The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Christo­pher Allen

Te­hch­ing Hsieh: Time Clock Piece Car­riage­works, Eveleigh, Syd­ney, to July 6

THE distinc­tion usu­ally made be­tween per­for­mance art and act­ing is that the lat­ter en­tails the pro­duc­tion of an il­lu­sion, while the for­mer is the dis­play of some­thing that is re­ally hap­pen­ing be­fore our eyes. Not that this lit­eral truth is su­pe­rior to the po­etic truth that may be con­veyed by il­lu­sion: Plutarch mem­o­rably quotes Socrates’s con­tem­po­rary Gor­gias as say­ing that in the para­dox­i­cal or­der of the theatre, “the man who de­ceives is more just than the one who does not de­ceive, and the man who is de­ceived is wiser than the one who is not”.

In re­al­ity, the aes­thetic scope of per­for­mance art is very nar­row com­pared with the breadth and depth of great theatre. But it can have its own com­pelling in­ter­est, and like all forms of mod­ernism, or in­deed of ear­lier forms of art, needs to be un­der­stood within its his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural set­ting. The great pe­riod of per­for­mance art was in the 1970s and 80s, when artists, fac­ing the overwhelming tide of con­sumerist kitsch and the si­mul­ta­ne­ous com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of con­tem­po­rary high art, sought au­then­tic­ity in min­i­mal, con­cep­tual and other forms of aes­thetic ex­pres­sion.

All of these modes of art shared a cer­tain aus­ter­ity and a taste for re­duc­tive, al­most as­cetic spare­ness. In the case of per­for­mance art, the most nat­u­ral way to con­vey the sense of re- al­ity was for the ac­tion to in­volve some kind of dif­fi­culty, pain or test of en­durance. Most of the mem­o­rable acts of per­for­mance art, whether by Ma­rina Abramovic, Chris Bur­den or our own Mike Parr, have been or­deals or even mor­ti­fi­ca­tions of the flesh. Some have in­volved in­stant, mo­men­tary phys­i­cal pain, as when Bur­den had him­self shot or Parr lit a fuse wire around his calf. Oth­ers, like the roar­ing match be­tween Abramovic and her part­ner Ulay, were con­tests of at­tri­tion. But many have sim­ply in­volved en­durance through time, in which rel­a­tively low lev­els of dis­com­fort, pri­va­tion or bore­dom are mag­ni­fied by du­ra­tion.

And this re­veals an­other dif­fer­ence be­tween per­for­mance art and theatre (or cin­ema, which is the ex­ten­sion of theatre just as video art is the ex­ten­sion of per­for­mance art). The time of theatre is elas­tic, ab­stract, sym­bolic: the events of days or even months can be dis­played in two or three hours of stage time, al­though Aris­to­tle rec­om­mended that the plot of a tragedy should ideally un­fold within a sin­gle day. Film­mak­ers too know that re­al­ism or sus­pense can be en­hanced by slow­ing nar­ra­tive pace to match the time that is meant to be rep­re­sented.

In per­for­mance art, time is lit­eral, and there is no distinc­tion be­tween nar­ra­tive pace and an un­der­ly­ing, im­plicit chronol­ogy of events: the only event al­luded to is the one be­fore our eyes. So one of the in­ter­ests of per­for­mance art is as a med­i­ta­tion on time and its pas­sage: a phe­nom­e­non that is at once more real and in­eluctable than any fact about the hu­man con­di­tion, yet in an­other sense com­pletely un­real or at least in­ef­fa­ble.

Philoso­phers have long spec­u­lated that time

Te­hch­ing Hsieh in the cage in which he spent a year in isolation, top; tied to per­for­mance artist Linda Mon­tano, left

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