The performing body of the solo avant-garde artist is a potent and expressive tool, and it has had particularly powerful currency in Asia, with artists experimenting with new solutions for cementing their connection with live audiences and the documenting camera. Since 1998 the Chinese artist, Ma Liuming, has performed in over a dozen cities, while sitting naked with a large mirror behind him and a photographic still camera in front of him. As part of the staging of the performance Ma Liuming reflects the audience back on itself. Sometimes awake and sometimes unconscious or drugged, he leaves the audience to take over the performance. The artist explains, "I have the camera set up on a tripod and set on automatic so audience members can press the shutter button themselves and then come over and pose for the photo?.. The sound of the microphone is also amplified so you can also hear the sound of the shutter clicking." The role of the camera has shifted from a transparent medium that is looked through to see the performance, to an active and seen effort. To represent time duration Ma Liuming reconstructed the performance by selecting a series of images from over a hundred to achieve a multiple photograph format. The photograph or video is an access point to performance that has its own durational quality, one that the body cannot sustain, making the paradoxical relationship between the breathing artist and mechanical and digital reproduction central to the reception and appreciation of avant-garde performance art.
Documentation of avant-garde performance art by the Gutai Art Association in Japan from the 1950s is generally known through only a few documentary photographs. For example, a well-known image of Shiraga Kazuo's Challenge to the Mud, 1955, features the artist rolled half naked in a pile of mud. It is shot from above with the camera at a distance far enough away to capture the action of the body as a paint brush, with the mud as paint and the ground as canvas, all in full view, in order to form a coherent whole that follows the logic of a painting. An audience for the performance is implied, yet not seen. We can at least assume that there is an audience of one, the photographer himself. It is photographs such as this one that have effectively shaped our reading and experience of historic prescient performances.
Indeed, performance is very powerful, whether there is a live audience for it or not, and in recent years the role of the camera has come to play a more active role. As such, a history of Asian contemporary performance art has been constructed, in part, from viewing documents in its various forms--documentary, artistic, experimental - that serve to represent or express the performance itself. The document has a new status, one almost as "sacred" as the original itself and it often takes on the burden of meaning that until the post-war contemporary periods was the duty of the "original." Whereas the documentation of other kinds of performance--dance and theater--has maintained a more or less similar function as a form of preservation of the original, something has irrevocably shifted for body-based avant-garde artists. Yet, the relationship between the event and the document is not a comfortable corollary and in the gap between the two the document has evolved its own aesthetic terms for placing performance into a re-viewable history. It has become an extension of the work of art, even where it is problematic to suggest that this is the case, because of a resistance to supplant the primacy of the performance itself. For Asian contemporary art, earlier renditions of the dynamic relationship between these temporal and long lasting forms were somewhat straightforward. However, as artists became more sophisticated about the role of the document as an extension of the performance, the presentational strategies became more complex, with the artist taking more and more control over the archive to create a hybrid genre that is situated between action and viewing. Ma Liuming's work described above is one example of how artists are changing the terms of performance.
In the early 1990s the artists living at a commune in Beijing known as the East Village generated a number of important works of performance art. The striking documentary photograph by Xing Danwen of Zhang Huan's 65 kg (1994), a one hour performance where the artist tied himself to the rafters to simulate self-sacrifice, using his own body in one of his self-inflicting masochist performance acts, is one such work from this period. Zhang suspended himself naked on chains from the ceiling and let blood drip from his wounded neck onto an electric burner placed below him. Formal considerations such as distance, angle, position of the camera and performer, as well as the inclusion of the crew and other incidental audience members, inform our reading, not only of the performance, but of the staging of it as well.
A video is the final artistic product of Sooja Kim's A Needle Woman (1999-2000), a series of duration performances staged in various locations including Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, and New Delhi. With her back to the camera, the artist stands motionless as the pedestrian flows pass on either side of her. This performance-based work relies on an altogether different type of discipline, one that is closely aligned with Buddhism, where the gaze within is suggested by a turning away from the viewer even as the body's corporeality takes center stage. The relationship between the performer and camera is integral to the success of the work, since it frames the shots specifically to yield a parallel position between the artist and the viewer, both of whom are, like the lens of the camera, looking into the scene of the city. Kim's artwork suggests another temporality of public display. The involuntary supporting cast is moving in time with history, while the artist appears to represent ahistorical timelessness. Shiraga's, Zhang's, and Kim's solo performances foreground ritual, bodily control, and self discipline by turning their bodies into sites of intense focus and concentration. Differently focused, Ma Liuming's project is a commentary and insider joke on the time honored demands for resilience, strength, determination and will in endurance-based individual performance.
Frederick Garber has written, "... the viewer of photographs responds not only to what he/she knows of how the performance went; but also 'to the image of the performance,' which becomes its own breed of artwork in recording the work of another art." [See note (i)] This is not just about combining one art form with another, in this case -performance and photo-based mediums - it is also about the tension between these two forms of artistic expression, and the possibility that they may not be completely compatible. The demand on the photograph or video is that it will hold the moment and communicate as much as possible, while implying the temporal dimension that enriches the artist/ audience relationship. For the artist, "with or without the mirror there is an essential (basic and requisite) split between oneself as a maker of the image and the image of oneself in the photograph one makes, a division not only of tasks but of qualities of being." [See note (ii)] This splitting demands that the body and the eye cannot co-exist equally, and that one must serve the other in the artist's memory of the experience of having performed something. For the artist and the viewer alike, the disjunction between the real time experience that was, and that of the thing that stands in for it, has become complicated by contingency, where re-experiencing or not, is not as relevant as constructing an experience out of a direct relationship with what is still extant.
Betti-Sue Hertz is Curator of Contemporary Art at the San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California, USA. She organised the touring exhibition "Past in Reverse: Contemporary Art of East Asia," which will be on view at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA, from January 14-March 12, 2006.
(i)Frederick Garber, Repositionings: Readings of Contemporary Poetry, Photography, and Performance Art, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1995, p. 141-142.