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Why the Hell Does Dallas Love Performance Art So Much? (With Video)

Hugo Ball wearing some kind of something.
Hugo Ball wearing some kind of something.
Wikimedia

Nearly every art critic in Dallas has weighed in on the subject of performance art in the past 72 hours thanks to inside)(outside, a performance art project curated by Dallas-based PerformanceSW. inside)(outside is an online exhibition exploring gender roles through performance but Saturday night the online project manifested itself in physical form for a one-night only performance art festival, of sorts. I'm sure responses to the night's performances, which took place throughout Oak Cliff and included performances from 15 artists are sure to be mixed.

Performance art by its nature is hard to evaluate, after all, the very premise of the art is that anything can be art, but as performance art multiplies in Dallas, we're collectively struggling with how to balance our support of the creative spirit that prompts the art's creation with serious, critical evaluation; I think we can all agree the scene will never mature if we accept everything simply because it is, instead of evaluating it on its actual merits. With that in mind, we think it's a good time to look back at some of the most groundbreaking works of performance art.

See also: Why I Almost Peed My Pants and Wrestled for Money at an Art Show This Weekend Once upon a time, before performance art was referred to as such, Hugo Ball founded the Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland. It was there that Ball would read his Dada manifesto and alter our notion of art forever. Although Ball and his fellow Dadaists would never have used the term performance art to refer to the happenings at the club there is no doubt that we would classify them as such today. Evenings could consist of everything from dance to simultaneous readings to cacophonous concerts. Anyone and everyone could participate, in Ball's words, in an attempt to create a "complete work of art," presaging the commingling of art forms that would follow.

In the 40's and 50's the American avant-garde was finding its voice, and one of the places they were doing so was at a little experimental arts college in Asheville, North Carolina. Black Mountain College was home at one point or another to a number of important American artists ranging from Josef Albers to Willem de Kooning to Robert Rauschenberg. John Cage was another avant-garde mainstay drawn to Black Mountain's interdisciplinary, free-spirited approach to learning. In 1952 Cage spent some time at the College and staged what many consider to be the first 'happening,' his Theater Piece No. 1, an unscripted performance which consisted of Cage delivering a 'lecture' while dancers, artists and musicians played and moved across the stage, complicating the "distinction between art and life." It was one of many such performances that would pop up, and just as quickly disappear, throughout the world in the 1950's and 60's.

If Black Mountain Piece was the first 'happening,' it would take another few years before a true artistic movement evolved specifically centered on the idea of performance as art. Fluxus, a movement founded in the early 1960's by George Maciunas, strove to "promote living, anti and non-art which can be grasped by all people." The art was ephemeral, purposefully defied explanation or understanding and was consciously intended as a militant rejection of the intellectual and commercial nature of the art world. This was art for the masses, or so they thought. Early happenings are almost completely lost, living on only in descriptions, but several artists associated with Fluxus have works that live on. A fragment of Yoko Ono's Cut Piece can be seen below. In the piece Ono explored the idea of trust, specifically the trust an artist places in his or her audience by allowing audience members to cut away pieces of her clothing. Never before had an artist seemed quite so vulnerable.

Another artist associated with Fluxus was Nam June Paik who helped usher in an era of performance art which would incorporate the new medium of video. Like Cage, Paik was heavily influenced by Buddhism and his 23 minute Zen for Film is the visual counterpart to Cage's 4'33"; 23 minutes of blank film and a powerful meditation on art's role in society.

Joseph Beuys perpetrated a lot of crazy shit on the art world, inhabiting a segment of the art world all his own. If Fluxus forced the acceptance of inanity in art, and encouraged us to accept incomprehension, Joseph Beuys allowed art to be terrifying and revolting, although never without a purpose. Although not strictly a 'performance' artist, arguably Beuys most well known work is his performance entitled How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. In the piece, Beuys locked himself in a gallery and audience members were forced to watch through the windows as Beuys "explained" the art on the walls to the dead hare. When the performance was finished, the doors were unlocked and audience members were free to enter. It was Beuys supreme illustration of the sheer madness inherent in critics' incessant attempts to explain his work. As so much early performance was, it served as a giant fuck-you to the system; in Beuys estimation, explaining art to the public was like explaining pictures to a dead hare.


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