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25 May 2018 / by Ellen Oredsson

A Brief Introduction to Performance Art and Its History in Asia

A woman dressed in a cream-coloured, shapeless garment holds four long-stemmed white flowers in her hands. She is captured in the middle of blowing a mouthful of white petals from the flowers into the air in front of her. She is standing in a park during sunset.

A Body in Hong Kong by artist Eiko Otake, commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+: Live Art in 2015. © All rights reserved; Photo: CPAK Studio

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.

A woman wearing a dress walks across four simple plastic chairs standing in a row against a wall in a dark room. The wall behind the chairs is covered by a projection showing an image of a river under a grey sky with fences, houses, and a sparse, dirt-filled landscape next to it. The woman’s silhouette covers the projection as she walks in front of it.

Configurations, a combined lecture and performance piece by artist Patty Chang, commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+: Live Art in 2015. © All rights reserved; Photo: M+, Hong Kong

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.

Ming Wong: Cinema and Cantonese Opera
Ming Wong: Cinema and Cantonese Opera

Ming Wong discusses the twin influences of science fiction and Cantonese opera on his practice

Video Transcript

MING WONG: The world of cinema was my gateway to imagination.

I think most of the work is personal, or started with a personal motivation. I’m sure the early works are really about myself, searching for my own identity. By impersonating some of these characters—by recasting some of these roles—it seems like everything comes back to me, and using myself as a vehicle for whatever transpires; whatever comes up. The audience can see that it’s me trying to embody these characters; trying to say these things that the filmmaker wanted to express in the first place.

I am very drawn to not just cinema, but also traditional forms of the performing arts. I have a particular interest in Cantonese opera, because that’s something that I personally grew up with. And that got me started looking at the history of Cantonese opera cinema. And I discovered, actually, [that] the form itself is not as old as what you might think. It’s very malleable and perhaps able to express stories and themes other than the traditional canon.

And that got me to think about, can it be used to express something about contemporary society, and about the future? And then I started to look at the history of science fiction in the Chinese-speaking world.

A goal could be to create a science fiction Cantonese opera film, which has never been attempted in history. I’m interested in the divide between the lives today, and the practice and art form that’s traditional and rooted in the past. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world and I think this feeds into how we relate to each other; how we relate to our own cultural identity and our history.

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

Ink painting on paper of a shape created with very thick black brushstrokes against a cream-coloured background. The shape resembles a frog head with a wide black mouth and large triangular eyes that sit on top. A small red stamp of a wide smiling mouth below two triangular eyes sits close to the bottom right corner, next to the words ‘Kwok 92 NYC’ in pencil.

Wind Frog Flower (1992), one of Frog King Kwok’s non-performance art pieces in the M+ Collections. © Frog King Kwok; M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Kwok Mang-ho / Frog King, 2015

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.

A crowd of onlookers in a courtyard look at rows of tied plastic bags attached to strings that go across the entire courtyard. Rows of engraved tiles are laid out on the ground beneath the plastic bags.

A performance by Frog King Kwok at Hong Kong Polytechnic (now known as Hong Kong Polytechnic University) in 1979. Photo: Courtesy of Frog King KWOK Mangho and Asia Art Archive

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.

Monochrome photograph of a shirtless man sitting in a darkened room with concrete walls. His skin is shining and covered in a glossy material and numerous flies sit on his arms, chest, and head.

Zhang Huan’s performance 12M2 in 1994, documented as part of photographer Rong Rong's East Village, Beijing series (1994–1996). © Rong Rong; M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation.

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.

Rirkrit Tiravanija: A Condition for Experience
Rirkrit Tiravanija: A Condition for Experience

Rirkrit Tiravanija discusses Untitled 2001 (the magnificent seven, spaghetti western), in which he cooks a Thai soup for the visitors

Video Transcript

RIRKRIT TIRAVANIJA: Art is integrated into everything. When it comes to spaghetti western, in a sense, there would be seven stations where [we’re] cooking tom kha gai, which is a coconut chicken soup. I was quite interested in there being a kind of evidence of activity. I was trying to kind of retrieve this condition that was actually around the objects. The fact that people would come later and see a situation that had happened, and then they would have to, kind of, in their own mind try to see the picture of what had happened.

It is about playing with that condition that they are misunderstanding, or misreading, or not reading enough, because they make assumptions. And that's always been part of the battle, is to fight the assumptions. And assumptions are made because they believe they have the knowledge to assume.

Those different ways of kind of organising or kind of setting up a condition for experience is important. So I think in a certain way it's kind of trying to understand how people move through things. How people move through experiences.

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.

A woman stands under a single spotlight on a very dark stage. She holds a book in front of her face and looks at it as if in the middle of reading from it. Behind her is a screen that shows a woman in a red dress lying down against a black background with her body pointing towards the bottom right of the screen.

The Malady of Death: Écrice et Lire with Hon Lai-chu by artist Haegue Yang, commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+: Live Art in 2015. © All rights reserved; Photo: CPAK Studio

Don't miss part two of this post, a look at performance art highlights from the M+ Collections. Want to view some of these performances in full? Stop by our Mediatheque to browse documentation of performance art in the M+ Collections on-demand.

All photos: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.

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