Performance Art - Intriguing Art Form or Strange Theater?

One of the most intriguing and certainly one of the strangest phenomenon I have ever experienced while working in the Performing Arts field was a little something that made its way to Edmonton in the late '80s. It was a curious hybrid, an uneasy amalgam of Visual Arts, Movement, Dance, Music, and Poetry, and came to us from its New York rebirth.

Born in the 60s, Performance Art was not quite drama, not quite dance, and certainly not a scripted play. Experiencing something of a revival on the East Coast in some visual art circles, Performance Art was quickly championed here by "those in the know", and in this pre-Fringe Festival era of Edmonton's theatrical development, still a golden age of government funding for Arts, the idea for a project was born - a Performance Art project in the downtown core.

Performance Art - The Burden
Performance Art - The Burden

At the time I was a lowly undergrad in the Fine Arts program, studying Art and Design. Destined to swell the ranks of the newly-graduated talented-but-unemployed artists, I was already moonlighting as a theater technician, in a field that was proving to be far more lucrative than starving in a garret.

One of our more forward-thinking profs - he taught our painting studios - had suggested that some of us might want to get involved with this cutting-edge project, if for no other reason than to make a contact with the artist / event manager who was being brought in from New York to mastermind the affair.

My met her at one of the planning meetings for volunteers for the "happening". Yes, that's right - I said a "happening" - kinda brings back the 60s, doesn't it? As one of the few volunteers with any theater experience, I was quickly seconded as an assistant to the woman from New York.

Actually, my primary job was to keep her supplied with coffee from the obliging bistro owner across the street from our main venue, but after that, I was the assistant director.

Oh, well, I've had worse jobs...like running the auditions for her.

The mountain of resumes I had to wade through was amazing - and scheduling the mass of appointments was a logistical nightmare. Anyone who wanted to get into the acting program came out, but as we needed so many people, almost every actor who came out was cast.

Her vision was realized in a cobblestone square formed by the juncture of two wide streets in the heart of downtown. The buildings on the four corners were to comprise the venues, and the crowd would watch in spellbound awe from the square below.

The performance was begun by a signal flare fired from the square's clock tower. Screams and fake mayhem issued from the third story offices over a block of boutique restaurants as a torch bearer raced through the entire third floor chased by two (real) fire fighters with live extinguishers, just in case of accidental fire in the wake of the torch bearer.

He stopped at every window facing the square and stuck out his head, briefly brandishing his torch before plunging back into the building to race for the next window.

As soon as he reached the final window his torch was quickly extinguished and a large follow-spot picked out a similarly dressed torch bearer atop the parkade opposite. Immediately the torch was "passed", the parkade came alive with a large number of athletically-attired youth who performed sports-like activities from various, highly visible vantage points.

Immediately across the street the Royal Bank Building, a wonderfully tiered and pyramidal structure was then lit up to reveal not one, but two full dance companies issuing forth from the fourth and seventh floor windows, to cling to nets draped about the pyramid's aerial "steps" as they performed all manner of amazing gyrations.

That bit of business alone required the services of two volunteer assistants (talent wranglers to look after the dancers on the fourth floor) in constant communication with me via walkie-talkie, three bank staff to allow us access to the stairwells so we could get to the windows, five security guards stationed at the various exits and on each occupied floor, and the Bank Manager with me on the seventh floor, to ensure everything ran smoothly. In almost constant contact with his security people, he was an awfully good sport about the whole thing and even held the baby of one of the dancers while she clung to the nets.

The grand finale was the lighting of alternate windows up the full height of the office tower opposite our building to reveal the silhouettes of dancers gyrating suggestively against the glass. By that time, however, the after-party in the square below was already in full swing, so not a lot of notice was taken of them.

Installations by Christo

Installation in a Mountain Pass
Installation in a Mountain Pass
Floating Islands
Floating Islands
Installation on the Arkansas River
Installation on the Arkansas River
Central Park Gates
Central Park Gates
Central Park Gates
Central Park Gates

In the field of Visual Arts, some "installations" are a type of performance art piece. One of my favorite artists in this area is Christo. He and his partner/manager operate on a grand scale, setting up his larger than life Installations. These ephemeral and compelling works direct our attention towards things we see so often we take them for granted.

Installations by other visual artists are closer to the traditional performance art model, and are often used to draw attention to some global injustice. Often though, the artists' comments are more personal, as in the piece that was my next experience with the genre.

Part of the education process for any art student was attending the opening nights and shows of the grad students and, occasionally, of our professors. Our class was invited to the opening night of one of the graduate students. Her installation would be on display at the University Gallery for several weeks, but we were privileged to attend the opening night gala and performance.

We wouldn't have missed that for the world. Every prof in the department was to be part of opening night, and besides that, it was a gala opening. That meant the department would pull out all the stops - free wine and cheese, real hors d'oeuvres, no blue jeans, the works. Plus an honest-to-goodness Meet The Press! Hallelujah!

We all gathered in our best bib-and-tucker in the gallery foyer. After being ushered into the salon to peruse some of the pre-set portions of the installation, we were invited to gather by the main doors when the performance began.

Walking around the room, we wondered what it was all about. Twelve stations had been set up about the salon, each one creating a different ambiance. One contained an antique chair positioned next to a beautifully made bed; another station contained a cheval glass set in the center of a crimson rug; one held an ironing board complete with an old fashioned iron and a kitchen chair.

Even more interesting was the station that contained a padded low bench, a kneeler, set directly in front of a glass case. The case contained a huge framed canvas mounted on an easel. The center of the canvas was covered from top to bottom with row upon row of ruffles. The various layers of ruffles were about three inches deep, constructed from creamy white, lush and beautiful fabrics - lustrous satins, vintage laces, delicate gauzy toiles, crepes, jacquards, rich brocades.

We hadn't had much time to inspect the salon before several young women wearing medical gloves and white lab coats entered, their arms heaped with dress-like objects constructed from a variety of materials, some from cloth, some from paper, and two actual dresses.

One was formed from irregular strips of burlap, stapled together into a gown. The other dress looked like Cinderella had cleaned one too many hearths while wearing it. The skirt was tattered and filthy, jaggedly frayed and torn.

Unspeaking, they proceeded from station to station depositing one of the "dresses" in each. One was laid out on the bed; one was carefully draped over the ironing board; one was carefully arranged on the scarlet rug at the foot of the mirror.

As they finished their tasks, a young girl skipped into the room. Dressed in a frilly white dress, a wreath of daisies atop her long ringlets, the girl smilingly scattered white petals, strewing them about the floor before skipping out with a final toss of her curls.

Bemused, we were all beginning to wonder what would happen next.

Suddenly the room was filled with the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestone streets. As the sounds of horse-drawn coaches grew louder, church bells pealed out joyously, ringing in a procession of elegantly attired gentlemen.

Resplendent in top hats, tailcoats, elegant trousers, well-polished dress shoes and snowy shirts, the grey-gloved and perfectly groomed men (my goodness, those professors cleaned up well - some of them were quite handsome) paced solemnly forward, one following the next to the strains of Ravel's "Pavane For A Dead Princess".

Doffing their hats as they entered, they proceeded silently through the salon, each to his respective station, and as each man took up his activity, we were invited to circulate and observe each performance piece.

"They're bridegrooms," whispered my friend, as we circulated through the salon.

"What was your first clue?" I responded, quietly. "...the flower girl, the wedding bells and music, or the formal attire?"

"So those are wedding dresses? So that's what she's been up to!" she exclaimed. My friend was no great fan of the grad student whose opening we were attending, but the promise of free wine and cheese had been too much to turn down. Truth to tell, neither was I as the woman tended to abuse her studio privileges and rather lorded it over us lowly undergrads,

The young women were back, this time dressed as servers and carrying trays of savories and champagne flutes full of wine.

"Shut up and eat," I muttered as I scarfed down a couple of bacon-wrapped scallops and grabbed a glass. Free food is free food, after all.

"Oooh! Nice bubbly!" My friend drained her glass and accepted another one from a passing server.

I grabbed her elbow and gently steered her towards the first station, the one that contained the antique chair and the bed. The "groom" seated in the chair carefully removed his gloves, removed a small book from his jacket, and began reading love poetry aloud, addressing himself to the dress on the bed.

In the next station, the groom stood on the rug in front of the carefully crumpled dress, facing cheval glass. Turning from side to side while examining his image, he occasionally adjusted his tie and smoothed his hair. We waited for a few moments, but he never wavered from his self-inspection.

In the station that held the ironing board, the groom was busily ironing the bodice of the frayed and tattered dress, all the while repeating a series of phone numbers. Periodically, he would set down the iron and seat himself in the chair, staring silently into space. Then he would rise again taking up the iron and repeating the series of numbers, then return to his seat, only to repeat his actions again and again.

"Curiouser and curiouser," murmured my friend. This time we both grabbed a refill before passing on to the next station.

In front of the glass case, the groom was kneeling on the padded bench, his hat on the floor in front of him. His gloved hands on either side of the frame, he gazed at the object behind the glass. Then he lowered his hands, bowed his head and silently removed his gloves, placing them carefully on his hat. After a moment, he picked up the gloves once more and drew them on. Placing a hand on either side of the frame, he raised his head and gazed upon the object in the case.

As a tray-laden server wafted by, we grabbed yet another glass of champagne, refilling our plates with savories, only half an eye on the proceedings. Drifting over to the last station we stopped, entranced by the sight of the department's chairman, one of the grooms, seated cross-legged on the floor with his back to a dressmaker's dummy which was clad in the burlap gown.

He was pulling petals off a daisy while intoning the age-old mantra, "She loves me; she loves me not..." Once all the petals were removed, he would throw the denuded stem over his shoulder towards the dummy and pick up another flower from the heap in front of him.

None of the grooms paid the least attention to any of us, concentrating absolutely on their assigned tasks. Their focus was admirable.

"Okay, I get it," my friend whispered through clenched teeth. "She's making some comment about men and marriage."

"A negative one from the look of those dresses, " I said.

My friend giggled and reached for another champagne flute.

"We should go soon," I offered, tentatively.

"Noooo, my dear," cooed my friend. "We haven't seen all the brides yet. We can't leave 'til we've seen all the brides."

Sighing internally, I followed her to the next station.

By the time we had made our rounds of all twelve, the grad student whose opening we were attending was surrounded by a noisy, laughing crowd, so getting close enough to offer our congratulations was out of the question.

Sweeping the throng with a jaundiced eye, my friend turned to me. "How long does this go on?" she asked.

I could tell she was beginning to feel the effects of the champagne, so I guided her towards the door to forestall anything untoward, saying mildly, "I don't know, but we should toddle off." Mercifully, she came without serious protest.

As we escaped the salon and retrieved our coats for the walk home, we compared notes on what we had experienced. The wine had hit us big time by then, and we'd both decided we were not big fans of Performance Art, at least not as it had been performed here. We made a solemn vow to each other amid fits of giggles, promising that should either of us ever be tempted to indulge in such a fashion, the other would kick some serious butt.

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11 comments

Waren E profile image

Waren E 7 years ago from HAS LEFT THE BUILDING............

I would have liked to see those things you wrote about the 60's,too bad there were no camera phones back then,the writings and my imagination got the job done though,I enjoyed reading this a lot RedElf,thanks!:D


RedElf profile image

RedElf 7 years ago from Canada Author

Thank YOU, Waren, I really appreciate your comments!


Flightkeeper profile image

Flightkeeper 7 years ago from The East Coast

Performance art is hit or miss and I agree with you, oftentimes it's more miss. I vaguely remember reading about one "performance artist" who would open her legs so people can inspect her vagina for the purpose of making the discussion of vaginas less taboo. I just thought she was such a perv when I read about it.


XTASIS profile image

XTASIS 7 years ago from The Beginning

I enjoyed reading this hub. Very interesting ! I haven't seen much of this kind of art. Thank you !


RedElf profile image

RedElf 7 years ago from Canada Author

Oh, my no, Flightkeper. One of the grad students in Visual communications applied paint and impressed herself on a series of canvases, doing her version of Georgia O'Keefe's beautiful sexual flowers. We thought that was pretty out there!

You are most welcome, XTASIS.


maggs224 profile image

maggs224 7 years ago from Sunny Spain

I can see from this hub and these comments that I have led a very sheltered life. lol


RedElf profile image

RedElf 7 years ago from Canada Author

Ahhh, maggs - you just haven't hung with the right crowd, LOL - one of the benefits of a misspent youth is having something to look back at and laugh about (teehee) ;)...but don't tell my sisters - they think I was the well-behaved one! :D


lxxy profile image

lxxy 7 years ago from Beneath, Between, Beyond

I love performance art, as you may have guessed. ;)

Any art that affects the material world, confuses anyone not in on the play--and fundamentally makes you question sanity is truly a godsend.

Besides, what's so great about a bunch of two dimensional pictures hanging up in an art gallery? ;)


RedElf profile image

RedElf 7 years ago from Canada Author

As a creator of the two-dimensional art (LOL), I have a certain bias... ;) but one quite valid school of thought feels that as life itself is ephemeral, art should participate in/reflect/drive that sensibility by being ephemeral in its own nature. You are certainly on the money about questioning ourselves - the goal of most serious artists is to have us do just that, not to merely reflect what is.


OddDustin profile image

OddDustin 5 years ago from Rancho Cucamonga, CA

Good to see a piece about Performance Art. I am working on a couple myself based on my pieces that I have been doing over the past year. Thanks, voted up!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Nice to meet you, OddDustin! Always lovely to have a fellow artist stop by :D

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