Despite the lack of support from art institutions in terms of promotion and funds, the unorthodox Nippon International Performance Art Festival Asian Series (NIPAF) was still very much alive thanks to the Saison Foundation. In the past, NIPAF organiser, Seiji Shimoda, who is himself a performance artist, invited well known performance artists from many parts of the globe including, Lee Wen (Singapore), Arahmaiani (Indonesia), Black Market (a group of international performance artists), Andre Stitt (UK), Ma Liuming (China) and Zhang Huan (China/ USA). This year's festival focused on Asia, and the NIPAF committee invited mainly young artists (myself included), for many of whom it was their first time to travel abroad. The 9th Nippon International Performance Art Festival was the longest of its kind, running for a total of three weeks, travelling through all the major Japanese cities, and included a performance art workshop, outdoor performances and impromptu actions on the streets of Japan
Developing at some distance from the Dada movement, Gutai activities, and 1960s Happenings, performance art refuses to be treated as a commodity, challenging art's traditional mode of production by utilising nothing more nor less than the artist's own body. Based on the report about China's shock art in the August 2004 issue of Newsweek, performance art as an anti-commodity is no longer an issue. Remnants of performance art such as photo and video documentation, as well as objects used as props, are being sold at auction on a gargantuan scale. While this may not be the case for many of the works by participants and organisers of this festival, organisers realised that they could capitalise on the event to support the artists by selling tickets for indoor performances, festival brochures, booklets, CD-ROMs, and VHS tapes.
According to the organiser, the suicide rate in Japan is increasing at an alarming speed due to stress at work and in daily life. Art then becomes a form of therapy, in Joseph Beuys' sense of "living life artistically." In this context, release means "letting go" of what is inside the mind into the body. It is an unleashing of the inner self as manifested through various actions.
The performance art of Seiji Shimoda lies in the boundaries between artistic disciplines such as music and poetry, and functional disciplines like technology and craft. With his actions, he has helped to expand the definition of performance art, developing a wide variety of activities including the creation of art objects and props. At no time, however, does this artist assume the role of a poet or organiser. Shimoda defines his performances as sculpture in motion. Yet, instead of succumbing to the traditional limits placed on that discipline, he is attentive to what it means as a questioning of our situation and our relationship with all that surrounds us.
Straight from a busy day at the office, Gen Murai still has time to perform, making slow-moving gestures that are full of tension, at times using a knife and scissor. This underscores the psychological effects of the object: a knife can cut and even hurt or kill, but in the end, the decision is still in the mind. It is human beings who control objects, not the other way around.
Japanese artist Miyaki Inukai presented a piece entitled Breathe, in which she releases oxygen from her body to "give life" to a plastic bag. The inanimate object thus seems to acquire a life of its own.
Fusae Suyama, on the other hand, discusses her autobiographical approach to performance art. With the aid of electronic art, she strolls through the Freudian confections of her latest performance.
Special guest Sadaharu Horio is a member of the Gutai Association, which stemmed from a Japan-based avant-garde art group that preceded the Fluxus movement. The performance made use of ordinary things, yet for the viewers who were mesmerised by Sadaharu's actions, it is anything but ordinary; it is a special act.
Mokoto Murayama, meanwhile, went to the public fountain after struggling to remove his clothes using very slow motions. In the end, he dove into the water, totally naked. The result was actually more exciting than the "splash" paintings of David Hockey in the contemporary Museum of Tokyo.
Rei Shibata performed another powerful piece, in which she is bound half-naked between two wooden posts. Her arms are tied with strings to the posts, and she struggles to break the string and release herself.
While some of the performance artists concentrated on release, others focused on creating a replica. These performance artists seem to manifest the essence of their present history and art: rapid development and economic prosperity. Their countries share a common response to such changes—replica, which means reproduction and reflection. One can witness traces of reproduction from internal affairs of each country, simulated acts rather than demonstrations, a reflection rather than a statement.
Itz Tzu from Taiwan highlighted modern technological advancements as manifested in gadgets such as cell phones, the internet, and computers by creating a scenario saturated with these images. The images bounce back from her silver-coated outfit and box-shaped headdress made of plastic mirrors, challenging the notion of interactivity with which contemporary new media has always been depicted. Her performance piece exposes the interference of new media as restrictive to human emotions. Due to the virtual interface brought by video games and the internet, city dwellers and the younger generation of Taiwanese have became more isolated from one another, often with hardly any physical, human interaction. Her work is a strong reaction to what is happening in Taiwan—and elsewhere in Asia—today. The performance art of Cang Xin examines the spatial consequences of rapid economic development in China. The artist's repetitive actions, such as the act of licking the ground with his tongue, reveals the seemingly instantaneous disappearance and appearance of static action. His motionless hiatus with other volunteer-collaborators (they posed for a camera shot after exchanging clothes with each other) captures the physical implications imposed by the development process on his country, a process marked by both irretrievable damage and great expectations.
Singaporean Juliana Yasin focuses on the role of women, particularly Muslim women in developing cities caught between conservative traditions and modernisation. At the same time, she investigates her body as a traveller and cultural activist, having actively organised and participated in several art projects in Singapore and abroad. Her work as an artist arises out of a concern to restore the relationship between art and the daily world where she lives. Yasin made extensive use of her personal belongings: a map, lipstick, backpack, and black scarf—highly charged allegories for bewildering experiences on her journey to several countries like Indonesia, Japan, and Australia. These objects signified the sense of security and the memoirs that meant home to the well-travelled artist. In going about this task, she makes use of her experience as an artist-worker and her extensive knowledge in the field of organising and networking. Her works reflect her locus in a government-sponsored art scene, reflecting two opposite stands: a subtle offense on the authoritarian system and, at the same time, gratitude for having a country full of vision and hope.
The latest enterprise of Sung-Baeg from Korea is a strikingly fresh take on formalist abstraction, combined with action painting. His inquisitiveness towards remarkable and long-established modern art is noteworthy. While Sung-Baeg's inclination is standard and his paint materials are conventional, he interweaves painting and performance art to challenge human endurance and the potential of the materials. Using his mouth as a spray gun, Sung-Baeg gargles and blows black paint on the large paper in an act of defiance. This strategy allows him to engage in action that is at the same time a form of art production: putting paint on paper. Without resorting to traditional hierarchies of abstract expressionism and action painting as done by masters Ives Klein, Georges Mathieu or Kazuo Shiraga, Sung-Baeg incorporated autobiographical experience into the genre, particularly in the butterfly element in his work—a tribute to the memory of his deceased mother.
Intervention refers to interfering with someone's creative process or work in progress. At the same time, it alludes to disturbances in the economic, political, and cultural condition brought about by globalisation. Debates about the relationship of art to politics permeate the history of modern art, but during times of war and intense political conflict, they appear even more pressing. This raises a number of questions for performance artists: What does performance have to do with politics? Should political conflict inform artistic production and the content of performance art? What power does spontaneous action possess to change the political and social status quo?
Chaw Ei Thein from Myanmar recreates "solemn situations" in her art. Her performances, especially those executed outdoors, caused a disruption in the daily routine of the Japanese people. While Japan is no longer subject to political oppression, the case is different in Burma. Chaw's traditional Burmese costume and her controlled actions push the spectators to re-assess their acknowledgment of the present-day value system and political order. In every performance, she bears a symbolic chain, candles, and a dove-shaped piece of paper. Drawings of feet and hands are etched on her face and other parts of her body, as if her skin had been tattooed like that of a tribal woman caught in modern times. Her gestures summon discourse that examines how our individual freedom is constrained by a privileged few who are in the corridors of power.
The scale of urban development currently experienced by Vietnam is by far the greatest among the Asian countries. However, the performance pieces done by Vietnamese artist Bui Cong Khan speak not only for country but also for all developing countries once under neo-colonial rule. In his performance in Neon Hall at Nagano, the artist poured Coca-cola all over his naked body. Foreign rock music accompanied his performance, and images of a metropolis and Coca-cola billboards were projected on the wall using video. Though the physical outcome of economic progress such as billboards and tall buildings may be remarkable, it remains to be seen how the pervasive loss of traditional culture will affect the potential of these developing cities, and others like them all over the globe. His actions address economic expansion, which is equated with rural exclusion, loss of heritage and proliferation of industrial zones, which are presently some of the obvious—and conceivably extreme—indicators of globalisation.
Japanese Kazuhiro Nishijima's performance art is an invitation to reflect upon the relationship between tradition and the avant-garde. The artist constructed a striking scene using Japanese materials such as black ink on paper and lit up the space with an ordinary light bulb to add dramatic ambiance. Avante-garde art and tradition are likewise juxtaposed in Nishijima's actions: instead of using a stamp for printing, he used his body to print patterns on very long Japanese paper. By setting up an ambiguous interplay of long-established customs, he calls into question conventional practices and explores the issues of presentation, context, and perception of art.
Body Politic is the discourse of Iwan Wijono from Indonesia. An active performance artist in his country, he organises a weekly event known as "wed action" in which he ventures to question the value of the human body in this time of commodity culture. He performs using his body as commodity, offering himself to the audience in exchange for services. The winner of the auction can do what he/she wants to his body, and the money goes back to the audience of his choice.
Another form of intervention is seen in the work of Alexander Del Re: surveillance, in which technology invades our personal space and private lives. He creates a new aesthetic space set against a number of works based on the ideology of performance art, an art that underlines the dialectic between the art object and the surrounding space. Del Re responds by speculating on the degree of autonomy these works possess when they are placed in a context different from that of their history as an art form. The aim of his performance art is not to negate the ideology behind such technologies as video surveillance, but rather to review and reinterpret them according to new valuations.
NIPAF in Its Place
History often focuses on "residues" of performance art—objects, videos, and photos—documentation that is more tangible and evident than the actual event. Yet understanding art practice rather than assessing the performers' ability is the very essence of the festival. The important thing in such art is the experience and momentum in a given time. Above all, what history will fail to record is the exchange of perspectives and shared experiences among the participants, which gives them a sense of camaraderie that further inspires their drive to create. NIPAF is not a festival with "curators" but a "happening" for artists to revitalise their energies. Artists must produce works spontaneously instead of consciously articulating their place in the history of art. In this sense, NIPAF is a dynamic venue, where different artists simply gather, and where no one ever knows—or cares—who is going to be the next.
Being a live art event, performance art can connect directly to the viewer, whereas static art objects like paintings, sculptures, and installations have only one-way communication. Performance art thus has the advantage of involving the audience as part of the total experience.
It is no longer "anti-art," but has become a recognised medium. What is new is not the form but the message and purpose: not to declare the birth of new movements but to make the audience understand the experience. It is now time for events like NIPAF to transpire in the international scene, to rise to the occasion as an important and a meaningful forum for the exchange of new ideas.
- Mon, 1 Nov 2004