A Brief Introduction to Performance Art and Its History in Asia
What is performance art?
Performance art, or live art, is, in essence, a form of visual art that uses the body as primary material in a time-based practice.
This means that the artist is using actions of either their own body or other bodies to express a feeling or idea, unfolding in a particular location over a certain period of time. Although performance art can sometimes look very similar to other types of performances, like stage theatre or dance, its main difference is the intention of the artist.
Apart from this very straightforward definition, performance art is a wonderfully open-ended and varied genre of art. It can last just a few minutes or a year or even longer; it can involve audience participation or just the artist themselves; it can be scripted or random and spontaneous. It can be documented through photos, or videos, or text, or it can simply exist as an idea or memory and nothing else.
The history of performance art in its contemporary form starts in the early twentieth century. It can be traced to the avant-garde movements of Futurism and Dada in Europe, when artists embraced performance as a means to experiment with new ideas and processes.
This is the canonised history of performance art in the West, but what about elsewhere in the world? Let’s shift to an equally exciting history that deserves more attention: the history of performance art in Hong Kong and surrounding regions in Asia.
Performance art in Hong Kong and Asia
Let’s start with the 1970s, when, far away from Europe, Hong Kong’s own history of performance art began, with the actions and installations of the eccentric artist Frog King Kwok (Kwok Mang Ho). Pioneering the practice in this city, he coined the term ‘happening’ in Cantonese as hark bun lum (meaning ‘guests arrive’), and has created performances for over four decades, continuing to this day with just as much energy and creativity. He is also considered by some to be the first ever performance artist working in China.
It was slightly earlier, however, in the 1950s and 1960s, that the collective ‘action events’ of the Japanese Gutai group of artists started to gain worldwide fame. These ‘action events’ were performance art pieces that involved energetic bodily engagement with different types of materials—for example, paint, mud, or paper.
A few decades later, in the early 1990s, even more extreme expressions of the body took place on the outskirts of Beijing, in the derelict village of Dashanzhuang. This became the breeding ground for a small group of avant-garde artists responding to the tidal wave of cultural and economic changes in China in the period after 1989. Known as the Beijing East Village artists, the group experimented with raw, durational performances. They wanted to express individual experiences to challenge the idea of collective social harmony. Although they were performed before only a handful of people, these ephemeral acts were captured by a series of now iconic photographs and videos, such as this photo capturing the performance 12M2 (1994) by Zhang Huan, in which he covered himself in honey and fish oil and sat in a public bathroom for forty minutes, allowing flies to crawl all over him.
Southeast Asian artists have turned to performance art as means of responding to and highlighting urgent political, religious, and social issues in their specific contexts. One such pioneer is FX Harsono, who, in the 1990s, intervened in communal spaces to interrogate his concerns with the social and political situation in Indonesia and, more importantly, elicit change.
In the last few decades, another mode of performance art has also expanded and proliferated across the globe: relational art, or ‘relational aesthetics’, in which artists construct social environments that allow people to come together and create the works through shared activities, building new human relationships. Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is one of the most well known relational artists: his works, in which he cooks food for audience members within gallery and museum spaces, have been exhibited and performed worldwide since the 1990s.
Every place in Asia, of course, has its own history of performance art, and we can’t possibly capture them all here. Performance art in South Korea, for example, took on significance during the Yushin military regime (in which South Korean president Park Chung-hee ruled using the Yushin constitution) in the 1970s, and, as another example, much of contemporary Indian performance art has a complex and rich relationship to the country’s ritualistic traditions.
We hope, however, that this provides a brief overview of performance art in this part of the world, and one we will continuously work to provide access to through our programming and growing collection.
Don't miss part two of this post, a look at performance art highlights in the M+ Collections. All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.