Marina Abramovic Presents
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
Opened 4 July, 2009

[...] as part of the Manchester International Festival, [Marina] Abramovic curated a gallery-ful of durational pieces by a dozen or so performance artists.  I took the editorial decision not to include this in our Manchester reprints, as it seems to me that the kind of performance art in evidence here was sufficiently distinct from theatre.  Nevertheless, it did provoke in me some fundamental questioning of my own approach.  Why do I respond differently to performance art than to theatre?  Is it a matter of my personal preferences, or of a difference in the nature and modes of the work?  I think it’s the latter.  I’ve written before about the communal audience element as being central to the theatrical experience.  Obviously each individual’s nuances and details of response will be entirely subjective, but there is a core of communality to the matter and, more, the very fact of being physically in the same time and space both as the performers and as a significant number of other spectators is itself of the essence of that experience.  The communality of the audience is the medium, and in some way also constitutes signification of what goes on.

It seems to me that performance art largely eschews this status for the collective audience, and that it operates instead from the artist to the individual perceiver.  Coming as I do from a perspective of theatre, I found myself responding more to those works in Abramovic’s collection which had more of a defined space for the perceiver, such as Fedor Pavlov-Andreevich’s The Temple Of Vitaly Titov, performed in a lecture theatre so that a number of people could sit and watch it together, but also a work in which individual “supplicants” were asked to approach a seemingly disembodied mouth and perform actions such as feeding it and brushing its teeth, so that there was a significant degree of interaction, not simply a movement or event or configuration being fired off and the perceiver then being left to process it in whatever way they wanted or were able.  To me, communal or communally licensed response is qualitatively different from, and more satisfying than, individually determined response.  It seems to me that for a work of performance art rather than theatre to authorise a plurality of individual, perhaps simultaneous, but certainly autonomous responses, there must be a similar status of autonomy to the performance itself – in other words, performance art does not need an audience the way theatre does.  It seems to me that the autonomy of such performances tends towards hermeticism.  But surely, whatever else it may or may not be, art is something that has meaning?  And surely, as a matter of phenomenology, meaning is ultimately determined at the level of the perceiver?  Then how can something be art if it exists autonomously of a role for the perceiver?


Certainly, the most satisfying of the works on show, for me, was Eunhye Hwang’s The Road.  It seemed, when I first entered the space in which she was performing, a minor curio.  Hwang was lying on her back on the floor, a couple of speakers beneath her, slowly twitching her body as the white noise from them seemed to change in volume and tone.  I was one of, I think, only two or three viewers at that point.  Later, however, when there were nine or ten of us, it became apparent that the speakers were transistor radios tuned between channels and that her bodily movements earlier had been controlling the character of the sound rather than vice versa.  Now, she began to approach individual members of the audience, putting the radios to our ears.  The piece had become interactive, had become a communication.  Our level of interactivity grew until we found ourselves dancing along with her, and were even presented with radios to manipulate ourselves.  The energy level in the room had risen phenomenally, it seemed as a simple result of engagement between performer and audience, and also of a collective engagement amongst us as an audience, even such a small audience.  The experience seemed to bear out my thoughts about the role of the audience in theatre as distinct from performance art, and the crucial element of the theatrical experience constituted by a communal audience presence.  As the advertising slogan says, we’re better connected.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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