zhu Ming. They were originally planning to hold it in Beijing, artists were shocked to hear plans were changed to take a 36 hour train to hold it in Chengdu, Sichuan Province instead as there were news that their event was being closely monitored by the police after the first event held last year got shut due to complains of obscenity (i.e., nudity in public spaces). An unused brick factory in the out squirts of Penghu County became the venue for 3 days, the second day we had rain that forced us to work in the hotel we were staying which ironically had a police post in the corner of the same building. Hence it was unbelievable that we ran from Beijing like underground refugees and presented performances right in front of policemen without much hassles. After which some performances were presented in Lushun and Chengdu before we headed back to Beijing via a 44-hour train from Chengdu after 17 August 2001. vii

When I participated in another event, 2nd DaDao Live Art Festival, Beijing in 2004, organized by Shu Yang and Wang Zhuyu, the scenario had changed tremendously whereby artists were performing in a sponsored spaces of a not yet occupied post-modern architecture complex with a hip name as ‘Beijing Soho’. viii The event did hit some problems of being under threat of closure on the third day when one artist did a performance beyond the designated areas, while another one drew some blood in a clean operation under the care of a professional doctor and nurse. Negotiations went on with the sponsoring company’s management while the artists were in a panel discussion and symposium held at Now Design Club, Dashanzi Art District. The final agreement was to carry on the festival but to ensure not to break the 3 conditions of not allowing violence (any blood letting), no pornography (no nudity) and no infringement of performing within the designated spaces. To my surprise the organizers were still willing to allow performances that knowingly would break the rules highlighted by the sponsors and to schedule them as the last in the program.

A closer look at Poland and Vietnam showed different characteristics from their introduction as they lie mostly outside the usual mainstream radar of art world perception. A comparison of the historical context and how individuals invent the varied strategies juxtaposed within constrains and possibility of local contexts. The artists sometimes borrowed ideas as springboard to give examples of how hybrid attitude manifested as actions may spring forth-authentic images beyond expectations.

Whereas the initial pioneers in fact challenged market capitalism and openly posed an anti-establishment stand, artists in China, Poland and Vietnam featured a cautious attitude as in most other communist regimes. The tendency to subdue such messages focusing on subtle implications that hopefully may have alternative readings the informed audiences can discern but would convey otherwise abstract if not absurd actions that mesmerized censors into allowing them without censure. ix

While artists in Poland began working in tandem with the pioneering efforts of early initiators they did also maintained a softer stance of not offending or alarming an already censorious conservative oppressive social system. In 1978 an event called “Performance and Body’ held in Lublin’s Galleria Labirynt, marked the visibility of performance art as a legitimate art practice, at the same time artists in solidarity took care not to offend the authorities. Andrzej Mroczek, the then director of the Galeria Labirynt received news from the Municipal Culture Department that permission was withdrawn just one day before the scheduled event but decided to go ahead with the full program and was officially reprimanded later.

Vietnam has seen tremendous turbulent changes after years of war and only regain its full unification of North and South in 1975. Although performance art did not get any official approval and is still not allowed or accepted in Hanoi University of Fine Arts, the most prestigious art institution of art education in Vietnam, performance art seem to be more actively explored by artists in Hanoi, in formerly North Vietnam. Veronika Radulovic as a guest lecturer had helped introduced information and knowledge to students attending Hanoi University of Fine Arts. Tran Luong as veteran artist, mentor and organizer helped keep possibilities of working in difficult situations. Their ordeals and struggles help us realize how the different historical context of the artists lead to make performance art such a special form of practice even today.

Romance into Truth

The quest for authenticity that led us to performance art have changed and shifted in recent years. As performance art becomes more visible in museums, biennales and other official institutions, it loses early status of critical resistance and radical anti-establishment status. The art market boom in China helped boost some artists to stardom if not also commercial success beyond expectations other artists continue struggling unabated without international exposure. As pioneer artists gain both academia and institutional recognition in Poland they pride themselves as pure anti-commercialism without submitting to art market unlike younger generation of performance artists who work in various media simultaneously. Vietnamese artists straddle between mixed receptions of performance art almost like an underground status yet sometimes seen a passé form in resistance strategy.

However performance art is just like any media of art if the artist wants to preserve it or participate in its commercial value as it may be transferred into various media. The measure of authenticity is not intrinsic in its form. Neither is it radical to create upheaval and mischief in itself. The romantic presumptions of performance art arouses so much regulatory sanctions from state authorities at the same time motivates many misguided young artists. Our loyalty to performance art shall be her suitability like any other media for the continued engagement in the production of art. The quest for authenticity shall continue as our playing fields gain grounds. We should embrace those who embrace us and continue the quest for authenticity. We shall learn to fill them by our ability to create poetry yet unseen and appreciate those who do so from different strangeness outside our known territory and learn languages of individual permutations of fundamental distinguishing features, if we are to be artists seekers of truth, authentic poets of action.

i Carlson, Marvin (2003): Performance: A Critical Introduction; New York and London: Routledge; pg.80, 101-105

ii Lucy Lippard, (1973): Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972: Praeger, vii

iii Lee Wen, Chinese Thought And Its Relationship to Portraiture: a comparative overview http://issuu.com/leewen/docs/chinese_thought_and_its_relationship_to_portraitur

iv Duton, Dennis; “Authenticity in Art,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

v Campbell, Joseph: Primitive Mythology, Occidental Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Creative Mythology (Masks of God) Penguin, (re-issued 1991)

vi Berghuis, Thomas J.: Performance Art in China, Hong Kong, and Timezone 8 Limited, 2006, 310 pp.

vii The 2nd Open Art Festival was held in Pengshan County, Leshan and Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, 8 - 17 August 2001, Organized by Chen Jin, Shu Yang and Zhu Ming


viii 2nd DaDao Live Art Festival in Beijing, China, 13--17 July. 2004, Curators; WANG Chuyu, XIANG Xishi, Frencesca Jordan, Director; SHU Yang. Cooperation; Live Art Development Agency, Trace Gallery (UK), SOHO China Ltd.; Support; Arts Network Asia, Wales Arts International. http://www.araiart.jp/dadao.html

ix My knowledge of performance art in the context of Poland and Vietnam are mostly based on the information from conversations with artists, first hand observations from working and the essays published in this catalogue.