Consuming Fragments: Performance Art & Spectatorship

Tehching Hsieh (b.1950) is a Taiwan-based Performance artist, considered a ‘master’ by many in his field.

Consuming Fragments: Performance Art & Spectatorship

by Jasper Llewelyn, Performing Arts editor

In a time when we’re more ‘connected’ than ever, and when, despite this, more people than ever are identifying themselves as ‘lonely’ or ‘distant’ from other people or social groups, how has the act of viewing and experiencing life, and consequently art, also changed?

Advances in technology and progressive art theory have unlocked a whole new set of tools for many contemporary artists, and the role of physical proximity, time and distance in the process of viewing a piece of work has drastically changed. Groups like Germany’s Rimini Protokoll have experimented with the distance between ‘performer’ and spectator in pieces such as their 2008 ‘intercontinental phone play’ Call Cutta In a Box , where audience members engage in a semi-scripted audio and video performance with a call centre worker on the other side of the world. Devised in conjunction with the call centre workers themselves, the audience members have no physical interaction with the performer and this ‘digital’ performance effectively takes place in cyber space.

However, is this fragmentation (physical, in the case of Call Cutta In a Box) of the process of experiencing a work a new phenomenon, or is it, in fact, simply a digital exploration of ideas already discussed in earlier modern art?

Artists have been stopping us from physically interacting with works for decades, disrupting and fragmenting the viewing process in order to create a variety of effects. As early as 1960, French artist Armand Arman (a close friend of infamous conceptual provocateur Yves Klein) filled the Gallerie Iris Clert in Paris with rubbish in his piece Le Plein, forcing the spectator to experience the work from outside on the street, through the gallery’s window. By fragmenting and changing the setting in which the work is experienced, Arman stimulates questions about the effects of the gallery institution on the viewing experience. By framing Le Plein in the setting of the street itself, this radical ‘gallery gesture’[1] is one of many that ask us to consider the consequences of a fragmented physical viewing experience not only in the work ‘itself’ but in its curatorial mileu.

Yet, Arman’s experiments almost pale in comparison when compared to what critic Brian O’Doherty describes as ‘the ultimate point’ in the ‘conceptualization of the gallery’: Robert Barry’s 1969 Closed Gallery. Similarly concerned with the physical disruption of the viewing experience, Barry simply sent out cards printed with the sentence ‘During the exhibition the gallery will be closed’ and subsequently closed the Eugenia Butler gallery in Los Angeles for the duration of his three week residency. Removed of visual stimulus, the spectators are forced, Barry argued, to ‘explore their own minds’, and their experience of the work is consequently ‘private and internal’. Instead of framing the work in the street (such as is seen in Le Plein), Closed Gallery exists solely in the mind of the viewer. Through this fragmentation of the physical act and stimulus, the spectator is placed in the centre of the work as Barry’s own status as ‘artist’ or ‘creator’ is elided by the lack of tangible, visual physicality in his work.

In the work of Barry and Arman we find examples of a fragmentation of the physical process of experiencing a work. However, an artwork’s temporality is another key point of interest for many contemporary artists. Working under the description of ‘durational performance’, Taiwan-US based artist Tehching Hsieh performed a number of experiments in performance duration in the late seventies and early eighties. Hsieh performed five ‘One-year’ performances in which the acting of viewing was radically problematized due to the highly unconventional time scale and the often varied – and sometimes non-existent – viewing conditions. Hsieh’s performances ranged from being tied by a rope for a year to fellow NY performance artist Linda Montano, to living outside in the city without using any form of shelter. Due to the length of Hsieh’s performances, the viewer was granted a developing perspective of the work that would naturally change due to the large number of other events that would occur in their own life, and consequently inform their judgment, over the course of year. The conventional process of judging a work – rooted ultimately in the viewer’s particular perspective at the given moment of viewing – is dissolved as Hsieh’s radical temporality precludes the possibility of a coherent judgment formed from an isolated moment.

Although championed as the quintessential practice of contemporary postmodern practice, recent trends for disrupting the spectator’s viewing process through fragmentation is, in fact, one based in a broad history of performance and installation. From Marcel Duchamp’s Sixteen Miles of String in 1942 to Daniel Buren’s contemporary stripe installations, artists have long been fragmenting elements such as temporality and physical proximity in order to provoke refreshed responses in the spectator.

Further reading:

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of The Gallery Space (San Francisco: University of California Press, 1999).

Julia Bryan-Wilson, ‘Quitting Time’ in Helen Molesworth ed. Work Ethic (London: Penn State Press, 2003).

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