The Puerto Rican performance artist Freddy Mercado

The Puerto Rican performance artist Freddy Mercado

There are various definitions of the term “performance.” One of these refers to the moment in which the artist produces his or her art for the public to observe. For example, when a musician plays an instrument live, he or she is said to be making a performance. This can be compared to the work of a painter, who does not necessarily paint in public. The interaction between the artist and the spectator is indispensable in a performance. It is an essential part of the artist’s work. In one sense, it can be said that this interaction, the duration of the artistic activity, is the work in itself, because when the artistic action ends, the work of art ceases to exist (something that doesn’t happen, for example, with a book, a sculpture, etc.).

“Performance” can also have another more specific meaning, however. Performance art is a kind of artistic activity that developed in the 1960s, although its precedents date back, at least, to the Middle Ages. The artists seek to find new ways to express a message and question the very notion of what is or is not artistic. For example, in How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), German artist Joseph Beuys closed himself in a gallery, with his head covered in honey, and whispered artistic explanations to the body of a dead hare. Nine years later, he closed himself in a room with a live coyote in I like America and America likes me (1974). The coyote is an animal native to the Americas. In this way, the artist wanted to experience, in a way, contact with something indigenous to the Americas, while making a social metaphor. Some people had difficulty understanding the measure in which this performance was art. To Beuys and to others, the artist, when he makes his performance, is part of the art itself.

In many cases, the intent is to break the “fourth wall.” This refers to the barrier that separates the public and the artist. The goal of this break is to make the spectator part of the stage and a collaborator for the artist. For example, in Fluids, by Allan Kaprow, the public had to touch blocks of ice until they melted. Obviously, the piece had, among other elements, a playful purpose.

A “happening” is a kind of performance art in which the activity does not take place on a stage or in a gallery, but rather in an area that the artist invades. In Pose, for example, Kaprow proposed going to various sites where there were chairs (an office, for example), sitting down, taking a photograph and leaving the photograph at the site. This kind of performance art blurs the line between art and reality and tries to erupt into daily life and give it an unexpected artistic product. 

Many times, the artist even inflicts physical damage in his performance. Such was the case with Chris Burden of the United States, who asked an assistant to shoot him in the arm with a gun, in front of the public, in a piece titled Shoot.

Author: Alejandro Carpio
Published: January 28, 2012.

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