In follow up to our brief overview of performance art and its history in Hong Kong and Asia, we're highlighting examples of performance art from the M+ Collections. We’re proud to have these seminal performance art pieces in the M+ Collections, from both Asia and around the world.
One groundbreaking performance artist in the M+ Collections is Tehching Hsieh, originally from Taiwan. His intense one-year performances, all five of which are represented in the M+ Collections, pushed his body to its limits, and required strictly regimented structures. In the first piece of the series, One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece), the artist spent a year confined inside a small wooden cage he built for himself. He made no contact with the outside world, except for a friend who delivered food and clothing and removed his waste. A lawyer notarised the entire process to make sure he didn’t leave his cage.
In his next year-long work, One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece), he punched a time clock every hour on the hour, and took a photo of himself each time he did so. In another work, Art / Life: One Year Performance 1983–1984 (Rope Piece), Hsieh and American performance artist Linda Montano spent a year tied to each other with a rope. Wherever they went, they had to stay together in the same room and were not allowed to touch each other.
For Tehching Hsieh, his works are about the idea that ‘life is passing time’—conveying the notion of consuming time, day by day, until a certain endpoint.
Tehching Hsieh has been called ‘the master of performance art’ by one of the best-known performance artists today: Marina Abramović. The Serbian-born artist was very much inspired by Hsieh. Abramović’s work also often explores the limits of the body, and the relationship between performer and audience.
The work by Abramović in the M+ Collections is one that connects her to China: The Lovers from 1988, in which she walked the Great Wall of China. She planned it with her longtime work and life partner at the time, German artist Ulay, with both of them starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle. However, while it was initially planned that they would meet in the middle and get married, by the time they had gotten permission to do the work, their relationship had deteriorated. Instead, their meeting in the middle of the wall became their breakup and farewell to each other.
The walk to the middle of the Great Wall took thirty days, and the work revolves not just around Abramović’s relationship to Ulay, but also her experience of the wall itself, and the centuries of history that it represents. There are five photographs documenting the performance in the M+ Collections, and under each photograph, she has created small drawings that interpret her emotions in that moment.
Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is one of the most well-known practitioners in the field of relational art, in which artists construct social environments for visitors who help to ‘create’ the work through their relationships and social activities. His works, then, consist of spaces or structures for socialising and fostering human connections and relationships. One of his works in the M+ Collections is Untitled 2001 (the magnificent seven, spaghetti western), in which he cooks a Thai curry for the visitors. The work is about sharing of space, time, and experience; three foundational aspects of performance art. The actual physical materials of the work consist of propane cookers, steel pots, plates, forks, trays, cutting boards, and a Thai soup recipe.
Beijing East Village
In the early 1990s, in the village of Dashanzhuang in the eastern fringe of Beijing, a small group of avant-garde artists collaborated on a series of challenging performances that were documented with photos and videos. The performances were marked by extreme uses of the body, and were highly radical for their time. They responded to the tidal wave of cultural and economic changes in the period after 1989 by expressing individual experiences to confront the idea of a collective social identity.
There is documentation of several of the Beijing East Village performances in the M+ Collections. One example is a performance by a group of 10 artists from Beijing’s East Village including Duan Yingmei and Zhang Huan: a 1995 work called To Add a Meter to an Anonymous Mountain. The artists stacked their naked bodies on the top of Miaofeng Mountain on the outskirts of Beijing, aiming to add an additional metre to the mountain’s height.
Another example is the above photo by East Village artist Rong Rong, which documents artist Ma Liuming’s performance piece Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch II. In the performance, Ma Liuming, wearing nothing but makeup and earrings in the role of his androgynous alter ego Fen-Ma Liuming, silently cooked fish in front of an audience and served it to them. He then put a laundry tube onto his penis and sucked and blew on the other end. This performance turned out to be so controversial that it caused him to be arrested, and forced many other members of the artist community to go into hiding and eventually settle in other parts of the city.
Hi-Red Center was a short-lived but highly influential art collective active between 1963 and 1964. Founded in Tokyo by artists Genpei Akasegawa, Natsuyuki Nakanishi, and Jiro Takamatsu. Their anti-establishment actions and events often took place in the street and in urban environments, such as their ‘Cleaning Event’, captured by Hirata Minoru above. In it, the artists and their associates scrubbed one little area of a street in Ginza, a busy shopping and business district in Tokyo, around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. It was a reaction against the government’s demands that the city be spotless in preparation for the Olympics, thereby presenting a certain image to the rest of the world. The work spoke to the conditions of post-World War II Japanese society, investigating the role of the individual in relation to authority.
There are many different ways of documenting performance art, and the way it’s documented depends on the artist. Tino Sehgal’s work is unique in that it is pure performance: there are no remnants, no photos, no videos. His work Guards Kissing is in the M+ Collections, but there is no documentation for it—only the idea of the work, and verbal instructions from the artist.
Sehgal believes in the purity of the moment in which you’re spending time with his work, and that anything else simply takes away from that moment. There’s no medium other than two bodies—something that makes his work so unique.
Guards Kissing is a work meant to be displayed in a museum setting, during the museum’s opening hours. We won’t reveal more than that at this point, but we look forward to displaying it in our future museum building.
All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.
Ellen Oredsson is Editor, Web Content at M+.