Approaching Performance Art: You Amuse Me / I Frighten You

21 Oct 2019

By Deniz Kirkali and Sandy Di Yu

Of all the art forms heralded as contemporary, few have been so misunderstood or dismissed as performance. Despite the divisive nature of this medium, good art should be challenging, to audiences and hegemony, creating new discourse through its ability to disrupt. That’s where performance finds its prowess.

Of all the art forms heralded as contemporary, few have been so misunderstood or dismissed as performance. It’s a divisive medium that disregards the logic of commodity and takes no heed of mainstream sensibilities about what is and isn’t art. It at once transgresses existing power structures (of ownership, of those that maintain the boundaries of art) and reinforces art as inaccessible, pretentious, verging on (or fully regarded as) elitist.

"Performance cannot be owned, not in the same way that one can own a painting or a sculpture."

On its surface level, the contradictory characterisations of performance are obvious. Performance cannot be owned, not in the same way that one can own a painting or sculpture, or even a video or sound clip. It goes against the complex of the collection, the foundation on which many may consider traditional conceptions of art to be premised. What’s more, it transgresses the logic of capitalistic commodity, the single doorway through which art becomes accepted into the (capitalistic, commodity-obsessed) mainstream. To exist outside of this logic at all is an affront to the hegemonic powers of capital that dictate the injustices of the world.

The obvious flip side of this is that performance art, in many ways, is not easily digestible for the masses. It isn’t to be consumed with the effortlessness of TV shows or movies that have a clear narrative arc. It isn’t simply entertainment, full stop. To have come across performance in formal education means to have access to higher education. Standardised grade school curriculums offer little beyond the type of art that can be traded on the market, and performance certainly doesn’t make the cut even if it does sometimes make the news, boasting headlines that denote how zany and weird artists can be.

"Performance becomes all the more accessible when it appropriates codes of more traditional entertainment."

That's not to say that performance intends to remain exclusive, as is obvious with its technical aspects: performance is often free to attend, it can occur in places outside of institutional art spaces, and, as independent curator and associate curator at Kunstraum in London Camille Bréchignac explains, performance becomes all the more accessible when it appropriates codes of more traditional entertainment, such as dance or music. “An opening without a performance will certainly attract less footfall,” she says, revealing the function of the medium within art. “Performance has become an essential actor in the art entertainment business.”

Between these two poles of inaccessibility to the public and transgression against capitalistic power structures, between the ideological wall of how to approach performance and the technical ease in which one might be able to attend a performance, are audiences asking if performance is, in fact, art. It’s clear that in the public eye, the same old question of “what is art” continues to drive discourse about culture. A painting is more easily regarded as art than performance, and this is understandably due to a myriad of reasons, with a lack of funding in arts education being prominent among them. Whilst there are those who argue that anything can be art, the contemporary strain of this dictates that good art should be challenging, to audiences and hegemony, creating new discourse through its ability to disrupt. That’s where performance finds its prowess.

"If there's a revolution, it’s gonna be a performance, not a painting.”

American-born London-based artist Tyler Eash, who amongst his many skills engages in performance most prominently, is something of a performance evangelist. He’s lectured on performance at arts institutions and dabbled in the likes of performance media that fall neatly between fine art, theatre, and dance. In a casual conversation on the value of performance art and art critics’ preference for one medium over another, he illustrates the stark difference between supporting a working-class artist who sells to soothe the concerns of wealthy patrons and a working-class artist who uses their art to critique the exchanges of capitalism and power. In this dichotomy, the latter becomes more of a cultural instigator. “If there's a revolution,” he tells me, “it’s gonna be a performance, not a painting.”

He demonstrates this in a recent exhibition curated by Camille Bréchignac at The Workshop in London, revealing how performance works are vital in challenging audiences and performers alike in their relation to body, presence and space. The exhibition, titled You Amuse Me / I Frighten You, spanned three days in June and explored issues of identity and authenticity, incorporating performance as an indispensable part of its becoming. Co-produced by Ashleigh Barice of b.Dewitt Gallery and featuring both Eash and fellow London-based artist Christopher Hinojosa in two individual projects, the show incorporated video, photography and sculpture along with its performance aspects.

Stills from headlights, the Workshop, London, 2019. Photo by Liz Calvi.

Whilst performance by its very nature evokes questions about authority and authenticity, in You Amuse Me / I Frighten You, authority and authenticity are irrevocably intermeshed with each other as it opens up with questions about to whom either can be attributed to.

Who gets to talk about what? Is it the artist who gets to claim a stance? Is she allowed to communicate an authentic experience or to give critique, or to simply tell a story via personal experience? How can the artist authentically convey lived oppression, marginalised identities or a lack of privilege without falling into the position of victim?

In the attempt to provide an answer, and in blurring the lines between authentic and inauthentic, authority and lack thereof, both artists shift from the position of victim to one of empowerment in order to gain access to the asserted 'truth’, a position where being the storyteller implies immense freedom over what can be believed. This is a freedom that disregards what the audience may already believe or disbelieve.

In both Eash’s and Hinojosa’s works, the individual pieces offer a generous invitation towards the audience, a hospitality that signifies the power possessed by each artist. She who openly and graciously gives a direct gaze, to convince, to welcome into its being or to host, holds a position of ownership or authority.

And as an audience being hosted in the space in question, you immediately feel this openness, vulnerability and generosity from an empowered and perhaps even manipulative angle. The viewer may feel as if they're peeking inside the hidden corners of the artists’ bodies and worlds if they can make their way through the remnant objects and distractions and crowd. The objects they come across in the large room look staged and faux, like they don’t belong (neither to the Louvre nor to this fictionalized space), floating somewhere in between as permanently nomadic objects.

And around them, one may feel vulnerable but welcome.

Film still from Mountain, Tyler Eash, 2019.

Tyler Eash’s “Mountain”, newly commissioned for this exhibition, is a video performance work that conflates animality with labour and the working class while using neoclassical sculptures to symbolise the physical manifestation of wealth. In both video and the accompanying live performance, he navigates the tension between authenticity and authority while tackling issues of wealth disparity through the perspective of lived experience. He confronts the audience with stares, silhouettes, sounds, rough and shiny industrial material, references, and lies. Reality and credibility become irrelevant when he performs.

monument I, Tyler Eash, worn work coveralls, resin, jesmonite, faux finish by pierre-yves morel, 2019.

monument I, Tyler Eash, worn work coveralls, resin, jesmonite, faux finish by pierre-yves morel, 2019. Photo by Liz Calvi.

It begins with piercing blue eyes of a horse, unabashedly holding your gaze, a gaze that then shifts onto Eash, donned in nylon-covered flesh and a pair of black rain boots. Hands caressing the horse’s skin transform into hands casting Eash’s body. Then an incisive question: “Have you ever wanted something so badly that you became your want?”

And what exactly is the artist’s want? Eash embodies animalistic gestures set against mechanical sounds, recalling Boris Groys’ modification of the traditional animal/man/God trichotomy: “In present day, we tend to situate man between the animals and the machines [as opposed to between the animals and God]… as the machine paradigm was assimilated, the contemporary human being was increasingly seen as an animal acting as a machine - an industrial machine or a computer.” (In the Flow, pg 36, Verso, 2017.) Perhaps he wants to reclaim the position prior to God, to no longer be an animal-machine under the guise of labour.

monument IV, Tyler Eash, worn work coveralls, resin, jesmonite, machine detergent container, rubber work boot, steel, faux finish by pierre-yves morel, 2019. Photo by Liz Calvi.

At this point, those unfamiliar with (or perhaps uncomfortable with) performance might ask: How are you supposed to experience this? Performance isn’t mere form and aesthetics, nor does it entertain in a way structured by literary devices (although it certainly can incorporate either). An openness may be required, to be okay with being duped by the performer, to withhold any previous reservations about what art can be and to abstain from judgment until the performance is over. This particular performance incites self-reflection, asking you to question your own corporeality, your wish to survive, your privileges and lack thereof. It makes you aware of your own embodied oppression, your desires, carnal and existential. Your own becomings.

The video rolls on with the horse’s stare transforming into Eash’s, confrontational in a way that holds its audience hostage. His body blends with the smooth texture of whiteness surrounding the Louvre, its galleries and public toilets. Other sculpted bodies, white and smooth-surfaced, non-living, fly above us as angelic music replaces the mechanic sound of the motorcycle, cutting to a 3-D printer in the process of making inanimate silhouettes. These soundless objects are given voice by Eash.

Film still from Mountain, Tyler Eash, 2019.

Film still from Mountain, Tyler Eash, 2019.

Animals just are, he says. We, on the other hand, are becoming to survive. Eash is transforming, turning whiter, becoming marble. He turns into an autoerotic sculpture, penis interwoven with other phallic sculpting gestures with the help of caressing and shaping hands. The transition is complete when he finally “becomes” his own Neoclassical sculpture. He is then given voice:

“I am vengeance. I’m a fire, I am beyond time, I am multitudes, I am plural, I am perversion of men. Men, halfway between God and animal. A depiction of God, more than animal. A perversion of God’s body. I am very large. I am a mountain.”

The video performance ends with the artist peering through a cracked mirror and locking eyes with his own reflection, a recall of the opening scene with the horse’s eye. “Mountain” diverts from the authoritative tone of narration, allowing reality to be disjunct, perverted and queered. Eash fictionalizes his own flesh and gaze in order to perform a rewritten history and to question the origins of supremacy, wealth and power.

Stills from headlights, the Workshop, London, 2019. Photo by Liz Calvi.

Stills from headlights, the Workshop, London, 2019. Photo by Liz Calvi.

In the same space, the newly commissioned work by Christopher Hinojosa titled “Pearl” is an attempt at normalizing trans bodies, to question the standardization of bodies in the West. The importance of using the artist’s own body, making it vulnerable to gaze and scrutiny of an audience, becomes indispensable in creating a work that speaks to the same vulnerability in this attempt to subvert body and identity politics dictated by existing power structures. It begins with some unusual questions and statements:

"Do all little boys grow up believing they are monsters?"

"I'm not his usual typical type, he tells me I'm beautiful but I'm not what he likes."

She performs the parafictional self while constantly leading the audience on. She wants to seduce but only enough for the viewer to stare into the depths of their own seduction and carnal gaze. A shift in power dynamics occurs so as to challenge, frighten, unnerve and ultimately conquer you.

Documentation of Live Performance Besame, Christopher Hinojosa the Workshop, 2019.

Hinojosa’s photographic self-portraits are seen throughout the space, her expressions demure and her posture reflecting a bashful desire to reveal. Fashioned in different outfits and hairstyles then placed in various settings, each image has her staring out to the viewer, confronting them with a gaze that does not want to relinquish subjectivity, hypnotic, like a snake to its prey.

This piercing, intimate exchange between portrait and viewer is only bolstered by her performance, Besame, so titled for the song sung in the progression of the work. Donned in a white corset and fishnets, the viewer is willfully held captive as her monologue reaches climax, transitioning into karaoke and dance. She dances with the men in the audience as her voice matches the cadence of exchanges made. The exchange of looks between her and her audience is a constant push and pull of desire, of presence.

Then, as one is lulled into a rhythmic security, someone throws Hinojosa’s body to the floor being dashing away. She gets escorted out of the space, and the audience is left stunned, broken, yearning for that gaze to return.

Documentation of Live Performance Besame, Christopher Hinojosa the Workshop, 2019.

Documentation of Live Performance Besame, Christopher Hinojosa the Workshop, 2019.

Beyond its initial purpose of reinventing and reconsidering bodies, of confronting the violence continually suffered by trans women, it speaks to a realm of exchange found only in performance. Her gaze meeting the viewer’s gaze is almost like a touch, one that happens without any physical contact. Karen Barad talks about the touch that implies “touching all others” and “touching the strangers within”:

“When two hands touch, there is a sensuality of the flesh, an exchange of warmth, a feeling of pressure, of presence, a proximity of otherness that brings the other nearly as close as oneself. Perhaps closer.” (“On Touching - the Inhuman That Therefore I Am.” differences vol.23, issue 3 (2012): 206-223.) In Hinojosa’s work, this touch without the physical dimension of touch is called upon, activated between artist and audience.

Flesh is used and manipulated in unexpectedly intimate ways for both Hinojosa and Eash, their bodies negotiating power and authenticity in ways that only performance can allow. Their gaze extends beyond vision, becomes haptic in their directness.

Documentation of Live Performance Besame, Christopher Hinojosa the Workshop, 2019.

Oftentimes, art that call upon identity politics have a tendency to make spectacle of, aggrandise and even use pain or disadvantage. Capitalising on lacks is a trend. What performance allows for, and what “You Amuse Me/ I Frighten You” demonstrates, is an instance for working through pain and oppression, and using this as a tool for self-empowerment. It dances on the boundaries between authentic experience and fictitious narrative, strums the tension of the push and pulls of authority between viewer and artist. Performance may be uncomfortable, even daring an audience to look away, but it’s exactly in this challenge that performance provides the tension and space that other media cannot.

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Sandy Di Yu is a London based writer, art theorist and artist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or visit her website.

Deniz Kirkali is a curator and researcher based in Istanbul and London.

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