Can performance art and the institution ever be happy bedfellows? Para Site conference participants grappled with this sticky issue.

The panel discussion, entitled “On Institutions”, at Para Site’s International Conference in Hong Kong on 4 April 2014, raised questions about the changing role of museums and institutions to include performance art.

Catherine Wood (via Skype), Low Kee Hong, Danny Yung, Ana Janevski, Doryun Chong and Stuart Comer. Image courtesy Para Site.

Catherine Wood (via Skype), Low Kee Hong, Danny Yung, Ana Janevski, Doryun Chong and Stuart Comer. Image courtesy Para Site.

The title of the 2014 conference was “Is the living body the last thing left alive? The new performance turn, its histories and its institutions.” The panel discussion was called “On Institutions” and the panellists were:

Tate Modern: Turbine Hall. Photo by Tate Photography.

Tate Modern: Turbine Hall. Photo by Tate Photography.

Objects, bodies and shadow spaces

Skyping in from London, Catherine Wood spoke about how performance art, by entering the museum space, has modified museums and their programming. She discussed how,

by inviting this mode of art making into the museum, it starts to inflect the museum’s own set up and ritual, and starts to expose it as a live entity. […] Those systems and setups have a choreography of their own which artists’ interventions begin to press on.

Wood used the anthropological theory of liminality and shadow spaces propounded by Victor Turner to address performance’s relationship to the canon of art history and to the presentation of art. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, performance art began to move from unofficial spaces into institutions, but still remained marginalised. At the Tate, for example, performance has had a very shadowy presence and, despite the establishment of the performance programme in 2003, continues to do so. The existence of a demarcation between additional programming versus core programming at museums and institutions usually means the relegation of performance to the former category, becoming sideshows to the main objects of focus.

Wood added that museums are still choreographed toward the object, to preserve, present and handle them in certain ways, and bodies or liveness may sometimes get in the way of this. Performance art refuses to settle like an object does and has an agency of its own, but does the medium get tamed upon entering an institution?

Through the example of a performance art piece at Tate Britain in 2011 by Mark Leckey, called BigBoxStatueAction, Wood suggested this medium actually has the ability to alter itself according to the space, engaging with viewers on a level different from objects, temporally, spatially and socially:

For me, what was extraordinary about this was that he thought of a way of reconfiguring the high modernist art encounter of the spectator with a social situation, so it sort of broke apart the usual way that we usually see art. […] He created a situation where we were the institution temporarily.

Rong Rong. East Village, Beijing, No. 81. 1994. Gelatin silver print. MoMA

Rong Rong, ‘East Village, Beijing, No. 81’, 1994, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy MoMA.

Performance and the museum

The establishment of a department dedicated to performance art is also fairly recent at MoMA: the Department of Media and Performance Art only came into being in 2007. Stuart Comer reiterated Wood’s idea of liminality, highlighting the changing role of performance in the museum and how museums change to accommodate it, as well as referring to performance as

live bodies engaging with other objects, with histories, with other kinds of urban structures and institutional infrastructures.

Comer also spoke about the architecture of museums and how institutions are now creating spaces for live art, including new plans for MoMA. The space for performance at the Whitney Museum is still under construction, but that didn’t stop artist Yves Laris Cohen from performing at the construction site, using props left behind by the workers, as well as a wall slab that was transported daily to the site. The slab from the museum consisted of an explanatory text and was a part of the performance: it thus changed from an object or artwork (which had to be transported) into a performance prop (at its destination) every day. In the interdisciplinary performance of visual art and dance, “the artist explores how particular sites can be defined and how they control the movement of bodies and space.”

With new spaces now being planned, Comer raised some questions that could result, such as:

  • Will artists rebel against them?
  • Will they be a useful tool?
  • What will it mean for performance to have a legitimate home?
Song Dong, 'Printing on Water' (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet, 1996), 1996, 36 chromogenic prints, each 60.5 × 39.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Song Dong, ‘Printing on Water’ (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet, 1996), 1996, 36 chromogenic prints, each 60.5 × 39.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Interventions and moving forward

Moderator Low Kee Hong emphasised the need for conferences of this nature to not only pose problems and questions, but also try to come up with action plans and ways of moving forward. He asked the panellists about the responsibilities and responses of their institutions in light of the issues they had exposed and their commitment to moving forward.

Stuart Comer suggested that it was important for institutional representatives to travel and have tangible conversations, in order for their institutions to evolve and tell about other modernisms.

Catherine Wood said that there is a responsibility, in representing art history and contemporary art practice, to bring performance art into the canon and not creating a segregation between additional and core programmes. The presence of performance in the museum puts pressure and forces changes in the institution. This pressure needs to be accelerated in order to deal with the reality of art practice, instead of an idea of art practice that is only object-focused.

Design of M+ museum's main entrance by Herzog & de Meuron. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Design of M+ museum’s main entrance by Herzog & de Meuron. Image courtesy M+ museum.

Hong Kong: “A blank piece of paper”

Low Kee Hong suggested that M+ had the potential to reinvent some of these ideas as it is still under construction and doesn’t yet have a space. Doryun Chong said that each curator is shaped by their experience and the various institutions that they have been associated with. His approach to M+ tries to find historical connections and circularity rather than binaries between East and West.

Danny Yung expanded on the idea of reinventing the institution by emphasising the need for conversation between arts organisations, museums and institutions, as well as academic institutions, which he believes does not happen enough. Conferences need innovative structuring and research, otherwise they end up being no more than platforms for everyone to tell their own stories.

Governance, policy, financial plans, technology and strategy all need to be taken into account to create cultural institutions that do not yet exist – like a blank piece of paper that does not copy existing structures. He suggested the need to think beyond projects and programmes and into the institution’s relationship with long term cultural development locally, regionally and globally.

Kriti Bajaj

Related Topics: curatorial practice, conferences, performance art, the human body in art, participatory art, site specific art, events in Hong Kong

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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