Body work

published in: Hart #76, January 2011, p. 15

It’s a commonplace that we live in a time of imagery – we are surrounded by it and not least thanks to TV and internet we are constantly bombarded with pictures. Especially the internet gives you every image you want at any time – and even more you actually don’t want. So it’s only consequent that people in our society tend to retire from the “real” world, retreat to their private spaces and their computer, living more in the virtual world of the internet than anywhere else.

Even if it doesn’t get that extreme, it’s true for our contemporary world that it becomes easier and easier to “meet” people without actually meeting them, to talk to them, even in realtime, without talking or seeing them. Many people stay in contact with others in all kind of places all over the world without touching anyone in weeks.

Mind and body
What does this mean for our relation to body and physicalness? While in the virtual world bodies primarily appear as beautiful perfect surfaces, our own physical body is disconcertingly unreliable. It serves as the shelter we inhabite but is at the same time alarmlingly prone to seductions. It gets easily addicted to supposedly appeasing remedies such as alcohol, drugs or medication (or the internet!) which can turn the former shelter into a hoard of anxieties and confusions.

So the relation between mind and body is an ambivalent one which foremost the artists in the sixties and seventies explored when “Performance art” was born. The eighties and nineties were characterized by conceptual and rather intellectual artistic and theoretical approaches. It’s probably no coincidence that now, after the last decade in which the internet with its confusing virtual worlds and overwhelming cyper spaces has become a pre-eminent part of our lives, the contemporary art discourse turned its attention from the “new media” back to the good old body. Yet there are quite a few artists who have been working with choreographing and staging people for a longer period now; Tino Seghal, Victor Alimpiev, Catherine Sullivan are among those who immediately come to mind.

Body and space
Looking back it seems only logical that thematic exhibitions on “narrativity” in visual arts (nonlinear! Dysfunctional!) in the late nineties have led museum curators in the beginning of the millennium to the “space” (preferably urban), more recently to “body and space” (these links between visual arts and architecture!), then of course to “performativity” (most times as in “theatricality”), and now finally to dance, the ultimate performance of the body in space.

So dance or, more generally put, body movement is being “rediscovered”. Of course, it has never been away. As an indepent genre dance has been alive and kicking through the decades. It’s only that the visual arts now seem to realize its influence on contemporary art and the tremendous potential of the performative arts as media for the visual arts.

Curators like Tate Modern’s performance specialist Catherine Wood have been working on the subject for quite a while now. But it seems to be only just recent that biennials like the last Whitney Biennial focus on “body art” or symposia like an upcoming one in Berlin claim that “in the last two decades the ‘body’ has been established as an anlytical category in the cultural studies. Individual, collective, symbolic and narrated bodies, bodies of images, images of bodies, incorporations and embodiments were taken into focus.” And recently the Hayward, London, presented “Move. Choreographing You”, a vast group show with historical (e.g. Bruce Nauman, Yvonne Rainer, William Forsythe) and contemporary (e.g. Tania Bruguera, Trisha Brown, Christian Jankowski) positions. The show which will travel to Düsseldorf in July takes into account dance and contemporary art since the 1960s and is a mixture between exhibition and playground. There are works with performing dancers in it (like Pablo Bronstein's "Magnificent Triumphal Arch in Pompeian Colours", 2010) and there are many artworks where the visitors have to take action themselves like in Mike Kelley’s “Test Room Containing Multiple Stimuli Known to Elicit Curiosity and Manipulatory Responses" (1999/2010) or “The Fact of Matter” (2009) by William Forsythe.

Lack of control
The great thing about this kind of performance art – no matter if you are just as spectator or involved as ‘performing viewer’ – is that you get in touch with other people, without barrier between you and them. This is something no super high-tech interactive new media installation can provide: the uncontrallability of the situation. As soon as two human beings are together in a situation, social rules and values have to be applied: for example respect, consideration, not least trust. All these aspects are not applicable when you are in front of an ‘lifeless’ artwork – making you think about your own body in relation to the space and other bodies is something no material or media can achieve as convincingly as: another body.

These are thoughts Yvonne Rainer and her generation have explored already but, as a show like “Move” or in general the newly-awakened interest in the moving body show, they are as crucial as they were in the sixties. After all, questions like “When does gesture become art?” or “When does the spectator become a performer?” or “What is the difference between an art performance and a dance or theater performance?” are fundamental to theater and dance but they weren’t so much for the visual arts in the last twenty or thirty years, until recently – as so often, the visual arts seem to jump on another genre, take material and methods from it, theorize them and turn them into visual art – without worrying too much if their insights are on the forefront ot the respective genre.

Everything is equitable
Dance writer Sanjoy Roy once described a panel discussion in London with visual arts people in front of a mainly dance people audience: “The visual arts people seemed to understand each other perfectly; the dance people seemed to understand each other, but (…) the twain did not really meet.“ Roy felt that the curators and art theorists were interested “not in action, but in representation and concept - at the expense of, for example, communication, engagement and effect. From their point of view, I suspect the visual arts panellists found us dance bods an uncritical, possibly undereducated lot. And maybe they have a point.” And Sanjoy Roy too: No doubt, contemporary visual art is about representation, communication and concept. While the tool of performers is now and forever their body, it doesn’t matter which tool visual artists find to express their ideas and thoughts. Everything is equitable.

Yet to use the body in the sometimes overly-intellectual art area can be extremely strong, especially when the body in question is your own. Using it, moving it, playing around, feeling consciously gestures and moves, that provides the chance to get aware of your body (and other bodies) as social entity but alsothe opportunity to release and relax. Yes, moving your body might easily lead away from the artwork because you have to focus on yourself and maybe even the mind got all distracted and serves for the moment only the body (just the opposite from what we usually do when we go to see art). But maybe one should again reflect our common hierarchical concept of the mind as our most precious feature because after all, there is no way around it: when the body stops working the mind has to stop too.