ART and Australia, Autumn Issue 1989, Volume 26, Number 3
As in Europe and the USA performance art came about in Australia during the late 1960s and 1970s. The performance or event itself was considered the artistic experience and often required participation by the viewer. It also encompassed 'living sculpture' in which people are the medium and pose as if statues in an exhibition. Documentation of these events usually took place at various stages during a performance. Most of the artists associated with performance have now moved on to other concerns.
In 1969 Christo wrapped-up Little Bay, a stretch of Sydney coastline; Stelarc presented his first installation event at the Hamilton Art Gallery in Victoria; and Donald Brook delivered the second Power Lecture, titled 'Flight from the Object'.1
For Brook the process and the ideas represented or generated by the work were the work. Brook's theory did not place undue necessity on an art object, nor valorise spectacle in any way. In 1969 Brook commended Christo when he said that the wrapping of Little Bay was '... probably the most important event in Australian art for years'.2 Brook maintained an ethical threshold when he considered what was possible or viable as a work of art and was not supportive of actions which inflicted violence, either physically or psychologically on audience or artist. Discussing Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy's film Idea Demonstrations, which documented acts of biting, cutting, restraining and other potentially injurious activity, Brook argued that:
One might well inquire whether the artistic doctrines of aesthetic disinterestedness and ''physical distance' have crippled us, or whether we are secretly grateful for the opportunity to operate Roman appetites under an eighteenth-century rationalistic licence.3
In 1975 Brook was one of the major protagonists to withdraw support from Stelarc's proposed suspension event at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide. As a result the event was cancelled and Stelarc's inaugural flight was rescheduled at the Maki Gallery in Tokyo (Event for stretched skin 7, 1976). The extreme acts of the body artists tested the limits of acceptability, even on the radical teleological scale of Brook's theory.4
In 'Flight from the Object' Brook gave an example of a group of teenage girls who attempted to draw a chalk line from Amsterdam to the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. This 'trans-institutional' model of experimentation resulted in the girls spending '... most of their time in England locked up at Bow Street.5 In 1970, Ian Milliss presented a similar work on a smaller scale titled Walk along this line during the Transfield exhibition at Bonython's Gallery in Sydney. The 'participating' spectator was invited to navigate a ten-foot stretch of masking tape placed so close to the gallery wall that the task became difficult. As Graeme Sturgeon has noted, the idea was that: 'in experiencing the work the viewer/ participant was thus made aware of his own body and sense of balance'.6
Donald Brook's theory of experimentation was part of a wider shift, evident in the mediums artists chose to employ and their preferred methods of presentation. Rosalind Krauss has named this shift the 'expanded field of sculpture' which incorporated land art, installation, process work, art povera, conceptual art, documentation, performance, and artists' video, film and books.7 The shifting concerns for physical and psychological space, different approaches to time, and explicitly political strategies, which sought to dislodge the autonomy of the art object, contributed to the development of performance art in the 1970s.
The autonomy of Clement Greenberg's concept of the avant-garde was challenged by a process oriented art which sought to close the gap between art and life. Ian Milliss, writing about the 'new artist' in the catalogue for the 'Object and Idea' exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1973, criticised the cult of the 'artist as hero' and the role of 'official culture'.8 Milliss was convinced by a utopian concept of liberation which would break ... the monopoly of "artists" over "creativity" and "culture"', and make it possible for ... people to create real history and real change from their own personal experience'.9 Mike Parr was fuelled with a similar political motivation in 1975 when he said:
We must complete the break with the art gallery system, the bullshit of Modernism, bullshit art criticism ... As radical artists, we must amplify the death rattle of so called Modern art.10
Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy ran the first 'artists' space' in Sydney from 1970-72.11 lnhibodress was a venue where experimental and non-object based work could be presented by young Australian artists, and it also accommodated the exhibition of 'non-bulk' documentation shows of works by avant-garde artists in Europe and America. Parr and Kennedy presented their Idea Demonstrations as performances at lnhibodress during 1971 and 1972. Kennedy's performance which involved putting ' ... steel clips on to a bare chest ... and squeezing them off, until the flesh is lacerated and too sore to continue the work',12 was similar to many of Parr's works involving self-inflicted pain. The 'moral' and 'political' implications of Kennedy's unsuccessful attempt to pierce the skin on Parr's arm in the event Let a friend bite into your shoulder ... until blood appears were debated in the press by Terry Smith and Donald Brook.13
Artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s were in the process of re-thinking the position of the subject in the world, through existential and phenomenological frameworks. Allen Leepa, writing in the anthology The New Art in 1966, noted that: 'Art is caught up in this shift in man's evaluation of himself and his role in the world'.14 Writing for the Australian magazine Other Voices in 1970, Margaret Plant noted the relevance of Merleau-Ponty's book the Phenomenology of Perception (first English translation, 1962) and Anton Ehrenzweig's psychoanalytic reading of art outlined in The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing, 1953, and The Hidden Order of Art, 1968.
A psychoanalytic interpretation of the split between art and life, evident in much early performance art, was also informed by the writings of Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization, 1955) and Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death, 1959 and Love's Body, 1966).
Throughout the 1970s the concern to close the gap between art and life persisted amongst younger artists. In performance art the desire to provide an 'immediate' or 'authentic' experience between artist and audience was often claimed. Rituals involving catharsis for artist and/or audience were part of this need to grapple with the 'real'. Artists interpreted the art/life disjunction in various ways and devised different approaches and techniques to generate a discourse.
Brian Finemore charted the course between Dada and the 1970s in his introduction to the 'Object and Idea' exhibition. However, he did not mention the activities of Barry Humphries who organised two Dada exhibitions in Melbourne (1952 and 1953) and presented events like the re-enactment of the abduction of 'Miss Peteroff', a political satire, at Sydney University in 1954.15
Nor did Finemore mention the pursuits of the Annandale Imitation Realists (Mike Brown, Colin Lanceley, Ross Crothall) in the 1960s;16 or Martin Sharp, Gary Shead and Mike Brown's involvement with Oz magazine, which caused a public outcry because of its '... overt sexual themes'.17 Oz magazine faced several law suits and was banned on numerous occasions for obscenity: in 1964 Martin Sharp received a gaol sentence for his graphic drawings and the editors were fined;18 the last gaol sentence against an Oz member was repealed in 1971.19 The course of Dada in Australia was not written about in detail before the exhibition 'Irreverent Sculpture', at Monash University Gallery in 1982. Margaret Plant wrote about the episodic activity of Dada propagated by Humphries in the late 1950s, and juxtaposed the works of the Annandale Imitation Realists and a younger group of artists working in the late 1960s and 1970s: Ti Parks, Aleks Danko, Les Kossatz and Clive Murray White. Barry Humphries exhibited a range of Dada works from his illustrious career as a visual artist.
Artists associated with lnhibodress designed a programme to put themselves in touch with an international avant-garde.20 Other artists were less aware or perhaps devalued the importance of such a link. Perhaps to some it was just a joke. Collaborations between artists, musicians, acrobats and musclemen resulted in productions which were more humorous, reliant on wit rather than wrath. 'The Joe Bonomo Story' at Watters Gallery in 1972 was an art jamboree with works by Vivienne Binns, Tim Burns, Aleks Danko, Mitch Johnson, lmants Tillers, Alex Tzannes, and most notably Paul Graham and his team of strongmen.21
Group colour technique was an event designed by lmants Tillers, where people would be painted or rather paint themselves as Tillers called the moves from the sidelines.22 During the Opening leg show bizarre, a collaboration between Kevin Mortensen, Mike Brown and Russell Dreever, at Pinacotheca in 1973, ballroom dancers wore animal masks, a doctor continually bandaged another masked figure and dancing girls paraded within the gallery, which had been compartmentalised by the artists using corrugated iron sheets. Mortensen wore a large white headdress with cages constructed over both ears, each housing a congregation of white moths.
Kevin Mortensen is primarily a sculptor; however he has presented what he terms 'animated sculpture' since 1972, when he installed himself in The seagull salesman, his goods and visitors, or figures of identification at Pinacotheca. The elaborate title was one of the clues to suggest that the work was about the artist and his wares, and the way in which he tries to hawk them. Mortensen deliberately tried to avoid classificiltion and insisted that his aim was to establish a contradictory method which would defy categorical criticism.23
In 1973 Mortensen collaborated with John Davis in an untitled installation performance during the Spring Festival, at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne. Over a ten-day period Mortensen appeared in goat's head regalia during church services. Davis and Mortensen had installed a range of 'prayer mats' and animal heads on small columns around the baptismal font, and lit the area with candles and small oil lamps.
The local press interpreted the event as a satanic ritual, although Mortensen notes that many churchgoers simply accepted his presence. He appeared to become part of the 'normal' congregation as others occupying his pew passed along the prayer books and collection plate.24
Mortensen was interested in Zen Buddhism, especially in the story-telling mode of passing on knowledge. The delicatessen, presented at the Mildura Sculpture Triennial in 1975, foregrounded this type of narrative, again in a rather bizarre way. A small shop, empty apart from a service counter, was rented in the town. As the Triennial progressed Mortensen hung a few whimsical, sculptural carcases above the counter, and a single loaf of bread appeared in the window. Eddie Rosser, an actor, collaborated with Mortensen to bring the shop tableaux to life. Supposedly the original shopkeeper, who had owned the shop during World War II, Rosser recounted vivid memories of his family, and experiences in a concentration camp. The shop-keeper appeared punctually everyday and went about preparing the shop for business. However, no visible progress was ever made. The dream event was stuck in memory and never really shifted from an imaginary frame.
Rosser started to frequent the shop before the exhibition opened, and continued to make occasional visits for several months afterwards. Whether the event was 'art' or the life of some deluded character thus remained a mystery; although the presence of a conscientious art audience would have consolidated the event's status as art for many.
Ritual elements in performance art often evoked quasi-religious imagery. Graeme Sturgeon, writing about Stelarc's suspensions (dated from 1976) and Ken Unsworth's Sculpture as ritual, 1975, said:
The artist once more assumes the role of the witchdoctor, healing his society through a process of catharsis.25
Max Kozloff, writing about body art in 1975, compared the self-imposed strictures of the body artist, which required '... a deadening of (the body's) instincts and needs', to the practice of various theological disciplines and rituals.26 The flagellation of the self evident in works by Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Mike Parr and Stelarc reflect a rather ancient construct according to Kozloff, a kind of guilt/ punishment nexus familiar to young Catholics. In psychoanalytic terms the valorisation of self-inflicted pain emphasises an aggressive tension within the subject, where the death instinct is prioritised.
The picture of pain and gloom did not affect all artists: those who did not use humour explicitly often pursued a conceptual approach which made a joke out of art whilst it infuriated the audience. Neil Evans's performance Wait for two hours, presented for the Harald Szeeman in Australia exhibition in 1971, and later Graeme Davis's What do you expect?, presented at the George Paton Gallery in 1980, both employed the same idea, and managed to irritate an audience gathered to 'see' an event that never occurred. The performances were simply the exchange of an idea, the audience either 'waited' or 'expected'. These works demonstrate quite clearly why Donald Brook's 'trans-institutional' mode of experimentation was unpopular in the art world: at times there was nothing to see.
Surveying performance art in the 1970s it becomes clear that few women artists were involved before the late seventies. Jill Orr presented her first public performance titled Before then, after now, during the 'Self Images Show' at La Trobe University in 1977. In 1978 she performed Response during the Mildura Sculpture Triennial. Bonita Ely, another sculptor working with performance art, presented Jabiluka UO2 at the Preston Performance Festival, Pitspace 1979. Lyndal Jones, who came to performance art from a background in conventional theatre, produced a multimedia theatre 'happening' in the La Mama carpark in 1977, and in 1978 she started to present her familiar slide projections and narrative events.
Philippa Cullen, who died prematurely in 1975, was the only woman to perform regularly at lnhibodress in the early seventies. Cullen worked in association with AZ Music and choreographed various dance works for solo performer (herself) and a small troupe, which often incorporated unskilled dancers. Cullen's troupe also performed in Martin Plaza, Sydney, during the early 1970s, and on the City Circle Line to an audience of commuters.28
In the performance works by Ralph Eberlein and Jill Orr the myth of the Australian landscape is reinscribed. Legend and Aboriginal myth played a centralised role: earth, fire and water were consistently used in rituals which celebrated an original primitivism associated with the land. The urge to get back to some original source of being, to uncover the unconscious in 'natural' processes, was at the core of much of this work. Jill Orr described the body as an immediate vehicle of expression, ' ... a vehicle of energy, that can go uninterfered with.'29
In the 1980s the naive approach of artists celebrating the natural roots of human existence, as an alternative to technological society, has been criticised. The idea of experiential difference, specifically the 'natural' difference of woman, has been perceived as a social structure rather than a natural essence by feminism. The celebration of 'primitivism' also fails to recognize that it too is a social dialogue, a way of constructing reality. As Roland Barthes notes '... myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification and making contingency appear eternal'.30
In the 1970s, however, many artists thought that the body was an obvious site for the dialogue about self and society, life and art. The use of the body tended to centralise the action and fix the audience's gaze; a polarisation between artist and viewer was thus emphasised rather than a breaking down of the distance between the two. This viewing structure is made explicit in photographic documentation where the body is framed as the central image and the spectator becomes framed as voyeur. Some artists working with their bodies have been successful in establishing a discourse around narcissism. Urs Luthi, a Swiss artist, whose work was shown in the 1979 Biennale of Sydney, documents himself as a persona, an Other; playing on sexual identity the artist appears trans-sexual among other selves. Luthi's work enters a social discourse unlike the Self-transformations of Arnulf Rainer, an Austrian artist seen in the 1979 Sydney Biennale, or the recent works of Mike Parr, where images of the self are taken from photographic documentation of earlier performance actions and re-worked as drawings. Rainer and Parr are concerned exclusively with the self, the place of the ego.
Although the self is represented as a split subject in Parr's drawing installations the artist still seeks a reconciliation between self and Other, a confirmation of a united 'I', the one who exists. In 1983 Parr wrote that '... the fusion of signifier/signified is the insoluable sic reason for my work. It is, as a consequence, that I think of my installations or performances as real'.31 In the drawings Parr becomes the object of his own narcissism, interestingly, it is only the face that Parr considers, the eyes—as windows of the soul—are often closed to the gaze of the Other; there is no body represented. The fragmented and often tortured body is decapitated, absent, apart from the face.
Some conceptual performance/installations have used film or video to record the work's process. The human body was used in a playful way in Aleks Danko's and Joan Grounds's time-lapse film We Should Call it a Living Room. An especially designed 'growing room' was constructed, complete with lounge room furniture, in Grounds's Balmain studio. The room and its contents were planted with grass by the artists, and the growing process was recorded. The lounge room setting anticipated occupation, perhaps by those who belonged to the furniture. Those who would be startled, perhaps, by the anarchy reigning within inanimate objects. As the room grew a naked woman took her place in one of the armchairs and as the credits appeared a group of similarly unclad men and women joined the 'organic' madness of a suburban interior. The film was first screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 1975 and shown later that year in the Performance, Documents, Film, Video exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Australian performance art was celebrated by Robert Lindsay in the Relics and Rituals exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1981 as a 'New Romanticism', representing a return to narrative, personal myth-making and mystification.32 This reading, which chooses to emphasise body art and ritual, is the most acceptable reading of performance art in the 1970s. My concern here has been to provide another reading which acknowledges the importance that humour, irony and wit played in the development of performance art in Australia. Contradictions, puns and jokes are, as Freud noted, more likely to show the slips of the unconscious.33 Centring the body and persecuting the self in search of 'enlightenment' is an ancient plan; much of the 'new' art of the 1970s, which is evident in works by Tillers, Parks, Danko, Mortensen, Cullen, and Grounds, embarked on a more playful journey.