EXERCISES IN STRUGGLE
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