In: Japan

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a major exhibition of performance art, which included live performances taking place daily in the rooms of the museum. I am talking about The Artist is Present, a retrospective of the work of the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”, Marina Abramović, which attracted thousands of visitors (700.000 according to The New Yorker).

The presence of performance in leading institutions such as the MoMA has definitely contributed to its acceptance into the mainstream during the last few decades. However, some people still question why performing in front of an audience can be considered art, and not drama/theatre. Abramović herself gave her opinion on this matter in an interview while promoting her MoMA show, stating that “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

Marina Abramović, ‘Rhythm 10’, 1973, performance, 60 min.

I am sure many actors –and perhaps some artists as well- would have many counterarguments to Abramović’s words, but her assertiveness shows that the performance vs. acting debate is still alive. The lines separating performance art and drama are certainly blurry, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a world where everything seems to be more and more interconnected. So instead of focusing on trying to define what performance is against other disciplines, I think it is much more interesting to examine here why its irruption in the world of visual arts has been so important for the development of contemporary culture.

The beginnings of performance art can be dated back at least to the early twentieth century, and particularly to the Dada movement. Dadaists defied conventional definitions of art by mixing poetry, music and visual arts in unconventional performances that took place in alternative spaces such as the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Between the 1940s and the early 1960s, a series of artistic actions (often derived from  “action painting”), interactive installations, and performative events organised by artists such as Yves Klein and groups like Gutai, anticipated some of the characteristics of what was to be labelled “Performance Art” from the 1960s onward.

The Japanese group Gutai was one of the first to take exhibitions and artistic actions outside the traditional spaces of the museum and the gallery. They organised many outdoor events, like the 1956 Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition (Ashiya, Japan), where visitors were invited to take part in the artworks. The idea of opening up art to the participation of the public was also at the heart of Allan Kaprow’s happenings, in which art became a collective experience.

Allan Kaprow's happening Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

Allan Kaprow’s happening ‘Fluids’, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

This new role of the public -who is no longer contemplative and passive as in traditional art exhibitions- that comes with performance art, disrupts the conventional relationship between the viewers and the artworks, and generates new dynamics between the viewers and the artists. Because, as the title of Abramović’s exhibition points out, one of the most important characteristics of performance is that the artist is present. In performance art, the body of the artist is the medium, and it becomes an incredibly powerful tool to express different narratives and ideas.

In opposition to an inert painting or sculpture, the presence of the very alive body of the artist means that art stops being a safe experience for the viewer, given the unpredictability of the situation. With performance, art invaded the “real world”, the here and now. Some artists have put the public in particularly difficult positions by putting themselves in danger in front of an audience. Abramović, Joseph Beuys, and Chris Burden are some of the most prominent examples. The latter is known for his 1971 piece Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm by a friend in front of a small audience.

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me. © Chris Burden. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

Chris Burden, ‘Shoot’ (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. © Chris Burden.

In the 1970s, performance was already a quite established artistic practice, with Fluxus –an international, heterogeneous conglomeration of artists, designers, composers, dancers and other professionals that shaped a highly experimental artistic community- as one of its most important representatives.

Why was performance such a success at the time? One of the main reasons was the rise, particularly in the United States, of a series of social and political movements that demanded civil and social rights, equality, and justice. In such a politicised environment, many artists used performance as a means to address the concerns behind different social groups and communities. For instance, some of the most well-known performances from this period are linked to the rise of feminism and the Feminist art movement. This is the case of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), which culminated with the artist extracting a paper scroll from her vagina while reading from it.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece Interior Scroll, 1975.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece ‘Interior Scroll’, 1975.

These are just a few of the many artists and actions that contributed to the early developments of performance as an art form. It would be impossible to cite them all here, but the changes they introduced during the second half of the twentieth century -the organisation of artistic actions outside traditional spaces, the increasingly active role of the publics, and, most importantly, the use of the artist’s body as a medium- are essential in order to understand our current artistic context.

Japanese artist Mariko Mori’s Ring: One with Nature (2016) is a three meter wide ring overlooking a 58-meter waterfall in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest, in Véu da Noiva, Mangaratiba. The permanent installation is arranged to allow the shift of colors with the movement of the sun, changing from vibrant blue to a bright gold as it is backlighted by the sunrise. Striking in its minimalism, Mori’s sculpture is multifaceted both in its conception and effect. The artist has since stated that the idea originated as an inspiring, ethereal dream  of a ring over a waterfall, which she sought to actualize in physical space. Rooted in a spiritual beginning, the installation took on an even broader range of meaning through its inherently environmental message and relation to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Artist Mariko Mori photographed by David Sims. Courtesy of Faou Foundation.

Artist Mariko Mori photographed by David Sims. Courtesy of Faou Foundation.

Faou Foundation, Mori’s nonprofit in New York which promotes global environmental awareness, produced the sculpture and gave it as a gift to Brazil’s environmental institute, Instituto Estadual do Ambiente (INEA). The installation further actualizes its environmental message through formal symbolism. The singular ring set above the Véu da Noiva waterfalls functions as a conceptual extension of the five Olympic rings, highlighting the message of unification between countries to nature’s realm. This is a crucial message for the planet in its current state of the ecological crisis. Through her highly symbolic gesture, Mori successfully utilizes the Olympics as a platform of global synchrony with nature.

Symbolism behind the ring’s physical form also functions as a reminder of the cyclic relationship between humanity and nature, tracing back to prehistoric times. The artist’s choice of the circle also correlates to organic, archetypal forms found within natural landscapes, further strengthening the timelessness of the piece through its minimalistic expression. The sixth Olympic ring was unveiled on August 2 with a ritual-like ceremony including music and performance by participants dressed in all white. The white color further amplified the artist’s statement of universal oneness and reinforced thematic connections to ancestry and tradition.

Mariko Mori’s recent sculpture recalls her previous work in terms of its synthesis of ancient traditions and belief systems with modern technology. The result is a truly present object that is not only relevant to modern times but also introduces a sense of deeper archetypal connection in its audience. This element is also present in Transcircle 1.1 (2004), where Mori composes a modernized version of the ancient Stonehenge with a constantly shifting scenery of lights. The structure integrates elements of both prehistoric Japanese and Celtic traditions, introducing a personalized synthesis of cross-cultural mythology that is also present in Ring: One with Nature. Mori uses live data taken from a neutrino physics laboratory in Japan to monitor the play of lights in Transcircle 1.1, achieving a startling, distinguished presence that echoes throughout her body of work.

Photograph of Mariko Mori's Ring: One With Nature (2016), Courtesy of Faou Foundation

Photograph of Mariko Mori’s Ring: One With Nature (2016), Courtesy of Faou Foundation

Through integrating technological advances with an artistically spiritual vision, Mori achieves a rich spectacle in Ring: One with Nature and makes a profound statement about humanity’s potential for unity. Her sculpture is a reminder that mankind is capable of creating structures that are environmentally friendly, culturally unifying and profitable all at once. In context of Mori’s previous works, the sixth Olympic ring becomes a part of the artist’s overarching vision that places vital importance on human presence and agency in our global landscape. Her message is both simple and profound. It deeply resonates at this time, calling for unity between nations as well as between mankind and the earth.

Sitting in a building of fine and historical architecture on an art school campus, I talked to Victor Cord’homme, a young and green installation artist who is in his fourth year of art studies at this prestigious National School of Fine Arts in Paris (l’Ecole National Supérieur des Beaux Arts de Paris). As a traveller, Victor has been inspired to create installations that transform exhibition spaces into works of art and lead people to discover new spaces and possibilities. While our conversation started with his life at art school, both his artistic practice and his perceptions of the art world speak loudly to a global perspective, which has been constructed through his numerous travelling experiences.

Instagram: victor_cordhomme_artwork

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Art school

  1. When did you decide to become an artist?

When I studied marketing at high school, I was very bored of it. Then, I took a gap year after high school to go travelling for 6 months around Asia. I went to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, India and Nepal. At that time, I missed painting and drawing which I did quite much during my free time throughout my high school years. So I started to think about getting into art school and start art studies. That was my first point of revelation that I started to have the idea of doing art. Then, I started going a lot to museums as my own art cultivation, such as the modern art museum of Paris and Palais de Tokyo. Paris is really a good place to get exposure to a lot of art, which gives me lots of inspirations.

  1. How did you get into the National School of Fine Arts in Paris (l’Ecole National Supérieur des Beaux Arts de Paris)?

After travelling around, I went to a preparatory school in Paris where I did art every day. That’s a school for people who want to get into all the big art schools. There are various art streams, like fine art, decorative art and so on. It’s pretty competitive to get into the National School of Fine Arts, like 1500 people competing for 70 places each year. At the beginning, you submit your art portfolio of paintings or photos of sculptures. After being screened, then you can enter into later stages like a writing test, a drawing test, and finally an interview panel with three professors.

  1. Can you share about your life in the art school? What’s the most important thing that you learn in the art school?

I feel the school is like my second home. The school is not just about getting knowledge, but about meeting people here and discussing art and our works with friends. Everybody tries to be an artist here and we’re helping and sharing with one another our views and experiences.

I think art study is not easy at all because there [are] no definite right or wrong answers and it depends on the comments of people around you. The school actually is not demanding, like around 10 hours of classes per week, but we spend most of our time in studios making art. Studying art is about investing a large amount of time while you need to have knowledge of art history. But it’s also out of passion –all the people are being here because they liking doing art. And I enjoy the process as I try to do things that are interesting.

One of the most important things that I learn here is self-motivation because nobody would push you to work. You wouldn’t be forced to do anything here. We learn art history here from many great art historians but you need to get some contemporary knowledge by exploring in museums or galleries yourself.

Installations

  1. Why do you focus on art installations?

Because I like experimenting with different media including painting and sculpture, and I would like to mix several smaller pieces together into one big piece of art. Somehow it’s like matchmaking –a sculpture and a painting can be compatible and even make each other stronger. Sometimes when art pieces come together, they speak a lot more. Installation is interesting because it’s about how to see and interact with space. Painting is my major art practice, but for me, it’s not enough to involve the space around. With installation, I’m trying to create an environment which gets people to discover new spaces, encounter and observe different forms of life and ways of understanding life.

  1. How exactly do you achieve this with your art – to get people to discover new spaces and ways of understanding life?

For example, with my diploma project in my third year, I created an interactive space that worked with sensors and computers, and there are sounds going on and when more and more people come into the exhibition space, the sounds would keep changing, and so the space would become different. Every person that came into the exhibition added two minutes of available electricity to the space.

And I like taking natural elements from the outside environment, like wind, into the exhibition space inside. Also, I would try to make all elements connected in an installation, like in our environment.

And I would not give out everything at one moment and people would have to come back at different times to discover new things from my installations. So I added lights to the installation so that the space and ambience would be different if people come in daytime or nighttime. I would like to show a temporal dimension of my works because I think time is an interesting material for doing art.

  1. The idea of exploring and discovering new spaces sounds like travelling. Do you travel a lot? How does travelling inspire your art making?

I had a lot of fun travelling to many countries; I’m just back from Canada where I stayed for few months. Before that, I went to Japan for an art competition and I went to Turkey last year. It’s really interesting to meet and talk to different people and to share experiences. I don’t know how to speak about all the feelings from my travelling but I would like to translate these feelings by art. Art makes it easier to share my travelling experiences and people can feel the connection through my art, maybe unconsciously. Travelling is one of the most important things for me. Being an explorer of this world has given all my inspirations for my art –every time I come back from travelling, I always have new ideas.

  1. Can you share your most memorable travelling experience?

When I was 19, I left my parents and I went to travel in India and met a lot of people there. Travelling there showed me the real side of life. It’s about meeting and talking to people and learning about their life. You’re in a different culture and environment. People would look at me curiously because I look different from them and some even came to me and asked if I could take photos with them.

  1. Any artists who have a particularly great influence on your perceptions and practices of art?

First is the Canadian artist, David Altmejd. We’re not in the same way of thinking about art, but he’s my main reference. His sculptures are dense, tell stories and give lots of information. He’s a really interesting artist. There was his exhibition in Paris last year, and I saw his exhibition again in Montreal and could discover new things from his works.

Also, I saw an exhibition of a Thai artist, Korakrit Arunanondchai, at Palais de Tokyo this year. He was making a huge installation with paintings and mannequins put in an interesting way. Actually, I didn’t like his formal way of doing art but his ideas are more interesting.

Perceptions

  1. How does your art interact with the French contemporary culture?

I think my art does not specifically interact with French culture, but rather the global culture. I don’t think art has to necessarily relate to a certain culture. I prefer to work in global culture rather than just French culture. And we’re in a world of globalisation; everything is mixing and exchanging. I’m more into exploring and mixing several cultures.

  1. Interesting perspective! So do you see yourself as a world citizen?

Yeah, I think I’m more a world citizen… I’m happy to say that I’m French and I’m having the colours of my flag on me. But actually, I’m French-Danish as my father is French and my mother is Danish. So I have double nationalities and I grew up in both countries, so I’m not solely French. And I also like travelling so much — I like to feel home and meet friends everywhere I go. So I think being a world citizen is more interesting; it’s about your way of acting and it makes your mind more open to different things.

  1. What do you think about contemporary art?

I think the contemporary art world is very different from the 19th or 20th century when there were prevailing art movements. There are now a lot of different directions happening because there are way more artists and more communication. Everything can kind of be contemporary art, it is way more diverse. Every direction can be interesting, and you need to discover and show to people new ways of thinking. Another thing in the contemporary art world is the need to deal with speculation in the art market, but I think that’s not totally a bad thing.

  1. How do you perceive yourself as an artist?

I don’t like to say I’m making art pieces… I think I’m kind of trying to be an artist… Being an artist is a huge thing for me and I don’t like this definition. I think I’m just someone who’s thinking and proposing something while using art to show it. I don’t mind if I’m being seen as an artist or not, and I think someone becomes an artist when everyone around sees him/her as an artist.