Whether through intention or not, the discussion at the Southbank Center, which coincided with the Art of Change: New Directions from China exhibition, turned out to be less about politics in performance and more about the institutionalisation of performance and live art. More focused, but still within the scope of the original topic, the subject allowed the participants to address the political implications of the institutionalisation of Chinese performance art in the west, and to touch on the more general topic of performance art in relation to institutions – an issue that has been on many lips since Tate Modern officially gave their blessing to the form by opening the Tate Tanks.
Chaired by Stephanie Rosenthal, exhibition curator, the discussion contextualised the exhibition in relation to the history of Chinese performance art. With many artists now living in emigration and live art being pushed to various degrees below radar levels throughout the last 30 years, Chinese artists have developed a specific practice which values documentation far more than the actual performative act. Live art not being particularly popular amongst politicians, especially in post Tiananmen years, artists were looking to preserve and prove their practice, which was often witnessed only by the closest collaborators and friends. The resulting practice of studious archiving has in the meantime become a model for younger artists who now value the documentation more than the performance – and indeed often see performance as a necessary step to documentation. This specific relationship between making and archiving served as the initial thought for the exhibition, which features installation art with performative elements, rather than (potentially) imprisoned performances.
For Louis Keidan, Co-Director of the Live Art Development Agency, this contextualisation is a good starting point to discuss the potential perils of the interest performance art is gathering from institutions. Recognising that institutional acceptance means an all important increase in a piece’s cultural value, Keidan stressed the most basic of problems that surround museums, galleries and performance art makers: from a necessity to employ different economic models, and a need to manage audiences in a different manner, to the simple fact that most performance and live art is not made with exhibition spaces in mind. The most important issue she raised however is one of the potential politicisation of performance art via means of institutionalisation: having originated in 60s radical politics, performance art now finds itself in a position of raising its profile by being excepted by the establishment. This is where a more general discussion meets the exhibition at the Hayward gallery. Several years ago the V&A showcased photographs of Zhang Huan’s work, without referencing the artist and the context they were made in, treating them as photos only – the legitimacy of such a big institution ensuring this recontextualisation is not contested.
Similarly to Keidan, Sophia Hao, curator of the University of Dundee Gallery, sees the rise in institutional interest in performance art as a natural continuation of the (post) modern interest in the performance of self, rather than a straight out statement of interest in the art form. She offers another perspective on the issue – reminding that any exhibition, including the one being discussed, is nothing more than a selection. When the selection is made only out of work that manages to find its way from China to Europe, overcoming political and geographical obstacles along the way, it becomes equally relevant to discuss what wasn’t selected, and what criteria was used along the way. The difficulties of ignoring the curatorial judgements on a global scale become clear through discussing the reputation of Zhang Huan’s 12 square meters, as opposed to Xiaou Lu’s intervention to her installation Dialogue. The documentation of Huan’s work is the symbol of Chinese performance art in the west, with the auctions of photographs of his work delivering economic independence. Contrary to that, when Xiaou Lu shot her own work during the first state-supported exhibition of performance art, she not only managed to close the show down two days after the opening and land herself in prison, but also to stop all official recognition for the form – leading effectively to its ban. Despite the political intention and consequences, this act never became a reference point for western institutions.
What’s interesting about this discussion that only scratched the surface of many relevant points in regards to institutionalisation, is that Yingmei Duan, the only present artist, didn’t seem as involved by the issues – exerting an attitude of positive acceptance to all sites that might be interested in her work. Away from the discrepancy between artists and curators however, it seems that the subject of performance art in institutions does create enough of a spark between professionals to warrant a longer, more in depth and perhaps more ‘official’ discussion – perhaps one that would allow for a systematic approach to institutionalisation. With all participants mentioning and even stressing the practical difficulties of appropriating performative work for the gallery context, it might also be the time to raise the terminologically difficult issue of why there is no concern for theatre institutions embracing performance art. As Lois Keidan pointed out, museums are far more relevant when it comes to reflecting this kind of work, then giving it a new home; with the history of performance related to theatre as much as visual arts, maybe it’s time there was a knock on the door of the National Theatre.