“ The artist is present.” It’s the title of a work by performance artist Marina Abramovic that consists of Abramovic sitting motionless and speechless on a chair, silently facing the viewer/participant who comes to sit opposite her. That’s it.
Let’s leave aside all those “but is it art?” questions, and ask a different one. Why would anyone want to sit in that opposite chair? In silence, in the full beam of the artist’s attention? Watching paint dry comes to mind as a plausible alternative. Yet this piece explains itself, pretty clearly, in its title – a title that is relevant and prescient to so much of the current artscape.
We are in a moment of paradox. On one hand, we can consume our art in an ever more digitised environment, with all the benefits of accessibility and reach that that brings. There’s no need to go out. Or come face-to-face with anyone. Yet the ever-increasing number of events that depend for their impact on human agency (which is what Abramovic’s work is all about) speaks of a real hunger for personal presence, for the non-digitised.
As the summer festival season comes into view, this strange paradox shows itself to be as strong as ever. Publishers are struggling to sell books, yet literary festivals are more buoyant than ever. People will buy a ticket to hear a writer read when they apparently balk at paying the same amount for the actual book. Digital transmission of music has never been better – yet when the bedraggled remnants of decades-old rock bands haul themselves back on stage, the demand for tickets is huge.
Even lectures (if not quite an art form, certainly a form of performance) have made an unlikely comeback, with talks and discussions “playing” to growing audiences. How the Light Gets In, a philosophy festival held at Hay-on-Wye in Wales, has grown in just six years from a handful of talks into a mighty 500-eventer. Philosophy live. Who’d have thought it?
And performance art? It’s hardly new – in fact, it was “experimental” a full half-century ago, when the groundbreakers of the 1960s explored the territory. But it is having a strong resurgence. Tate’s newest space, the Tanks, has a whole art in action programme, and even art fairs are swimming with the tide. At Frieze New York’s second edition next month, performance is everywhere – among much else, the respected Manhattan gallerist Marian Goodman is devoting her whole booth to performance by Tino Sehgal. (Oh yes, you can buy and sell this art – if you want to know how, search for Gareth Harris’s article on the subject on FT.com.)
So what is the common denominator of all these trends? It’s that the artist, in whatever form, is present. The paradox of our digital age is our hunger for the real thing.
Our eagerness for real-time, real-life action-art is even helping to create new art forms, or remould existing ones. A couple of weeks ago the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry was given to Kate Tempest, a “spoken word” performer – or unlikely rapper (unlikely for being small, blonde and female). Her winning title speaks volumes about the form in which she is working: Brand New Ancients. To narrate for an hour may draw on the most ancient artistic tradition of all: storytelling, live and real. Tempest gives it a new twist, speaking truth to power and drawing on her own “wayward youth”, (“hanging around on picket lines rapping at riot cops”), then moving up through the club scene and open mic nights, to finding herself, at just 27, writing for the RSC and garnering an award in the posh surroundings of the Savile Club.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that spoken-word events, along with poetry slams and rap battles, are multiplying fast. Poets and other writers have always declaimed or read aloud their work: Dickens’ readings drew crowds of many thousands. Ted Hughes himself was a stunning reader, not only because of a positively dangerous level of personal magnetism and a bass voice that sounded as if it was coming from the clouds above, but because of something to do with attention. Just like the person sitting in front of Abramovic, you felt the full beam of someone’s focus right on you. I once heard Hughes at a Remembrance Day service in which living poets were reading poetry of the first world war. Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, when thundered from a London pulpit by Hughes, made a whole shivering audience feel as if the blinded, “blood-shod” soldiers were right there among us.
As for Hughes and Owen – both artists were present.
Peter Aspden is away
The podcast of this column is at www.ft.com/culturecast
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