Performance art in the marketplace

Forget diamond-studded skulls and unmade beds: there is a contemporary art genre still under the radar of many collectors and dealers: performance art. Performance art is, however, finally coming in from the margins with a flood of prestigious exhibitions and museum initiatives that throw new light on a medium often seen as a relic of the 1970s. And anyway – how is it possible to speak of buying and selling, or collecting, an art form that has no object, only a process and an experience?

At this week’s Frieze Art Fair, look out for a quirky performance by artist Spartacus Chetwynd based on a live game show. It is part of Frieze Projects, the annual series of artists’ commissions dotted around the fair. Across town at the Hayward Gallery, “Move: Choreographing You”, explores how dance has been a key component in the development of contemporary art over the past 40 years.

But fans of the field are looking especially to the Lisson Gallery in London, which is this week hosting an exhibition of work by the 63-year-old performance art colossus Marina Abramovic. The show includes art historical exhibits such as the “Rhythm Series” (1973-74) presented as large-scale photography and video installations, along with films featuring her former lover, the German artist Ulay (“Light/Dark with Ulay”, 1977, shows the couple incessantly slapping each other). New work on show by the Belgrade-born artist includes the “Back to Simplicity” series, 2010 (prices were undisclosed but a 1974 “Rhythm 5” gelatin silver print fetched $25,000 at Sotheby’s New York in May).

The art of Abramovic and her peers – Bruce Nauman, Valie Export and Gina Pane among others – is hardly a new phenomenon. With its purely conceptual roots, performance art has underpinned the development of western contemporary practice since the late 1960s: performance artists, it could be claimed, put the “concept” in “conceptual art”, making the idea the driving force rather than the materials or final product. “We can’t fully understand 20th-century art if we don’t understand the role of performance art in creating formal and aesthetic shifts,” notes RoseLee Goldberg, founder of New York’s Performa biennial.

The stripped-to-the-bone element of performance art has, says Abramovic, chimed with the post-crash era of austerity. “It’s the end of the material culture and the commoditisation of art. It’s no longer just about buying a painting and nailing it on a wall,” she insists. Abramovic points out that the “concept of collecting contemporary art has to change; collectors have to re-educate themselves, so that the idea [behind a piece] becomes as sought after as a physical object.”

One couple who have taken up the challenge is the Washington DC-based lawyer Aaron Levine and his wife Barbara who own a key work by Abramovic, the aforementioned “Light/Dark”, 1977. They concur that performance art amounts to a “different kind of viewing experience for the collector; it’s not something that you hang over the couch”, but are swayed by the notion of acquiring a “concept” behind a work which, in theory, could be acted out in their living room.

“At the moment, you only walk away with a secondary piece of information on, say, video,” say the couple, who have also acquired performance-based pieces by Allan Kaprow (highest price at auction: $21,400 in 2004), Rebecca Horn ($118,354 in 2007), Ana Mendieta ($202,970 in 2008) and Ragnar Kjartansson.

At what point did acquiring performance art switch from owning objects associated with the actions, such as videos and photographs, to possessing the “idea” behind the piece? Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal has evidently turned collecting criteria on their heads. He sells his performance art pieces by means of verbal transactions in the presence of a lawyer with no written contract. Instructions on how to re-enact his works are delivered literally by word-of-mouth, with collectors under strict orders never to photograph or video his “constructed situations”. Yet they sell in editions of four to six for $85,000 to $145,000 each, according to The Art Newspaper.

Tate, which founded its performance programme and appointed Catherine Wood as curator of contemporary art/performance in 2002, owns a work by Sehgal: “This is Propaganda”, 2002. “Tino instructed myself and [curator] Jessica Morgan how to produce the piece,” says Wood. The work can even be loaned to other institutions, with Tate personnel ready to pass on Sehgal’s directives. “Many of the artists of the 1960s and 1970s have subsequently reconsidered their practice in light of the methods of younger practitioners like Sehgal and Roman Ondák,” adds Wood.

Nancy Spector, deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum (a Sehgal exhibition at the New York venue earlier this year included two continuously enacted pieces) also underlines the generational differences: “I think a younger generation might begin to copyright their performances. But I can’t imagine artists from the 1970s, who were anti-market, retroactively copyrighting material. The work of Chris Burden (famous for being shot in the arm as part of the 1971 “Shoot” piece) lives on through his sculptural relics but he does not allow his works to be re-enacted. Vito Acconci, meanwhile, made videos and photo-text pieces. Each artist has a different set of guidelines.”

Re-enactment, documentation methods and copyright are highly contentious topics. A veteran of the genre, US artist Carolee Schneemann, “assumes that none of the 1970s pioneers want their pieces re-performed”, except in exceptional cases. But Lisson Gallery founder Nicholas Logsdail is of Abramovic’s view that performances should be treated like musical scores, with indefinite interpretations. “It’s frowned on to go beyond the original performance. But this has to change or pieces of art history will be lost,” he asserts. Abramovic believes that original work should be copyrighted and that artists’ permission must be sought for reperformance.

Meanwhile, in a landmark decision, a court in Düsseldorf recently ruled that the Museum Schloss Moyland in Germany does not have the right to display photographs taken by Manfred Tischer of a 1964 performance by Joseph Beuys (“The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated”). The court ruled in favour of VG Bild Kunst, an organisation that collects copyright payments for German artists and their estate representatives (in this instance, Beuys’ widow Eva). The museum is appealing against the decision.

Galleries, both private and public, are nonetheless grappling with these dilemmas. New York’s MoMA launched a series of workshops for artists, conservators and curators in 2008 on preserving and collecting the medium. Tate, meanwhile, is launching a research project concentrating on the history of performance and interdisciplinary practice, with the working title: “A non-object history of art”. New time-based media, seen by purists as a free-for-all platform (how to control YouTube?), may even elevate the art through the dissemination of museum archives; Tate, for instance, is planning a website section on its performance programme with images, video and text.

It is significant, then, that Jeff Rabin of the New York-based advisory firm Artvest Partners highlights that “this area is so cutting-edge, we do not yet have any first-hand experience in the area for our clients”. But a foundation bearing Abramovic’s name set to open in a former theatre in Hudson, New York, by 2013 should transform the status of the genre. At the centre, she plans to commission marathon durational pieces, form an archive of her own and other artists’ works, create new productions and teach techniques to younger artists. Performance art, it appears, is set to underperform no more.

Marina Abramovic is at Lisson Gallery, London, October 13-November 13

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