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Performance art of times past

Marina Ambramović and Ulay Gold found by the artists 1981 © Marina Abramovic & Ulay, 1981/Bild-Kunst. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney. Photograph: John Lethbridge. From the series Nightsea crossing 1981-86

This year’s Anne Landa Award exhibition contains a lot of 'live’ works and that’s got us thinking about performance at the Art Gallery of NSW in times past.

Testament to the long history of the medium, the Gallery has been presenting works of performance art for around 40 years. Tracing back through some examples, it’s easy to see how certain ideas threaded through The space between us have been enduring concerns for artists working in this field – from the relationship between live action and its documentation to duration, collaboration, site-responsiveness and spectatorship.

Perhaps the most celebrated early performance at the Gallery is The singing sculpture from 1973 by British artists Gilbert & George, which was among the first Kaldor Public Art Projects. Smothered in metallic pigment to imitate the appearance of conventional monuments, the duo sang Underneath the arches in the Gallery’s entrance court while feigning the mechanical gestures of music-box figurines. The work embodied the artists’ concept of ‘living sculpture’, radical at the time for its assimilation of art and life.

The same year, Australian artist Tim Burns staged a lesser-known but equally experimental ‘TV piece’ for the Recent Australian art survey show. Titled A change of plan, it connected performers in an enclosed room to viewers in the gallery via interactive closed-circuit television. The behaviour of the performers was improvised and responsive, and ranged from reticent to provocative. At one point when a male participant left the room unclothed to go to the bathroom he was charged with indecent exposure.

A later work by Marina Ambramović and Ulay in 1981 titled Gold found by the artists from the series Nightsea crossing 1981-86 was premised on almost opposite principles, occupying the gallery space like a tableau. Physically and psychologically remote from the audience, the artists sat in stillness and silence for 16 days, fasting and meditating on a series of symbolic objects: a cluster of gold from the Australian desert, a gilded boomerang and a live python.

With its focus on the artist’s presence, physical endurance and concentrated spiritual energy, Gold found by the artists resonates with more recent performances at the Gallery, including Mike Parr’s AMERIKA, performance for as long as possible from 2006, which involved a 74-hour vigil by the fig tree on the front lawn.

There have been many other performances staged here, like Ross Gibson’s series of participatory dialogues Conversations II for the Biennale of Sydney in 2008 and Barbara Campbell’s intervention into the Australian collection galleries in 2002, The Midday Movie and the History of Australian Painting – the list could go on and on. But the work that echoes the current Anne Landa show in the most intriguing (if unlikely) way must be Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Still life performance from 2000.

Responding to the 19th-century history paintings that hang in the Grand Courts, Guo-Qiang staged a studio session in the galleries with a nude model and real horse, which audiences could witness being immortalised on canvas. It’s not every day that the Gallery’s architecture and collection is brought into focus by women on horseback. But if you roll up on the 12 June 2013 at 1pm, incredibly you will see just that in a performance work by Lauren Brincat.

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May 29 2013, 3pm
by Anneke Jaspers
Assistant curator, contemporary art