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[xmca] Why Is Performance Art
In Vygotsky's "Psychology of Art", the object of inquiry is what Vygotsky calls the "aesthetic reaction" (remember, this is his ticket to a psychology department dominated by the arch-reactologist Konstantin Kornilov). And the unit of analysis is something called the "aesthetic contradiction", a place where two contradictory social emotions are somehow played against each other until they cancel each other out.
Unfortunately, he interprets this contradiction in ways that set form against real material and ideal content, rather the way that a lot of language teachers set "focus on form" against "focus on meaning" and "focus on fluency", or "assessment" against "teaching" against "learning".So Michelangelo carves hard marble (real material) into soft, responsive flesh (form) and produces a Pieta (content); a flat canvas (material) is painted so that it looks three dimensional (form) and produces a Veronese's "Wedding at Cana".
That's all very well (well, actually it's pretty superficial!) for marble and paint, but it doesn't work so well with words. Vygotsky never really manages to establish what in a LITERARY work is material, what is form ("inner form", or perhaps sense) and what is content ("outer form", or perhaps signification).
In "The Odyssey" we are given hexameters as "outer form", and then the feeling of what happens in the story as "inner form", while the events themselves are content. In his analysis of "Gentle Breath", we are given the "lightness" of the actual breathing of the readers (measured by a reactological apparatus from Kornilov's laboratory) as the material, the ordering of events (or perhaps their "lightness" and "gentleness") as form and their supposed "real" temporal order (or perhaps their sordidness) as content.
It doesn't work at all with drama. With "Hamlet" Vygotsky abandons the opposition of material, form, and content. Hamlet opposes living breathing characters to each other (Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius), and even the hero to himself. "Hamlet kills the king" vs. "Hamlet does not kill the king" becomes the driving aesthetic contradiction, and not some imagined opposition of "inner" and "outer" form.
The uniqueness of Hamlet as a play is then explainable by Shakespeare's novel (in both senses of the word) dramatization of self-directed ("egocentric") speech; two conflicting emotional lines of development are placed in tension, and only allowed to intersect and transform each other at the very end.
This "dialogic emotion" unit of analysis yields a good reading of literature. Raymond Williams points out that in Gaskell's "industrial" novels (Mary Barton and North and South) there is a "structure of feeling" defined by fear on the one hand and sympathy on the other, and that what is really unique about her books (as opposed to Charlotte Bronte's "Shirley" or Charles Dickens' "Hard Times") is that they are just as decisively biased towards sympathy as Bronte and Dickens were towards fear.
But I think it is NOT a good reading of "Hamlet" as performance; it doesn't tell us why Hamlet on stage is so different from Hamlet on screen. With performance there is really a very different kind of aesthetic contradiction, one that is, after all, related to the material.
On Sunday, Shu Yang, who is now a fairly well known performance artist in Beijing, gave a performance here in Seoul. To tell you the truth, I went reluctantly and only because Shu Yang and I went to art school together sixteen years ago; I have always found performance art too decontextualized and narrowly corporeal to be interesting, like sculpture, but without any good marble or paint without canvas.
There was a lot of that! A guy in his sixties shooting ping pong balls at the audience with a slingshot, taking off his clothes, doing a workout, and eventually masturbating (there was a five-year-old child in the audience). A young woman dressed in other people's hair daubing her body with paint and then shaving off all their hair and her own, etc, etc, etc. Body, body, body. A striptease with coy footnotes and sly references.
It wasn't quite as bad as the last time Shu Yang was here, and he presented a video which included a "performance' by a friend of his who hired a prostitute to have his child, have it aborted, and then fed the fetus to a dog. (Even Shu Yang couldn't bear to watch it.) But it was pretty awful.
Then Shu Yang did a performance which I have often heard him describe but never actually seen. He just got up from the front row, where he was sitting next to me and walked up on stage, putting down a map of Seoul that he'd picked up at tourist information and drawing a single red line from the corner of his mouth to his chin with a cheap lipstick. ("I like to use the little things and sometimes big effect.")
He invited somebody from the audience to come up and (in halting, and poorly translated English) invited the somebody to circle where he lived on the map of Seoul. He was then asked to tell a story or recount an experience that the red line on Shu Yang's face reminded him of (a broken tooth, it was), and to leave another mark somewhere else on Shu Yang's face.
That mark then inspired somebody else to come up and tell a story and leave another mark (a bloody nose). This went on and on, with each person telling a story about the last mark and then leaving a new mark on Shu Yang for the next person to interpret. Some of the stories we heard were banale ("a pimple burst"). Others were horrifying ("My little girl's gums began to bleed and I was sure it was Dengue fever").
A deaf woman got up and could not say anything about the performance, but put lipstick on and kissed Shu Yang's white shirt, and this brought on a whole thread of erotic reminiscences that was far sexier than anything we'd actually seen, but also rather terrifying (most of the stories had something to do with blood).
Finally the old sling-shot-and-ping-pong-ball masturbator got up and began to complain (I think he was mad because Shu Yang had not participated very well in his own performance). He turned on Shu Yang and asked why he was doing this (I think that in itself showed how brilliant his performance was; nobody would have asked this question of any of the other performances).
Shu Yang replied that he was doing it because he wanted to listen. So then the guy asked what would happen if nobody wanted to talk. He replied that then he would simply stop, as he would in an ordinary conversation. So then the guy became rather aggressive and accused Shu Yang of wanting to hear people's secrets. Shu Yang said, no, that he wanted to hear stories, just as you would in an ordinary conversation (or a good thread on xmca).
Now, if that were ALL there was to the performance, then we would have to say it was a quite typical example of preconceptual thinking: a chain complex, like those described in Chapter Five, and like those shown in Paula's video
But at the end, Shu Yang made a very short speech in his halting English, and it was translated into even more halting and awkward Korean:
"Red is good color back in China. But it is also blood color, and it is flag color and it is revolution and it is earthquake, Sichuan earthquake. So many bloody stories. And today we hear other stories, bloody stories."
Then he got down and used his face and body to PRINT the marks on the map, and finally smeared the marks all over his face, so that he looked like a Xi'an opera singer. And that was the end of the performance.
Why is this performance art? Vygotsky says that it is not the case that individual bodies create individual minds and that individual minds then create individual emotions and when these are socialized they become art.
It's much truer to say the exactly the opposite: there is a body of emotion which is already objective, already social, already cultural. And it's those emotions, and those alone, which the artist has to incarnate and individuate and in so doing reconceptualize. That's the peculiar "aesthetic contradiction" we find in performance art, or at least in performance ART.
Seoul National University of Education
PS: Andy, do you know:
Luqueer, F.L. (1967) Hegel as Educator. AMS Press: New York.
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