With the same rapid rate that art has changed in form and style, the public has also changed direction on art trends, and vice versa. Spectators and artists have dived into a discussion that continues to demand changes in the traditional concept of passive art toward one that is more active. This refers not to interactive art, but rather to an artistic discourse that challenges conventions and weaves new discourses against the system or in a scathing spoof of society itself. Unlike other art movements, performance art first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, although experts such as RoseLee Goldberg argue that the history of this art form goes back to 1909, with the futurism movement.

Performance art consists of artists confronting the spectators with their artistic purpose. The barriers of time and space are toppled because the artistic purpose (social, or even political) occurs in live action, drawing the audience’s attention and emotions. The relationship between spectator and artist, therefore, takes on new forms that go beyond the paper and the materials of traditional artistic media to challenge conventionalism and give free rein to unlimited physical and emotional expression.

The origins of this art form are related to artistic movements such as Fluxus, body art and Dadaism, and it shares principles such as action, improvisation, interaction with the public, spontaneity, protest and outrageousness, to mention a few. But what is clear is that performance art strays beyond the lines, thus shifting the borders between reality and imagination.

One of the great proponents of performance art, Guillermo Gómez-Peña of Mexico, has written a variety of commentaries about this type of art. He has commented that performance art – despite the fact that it is often staged in the street − can be developed in a civic context but that does not make the artists into public personalities. On the contrary, action in the street takes shape as a kind of gallery without walls where activism is the ruling action.

Caribbean origins put into action 

Coco Fusco notes that many artists have energetically developed their work around their national or regional context, while other artists reject the idea of limiting their performance art to their place of birth. In Latin America, for example, performance art traces its history back through the colonial and pre-Columbian eras and is influenced by African and Catholic traditions that have taken root in the public. This multicultural influence is also present in the Caribbean.

One of the great names in world performance art, and almost synonymous with the Caribbean is Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) of Cuba, who, through her work, discovered links to a past that was real, but almost imagined. She learned at a young age of the trauma of a family breakup, when she arrived in the United States at age 12 with her sister, Raquel, as part of Operation Peter Pan. Destiny took her to Iowa, where, according to López Cabrales, the sisters suffered the hardships of racism. This identity, divided between Cuba and the United States, became the raw material of her performance art, including, for example, her visit to Cuba during the 1970s to pay homage in a cave to the populations wiped out by imperialism.

Her ephemeral work surpassed physical barriers to grapple with materials such as blood, wood and land to address identity, heritage, feminism and politics in the same spirit. Her complicated life experiences, the intensity of her artistic purpose and her ties to nature marked her artistic work from beginning to end, making her tragic death – she fell to the floor in her apartment in New York after a discussion with her husband, U.S. artist Carl Andre − a parallel to the way she lived her art.

Another Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera (1968), has used her work as a tool for denouncing and disputing the world view. In her widely remembered 1997 performance art El peso de la culpa, Bruguera appeared nude with a butchered goat hanging by its neck in front of a Cuban flag made of human hair. The act lasted for 45 minutes, during which she ate dirt with water in a kind of reproduction of the various Cuban natives who committed suicide this way under the threats of the Spanish colonizers.

Known as one of the forerunners of performance art in the Dominican Republic, visual artist Geo Ripley (1950) − born in Venezuela, the son of exiled Dominicans − has framed his conceptual work in African, pre-Columbian and Antillean cultures by using ritual altars and other symbols. Specifically, Ripley staged one of his performances with influences that were categorically hereditary, with clothing and accessories, appearing as the image of an escaped slave and speaking about freedom with ritualistic elements, such as water and others, that are associated with African ancestors.

Conflicts about national identity, displacement, memory and immigration are elements that are exacerbated and exorcised in the physical and emotional gestures of performance art. One example is the Costa Rican artist Elia Arce (1961), who blurs the lines between imagination and reality in her performance art.

In the performance art Primera mujer en la luna, Arce opens up an analogy between the space and her movement from the land of her birth (Costa Rica) and her adopted home (the United States) and compares the abundance of the Costa Rican jungle to the California desert. Another of her performances displays the process of cooking to the spectators, as seen through the prism of the female perspective of her country of origin. In the act, Arce holds a long-distance conversation with a Costa Rican woman that shows how to prepare rondón − a fish soup made with coconut milk − one of the traditional dishes in the gastronomy of Costa Rica and various Caribbean islands.

Political and social escape valve

During her years as a student at the University of Iowa, Ana Mendieta played with notions of identity while touching on political ideas from her native Cuba. In a performance from 1972, Facial Hair Transplant, Mendieta created a full beard by sticking hair shaved from a classmate to her face. The artist then used a mirror to see her transformation. Quiroga observed that Mendieta examined her image, which represented the figure of the “bearded one” or the “bearded revolutionary” with its symbolic relevance.

In the complexities of performance art, some artists defend or criticize certain discourses, believing that they confine or limit artistic production. Such is the case with Puerto Rican artist Papo Colo (1947), who has said that if a setting determines the discourse, the expression can become prisoner to its origins. His position has not stopped him, however, from making statements about Puerto Rican affairs.

La diferencia was a performance in the 1970s in which Colo played the role of a Superman while dragging 51 pieces of wood that were tied to his body along the West Side Highway in New York, until he collapsed from exhaustion. The number 51 alluded to those who believe Puerto Rico should become the 51st state. Colo commented that his collapse was a “premeditated act of defeat,” thus weaving a metaphor for this ideological debate in his home country.

The public is one of the most inherent components of performance art. Gómez-Peña states that when the spectators leave after an artistic action ends, the creator hopes that the reflection erupts in others, that the images circulate through the minds and emotions of the public. A collection of performance art and graffiti called Arte Calle, led by Aldo Menéndez, was one of those that resorted to unexpected tactics to capture the attention of spectators. Natives of Cuba, the members of the group agitated in the streets in the 1980s in the name of art.

Taking possession of public spaces in the context of performance art leads to confrontations with the powers in control: the government and the police. It is not surprising, therefore, that many artists have been subjected to arrest or punishment because of the disturbances their acts cause. The response to that control, however, has been an ephemeral intervention in the streets, in the case of Arte Calle, thus making fun of any efforts by authorities to stop them or their expressions.

Arte Calle is often remembered for works such as No queremos intoxicarnos, in which they raised a discussion about the concept of art, using gas masks and holding posters that made fun of political slogans. In 1988, the group organized the opening of an exhibition in a gallery. It was an exhibition that never existed. On the contrary, the public formed the framework that is typical of an art exhibit inauguration. At the site of this performance art, called Ojo pinta, the audience drank and listened to music in an exhibit that included no art, but rather a mockery of the rituals and protocol of the art world.

Language put into action

Martínez asserts that performance art appears to be characterized by definitions that vary according to the references that frame the artistic genre and the site where it is practiced. In the Caribbean, unlike in other sites, performance art is associated with ritual, popular religiosity, dance, music, games, oral tradition and a rural context, as well as expressions of language.

Emigrants and their range of stories is another large theme that Caribbean performance art presents to its audience. Without question, one of the common denominators of this experience is linguistic transfer. In the Spanish Caribbean, this has been portrayed in live artistic works of this kind.

In Dominicanish, performance artist Josefina Báez − who identifies herself as Dominican-York − puts on display for the public the contradictions of a Dominican from La Romana who is a resident of New York. The text becomes performance art through the domestic and neighborhood comments, while her body and voice display the process of becoming accustomed to a non-native language. The artist strikes up a lucid relationship with the words of the text so the reader can build an interpretation, starting with cultural points of reference.

Puerto Rican choreographer Viveca Vázquez – one of the central figures in dance and performance art in Puerto Rico, who has worked with performers such as Teresa Hernández and others − created a space that address the problems of language in her 1984 performance art Mascando inglés. In that act of experimental dance, the body passed through the prism of immigration between the United States and Puerto Rico and emerged in the linguistic adjustments the speaker must make to stay afloat. Vázquez has declared that the industrialized Puerto Rico made possible by Operation Bootstrap in the 1940s and 1950s – which set off a wave of migration and huge social dislocations − was a chapter in history that inspired her to work on the mentioned performance.

Speech, as a bastion of identity – with an amalgam of elements that circumscribe the person and the place where he or she lives − remains part of the real or imagined discourses of performance art, because social behavior is the raw material of this form of provocative and reflective art.


Author: Carmen Graciela Díaz
Published: December 26, 2011.

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