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Ritual empty & full, spiritual & political

Megan Garrett-Jones, Venice International Performance Art Week 2014


Sarah-Jane Norman, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week Sarah-Jane Norman, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week
photo Monika Sobczak
Performance Art can be a thorny term, recalling for many a 1960-70s-specific canon and aesthetic that while significantly challenging and innovative, evokes the seemingly obligatory nudity, bodily fluids and discomfort in rupturing forms and norms. The Venice International Performance Art Week, curated by Verena Stenke and Andrea Pagnes (AKA artistic duo VestAndPage), grouped durational works, a gallery-style exhibition, nightly performances and daily talks exploring contemporary usage of the term and associated strategies.

Pertinent is the 2014 theme of this biennial art week: Ritual Body—Political Body, as performance art continues to hold to ‘the body’ as a site to explore relations between ritual and the political, and broader questions of action and efficacy.

Two beautiful 18th century palazzos played host to the event, with Palazzo Mora offering three floors of marble, ornate plaster and chandelier emblazoned exhibition and performance spaces. Attendance was free. In a country whose government, as I heard lamented, provides negligible funding for independent arts, securing such venues and notable international artists was an impressive achievement. Many confirmed the sentiment that the event had been enabled by the extensive network surrounding its curators. Local businesses, volunteers, documenters and publics were likewise mobilised. Here was an intervention into a city that exists in the art world imaginary as a place of grand institutions and international art biennales.

Jill McDermid, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week Jill McDermid, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week
photo Monika Sobczak
The conditions of production for the Performance Art Week suggest cultural decentralisation at play, yet this was not necessarily reflected in the works or in the audience experience. There were still heavy-handed symbolic actions indifferent to the audience-as-witness. For example, in one of the short evening performances, Lady on a Cross, Jill McDermid (US) arrived by gondola in a wedding dress and carried a large cross upstairs to strip down to black underwear and lie with the cross. We witnessed self-mortifying endurance characterised in Benjamin Sebastian’s (Performance Space UK) Three Cycles of Otherness, in which we witnessed his tattooing, scanning and printing of his body parts, and screaming over loud drums in 20-minute cycles for three days.

Marilyn Arsem, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week Marilyn Arsem, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week
photo Monika Sobczak
The works billed as “durational” unfolded over the 3-7pm opening hours for between three and seven days in a row. Marilyn Arsem’s (US) durational piece Marking Time was more an invitation to pass time, though not necessarily more actively, with her as a participant. A woman occupies a room for four hours at a time seven days in a row doing precious little. Arsem is an artist who has created performance works for 27 years; a body aging in public. There were discernible motifs that allowed moods of futility, disappearance and fragility to hang in the air alongside the soundtrack of a ticking clock. She sits, cocooned in a black shroud, on one of two chairs, slowly, incrementally, inching away from the other. For half an hour I watch her make a pile of stones, getting higher until one topples the lot. The clock ticks seem slower and louder. We watch a body dying, we are dying too.

In ritual, as in political acts, the presence of a particular body endows its significance. Such is the case with Sarah-Jane Norman’s Bone Library, a work previously performed in Australia and the UK, deserving a more extensive review than I can provide here. As Norman undertakes to engrave a lexicon from the Aboriginal Sydney Language (commonly miscategorised as Eora) onto bleached cattle bones—a collection that grows over the week, methodically labelled and laid out on padded white tables—it is important to know that Norman is of Indigenous heritage herself, her grandmother being one of the last known speakers of the language. As she sets about her meticulous task she may be the image of a cosmopolitan artist, dressed in black including thick-rimmed glasses and cowboy boots, yet, like the objects she makes, she is positioned to straddle worlds. The bones recall a colonial industry that took Aboriginal land and labour yet now they contain an extinguished language that is enlivened by one who can act from duty and belonging. (See review & realtime tv coverage of Unsettling Suite including the Bone Library.)

Melissa Garcia Aguirre, Desapareciendo/ Disappearing, long durational performance, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week, Palazzo Mora, 2014 Melissa Garcia Aguirre, Desapareciendo/ Disappearing, long durational performance, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week, Palazzo Mora, 2014
photo Monika Sobczak
While the presencing of ‘authentic’ bodies remains a feature of performance art, there were many works that addressed a notion of standing in, to borrow a term from Julie Vulcan’s work shown at the festival (see realtime tv interview Vulcan). Melissa Garcia Aguirre (Mexico)’s Desapareciendo / Disappearing was a durational work in which 30,000 kernels of dried corn were solemnly picked, counted, washed and ground by six performers—a surrogacy for the number of lives lost so far in Mexico’s drug wars in an essentially poetic and sad gesture.

The exhibition was an opportunity to explore a large collection of records of performance art, many from its pioneers. Perhaps what could be said is that the astute or poetic gesture in performance is communicable also in mediatised forms. The video works of Regina José Galindo (Guatemala), viewable on two monitors in a dark corner of the Palazzo, were some of the most political and disturbing (see Performance Now review). In Hilo di Tiempo the artist is placed in a black knitted bag in a public square with a loose thread that the impromptu audience proceeded to unravel. I liked the idea of a found duration—the video went for as long as it took to unravel the bag, it encompassed a public and public space beyond its art audiences, and the care with which this public completed this action, untangling the wool from Galindo’s feet, legs and neck as they went was touching. Galindo has for over 15 years created actions in public, galleries and natural environments that move between overt political statements concerning violence, war and torture and musings on the precarity of human life and experience.

Zai Kuning, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week Zai Kuning, 2nd Venice International Performance Art Week
photo Monika Sobczak
Ritual and politics are linked in the weight given to action intended to achieve transformation. In ritual, this can be more spiritual, as in Singaporean artist Zai Kuning’s refreshing short performance drawing on ancestral rites of which he asserted “it’s not art, it’s an offering.” Politics in performance addresses a relationship between action and causality in the making of social forms. It was very interesting to see the contribution of Tania Bruguera, a highly celebrated artist, more through evidence of ‘extra-artistic’ activities. As Prem Sarjo, the guest curator who invited Bruguera, said in conversation, “she is finding new ways of doing art.” Her performance was a manifesto on the rights of migrants distributed among members of the audience, and that same evening I was asked to complete a postcard of her design petitioning Pope Francis to grant migrants citizenship of Vatican City. I later heard that Bruguera had caught the train that night to Rome to seek an audience with his Holiness.

Migration and border crossing has long concerned the ‘radical pedagogy’ of La Pocha Nostra as introduced in one of the morning talks, “(In)visible Cultures—(In)visible Borders,” through workshop activities. The company’s artistic director Guillermo Gomez Pena activated the forum with a ‘jam session’ making verses out of “my home is…”, “my body is…” in inspiring and charismatic style. The presence of La Pocha Nostra had a ludic effect, like the circus coming to town, though their own performance extravaganza on closing night saw tropes of contemporary performance at times wheeled out like empty ritual. I think we’ve come to a point where nudity and pigs’ heads in performance are not transgressive in themselves. Thus ritual can suggest significance arrives merely in repetition. Despite this danger, by and large the artistic strategies evident in the Performance Art Week showed sustained attention, even in repetition, as a means to respond to new contexts and remain open to innovation.


Venice International Performance Art Week 2014, various artists, curated by VestAndPage, Palazzo Mora, Venice, 13-20 Dec 2014; performances by Australian artists Sarah-Jane Norman, Julie Vulcan and Barbara Campbell were curated by Leisa Shelton-Campbell.

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 13

© Megan Garrett-Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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