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 Guy Benfield, Maximum Commune (Ugly Business... on the basis of disbelief.), performance still Guy Benfield, Maximum Commune (Ugly Business... on the basis of disbelief.), performance still
photo Jennifer Leahy, Silversalt, courtesy of the artist

This is not in itself a new idea. French began to explore this notion in detail at Performance Space some years ago while working as its director in charge of time-based art. There, in influential projects like Cerebellum in 2002 with Gary Carsley, artists such as the Kingpins and Monica Tichacek presented video work alongside an exhibition of the ‘part objects’ of Leigh Bowery: his fake lips and costumes. In this show the images and videos were all part objects in that they could represent the whole absent object (Bowery or the other artists and their actions). In other words the objects and the videos were displayed only partly as things in themselves and mainly in terms of how they translated a performance event which was no longer comprehensible in any other way.

The blurb for Aftermath on the Artspace website indicates a similar focus on “the complex relationship of performance to installation art, sharing a genealogy, as they do, in early conceptual and post-object art.” But with Aftermath the emphasis is slightly altered as it “centres on the installation ‘aftermath’ of performance, or conversely, performance as a strategy for creation of material environments.” So rather than the installation being framed as the part object split off from the body of the artist, it now functions mainly as an object in its own right but one which represents “the bleeding back and forth of active models of performance and its post-life.”

guy benfield

Guy Benfield’s performance in Maximum Commune (Ugly Business...on the basis of disbelief) was designed to “re-animate tropes that were once declared obsolete, such as ritual, live action painting...the ‘Art informal’ movement in France, and the Japanese actionist painting movement-Gutai group.” And one should add the anarchic Paul McCarthy’s 1995 work Painter to this list as the most obvious intertext. Like all the artist statements in Aftermath, Benfield’s own descriptions of the work are worth examining for their oddly accurate account of the achievement of their experiments. He describes his essentially citational actions as “droppings” or “situational episodes” in a way that nicely combines the excremental notion of the art object as by-product of an ongoing process with the idea that the foundation of the performance action is its occurrence in space, its situated-ness, the aftermath of which is the installation.

The chaotic deconstructed pavilion motif of this work remained in the gallery for three weeks after the initial performance with a monitor displaying edits of the frenzied video documentation by TV Moore. The humour and energy of this piece reminded me of Benfield’s French Pup/live action (2001) a video work in which a long-haired rock guitarist dips the head of his guitar in paint and smears the walls and a canvas with it. Like Maximum Commune this earlier work is another play on performance and its various afterlives in recordings and documentations. The colour and chaos of the opening action was still in evidence three weeks after the event itself which is already I think the kind of effect the curator was after.
Ann Graham, Aftermath
Ann Graham, Aftermath

photo Tony Bond
anne graham

Anne Graham’s In Between Spaces comprised eight adjacent booths designed to correspond “to a normal dwelling: a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, a studio, a library, a living room, an office and a gallery.” The initial performance (“situational episode”) involved a number of those present (yes me too) blowing up pink balloons for the “rumpus room” while Graham’s partner Tony Bond performed his signature risotto creation to feed all those in attendance. Their performative hospitality was no less sincere for its scale and constructedness. Perhaps this was evidence of what the blurb laid out as “the formal framework for the work” in a number of the “everyday routines that occur while occupying these spaces” in which the spaces become more than simply functional and approach the status of “social sculptures.”

The rooms/spaces were certainly organised and arranged after different activities with a DJ in one room, and hair cutting gear in another. But for me the room with the bars of soap and little carafes of urine was the most suggestive of the “intimate and familiar activities that…will appear strange due to their displacement.” (see RT80, p12).The repeated references in the artist’s statement to the dislocation of “normal” activities and arrangements is reinforced by the origin of these furnishings. The dark wood panels of the booths had been part of an old psychiatric institution and the artist had retained them for precisely this kind of work.

I don’t know if this installation can be described as “social sculpture” which operates on a broader and much more ambitious scale than this. But the sense of invitation to revisit was strong. The poeticised space of the different rooms was not so much a trace of an absent performance but a trigger for multiple interactions and experiences.

franz ehmann

“The new message reverberates in a never-ending forever young. I am with you, for you and amongst you.” I have no idea what the title of Franz Ehmann’s delightful work, forever young, references (please tell me it’s not the Alphaville track from their 1984 album) and his description of it as “a sculptural text food performance event with materials akin to theatre props” may not help those of you who didn’t see it (the polenta and mushrooms he made us on the opening night were delicious). His goofy and self-deprecating way of demonstrating the various interactive components of his installation was less about providing information and more about generating a sense of play so perhaps the title can be understood in terms of this childlike playfulness in the midst of endless reporting of violence and brutality.

Ehmann’s ‘newspaper floor’ was surprisingly sturdy and contained folds and tucks which could be used as spaces for the visitors to inhabit in various ways. Helpful instructions were provided in the form of illustrations on the walls advising visitors to pick up the large balls and drop them again. But on the other hand the news cycle is endlessly self renewing, forever young in the sense that there is always another hideous event to fetishize. This piece evoked both possibilities of eternal recurrence of both creative inspiration and destructive passion.

tony schwensen

Tony Schwensen’s work tends to produce a similarly double register of meaning in which the artist’s clown-like persona—The Fat White Straight Bald Guy of his 2005 Performance Space installation—tends to conceal the very real depths of the images he constructs. I’m thinking of the video work he contributed to the ABC for its 50th birthday video portrait commissions dedicated to Peter Jackson, an elite Rugby League champion undone by the trauma of being a childhood victim of abuse. This is a genuinely moving study of the man and the issue that led to his suicide. Schwensen is one of the few artists I know who can successfully marry this contemporary understanding of vernacular Australia and elite art practice without surrendering an authentic point of view in either domain.

In Rise, a hundred hour long “meditation”, Schwensen claimed to be investigating the futility of attempting to live a self-sufficient life in contemporary Western society with its “rampant and thoughtless consumption.” His time consuming tasks were carried out beneath the banner of the wall text: “Hopes None Resolutions None”, Samuel Beckett’s famous contribution to a planned publication of the New Year’s meditations of celebrity writers.

Schwensen’s self-imposed performance tasks were to include continuous manual water desalination but, appropriately for a work examining futility, the pump gave out after nine hours, thrusting the artist into the fundamental experience of Beckett’s characters, the feeling of duration...the negation of activity and the focus on the passing of time. Adorno noted this as the essential characteristic of Beckett’s Endgame in which Clov’s opening words are “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” Poor old Schwensen must have muttered these words to himself on a few occasions stuck as he was in gallery for 100 hours with a broken pump and nothing to do.

But duration is also the central experience of much recent performance art. In this sense Rise is typical of the kind of work that Schwensen has been developing over the last five years in that it’s a durational performance in which the unfolding of the event over time is doubled by the presence of the artist engaged in repetitive acts on a video monitor. In Rise two monitors were arranged one on top of the other showing the artist’s mouth in close-up enunciating the slogans “Love it” and “Leave it” as in the redneck mantra about Australia (love it or leave it). In Schwensen’s rendering it’s not a choice—you love it and you leave it—something the artist is practising as well as preaching: he has recently relocated to the US. His unique approach to performance art as time-based physical art and mediated self conscious irony is a way of capturing something elemental in the consciousness of the place he is exploring in his work. He will be missed.


Arahmaiani’s Make Up or Break Up is a more conventional exhibition of documentary photographs of the artist’s entirely unconventional performative presentations. These are described in her statement as “somewhere between promotions and protests” in which the participants carry a number of wall banners (also featured in the exhibition) “featuring the names of multinational corporations and brands in Malay-Arabic (Jawi) script in public spaces around Sydney.” The sites chosen were at Circular Quay, in the Botanical Gardens and at the Block in Redfern, among other places. Despite their visual appeal these staged events work better as documentation because without knowing what the texts mean there is no possibility of identifying the strategy the artist is employing.
Andre Stitt, Dingo: A treatment towards a new communionsim, performance still Andre Stitt, Dingo: A treatment towards a new communionsim, performance still
photo Jennifer Leahy, Silversalt; courtesy of the artist
andré stitt

André Stitt’s performance, Dingo: A Treatment towards a new communionism, was more successful in terms of the legibility of its imagery. It involved the artist being locked in a cage with Whumpi the dingo for several hours each day over the three days of the event. The obvious reference is to the Joseph Beuys’ performance, Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me, performed at Renee Block’s New York gallery in 1974.

I don’t have to tell you that this piece received an enormous amount of media attention in Australia. The usual mix of sensationalism and outright dismissal was perhaps most evident in Sebastian Smee’s response for The Australian on August 10, “Piece without bite made me howl.” In this ‘review’ Smee, who appeared to have been glad-handing everyone the day before at Artspace and enjoying the event, had decided after a moment’s reflection that the work “failed as an interesting piece of performance art for one simple reason: it lacked conviction.” I love it when Murdoch hacks pretend to speak in defence of conviction. “Theatre knows it has to engage”, quoth Smee, while “[p]erformance art subsists on the adolescent idea that it can do whatever it bloody well likes.” Poor boy wanted to be entertained. You might say ‘fair enough’ but to attend a durational performance event and expect theatre is a category error of the most fundamental kind, as any half-conscious arts journalist would be well aware.

Yet the piece was conventionally theatrical in a number of respects with the repetitive use of gesture and props and the establishment of the characters and their relationship at the core of the work. Stitt engaged the dingo in a variety of gestural games, dragging different props: a shirt, a felt blanket, a cane, all references to Beuys. At one point he produced a baby doll from his bag but sensibly didn’t over emphasise this reference. Rather than actively engaging with Stitt the dingo tolerated these activities in the interest, no doubt, of a peaceful life, if not aesthetic harmony. The slow evolution of a relationship between Stitt and the dingo was fascinating to witness as it developed from an initial distrust and fear to a sense of relaxed and playful amusement. Regardless of the larger symbolic associations of this work with respect to the current fragility of the relationship between the Indigenous culture of Australia and the European visitor cultures, Stitt’s achievement was in the immensely subtle development of a complex set of themes—nature/culture, excess/containment, structure/anti-structure—obtained through a slow unfolding of the images in the cage.

If I had more time I would explore the extent to which this work is a re-enactment of Beuys. Of course none of us were there in New York and we have only seen the Beuys performance as video or photographic documentation. In this sense it is perhaps more appropriate to argue that André Stitt is not so much re-enacting Beuys as performing the documentation, as Philip Auslander suggests in a recent paper (“The Performativity of Performance Documentation”, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 84 Vol 28.3, 2006).

For now it is enough to note that the work itself poses the question which all the works in Aftermath raise in their own way about the extent of the gap between performance and its aftermath in documentation or in installation. These works all show a systematic effort to undermine the opposition between the live encounter with a performance and the encounters with its products, its afterimages, its flashbacks and hard copy memories.

Aftermath, Performance Installations, curator Blair French, artists Guy Benfield, Anne Graham, Franz Ehmann, Tony Schwensen, Arahmaiani, André Stitt, Artpsace, Sydney, July 5-Aug 18

Aftermath also featured performances by Yiorgos Zafiriou (Aug 16), senVoodoo (Fiona MacGregor, Aña Wojak) and a symposium with Performance Space and RealTime at Carriageworks (Aug 18) - see RealTime 82

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 52

© Edward Scheer; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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