After the Performance at Tension Fine Art
There is often an unspoken resistance to performance art. The medium has its fans and specialists, the people crowding around a (semi-)public 'happening' stroking their chins and making the right noises, and yet, despite the fact that physically and tangibly all audience members are experiencing the same thing, it can be surprisingly alienating to many. There is an element of fear involved, even as the viewer; art school performance pieces often felt like a popularity contest; at the Goldsmiths undergraduate degree show earlier this summer, one particular performance was so packed with people that I was, by proxy, sucked into the vortex of the spectacle. The artist in question had clearly generated sufficient social and online hype to amass such a crowd; the work itself was fairly mediocre.
We are now situated in a moment whereby we are, often unconsciously, obsessed with legacy. Following on from the relentless Noughties mantra of "pics or it didn't happen", the ways in which social media has ingrained itself into our lives and our behaviours means that we are constantly documenting, whether the event is ultra-mundane, or momentous. After the Performance, a group exhibition held at Tension Fine Art, curated by Paul Carey-Kent and Rosie Gibbens, boasts different forms of documentation, or the aftermath, of performance art. Those interested in the ways in which artists can meander and switch between artistic mediums, who may also be a little shy of performance art in its most concrete sense: this is one for you!
[top shelf] Rosie Gibbens, Spite Face, 2023. Headrest for massage table, fabric, stuffing, thread, rope, elastic, eyelets.
Many reviews of exhibitions at Tension Fine Art will make the fairly tedious observation that the gallery is located in the "unassuming" location of Penge, in south London. As a lover and dweller of south London, as well as being passionate about independent arts spaces, the importance of galleries being dispersed beyond the main hubs in the city (arguably Mayfair, Soho, Bethnal Green, Fitzrovia, etc.) is paramount, and essential to ensuring that different audiences have better access to contemporary art. Local events such as Sydenham Arts Trail, The Catford Arts Weekender, and Peckham Festival will tell you that artists, and their art, are everywhere. Gallery validation is one small part of the visual arts experience.
Back to Tension Fine Art, and the idea of providing physical outcomes from a performance is an interesting one, partly due to the varying degrees of information provided on the performance itself. After the Performance's own audience will not have seen any of the performances themselves. It begs the question of how much context we need for art in general; of course, in becoming a visual-only practice, this puts swathes of curators, researchers and historians out of jobs (not to mention the critical thinking faculty we all possess), but if we are in favour of truly liberating art practice, removing context is a fascinating starting point. An artist might ask themselves: does this piece make sense if my viewer has zero context? To quote Travis Alabanza from their book None of the Above: Reflections on Life Beyond the Binary, "understanding feels like the most dull and fragile pursuit, like building a beautiful sandcastle on a beach that you know will have a high tide incoming soon enough." To what extent might pleasure (of witnessing an artwork) trump our understanding?
Take Quilla Constance's two photographic works, Self and Well Hung. Constance's practice aims to "agitate, amuse, surprise and liberate audiences". She also likens society to a kind of circus, which is agreeable both in theory and in the visuals of the work we can see. Of all the post-performance works, these photographs compel me the most to see the performance itself; colours and textures, as well as the comical gestures and actions, look as if they could have been as amusing and liberating as promised. The artist also draws upon feminist theory, especially the performance of identity and power.
A stand-out work from the show is Graham Silveria Martin's A Portal, a stunning sculptural piece that captures its audience with its almost ergonomic human height, and recognisable co-opting of a plywood screen, similar to one found in an ornate home of yesteryear, with an image of a naked body in a domestic setting. It takes some squinting to make out the details of the printed image, but we learn that the performance element of Silveria Martin's work is a documentation of warehouse rituals, capturing the collective experience of a community violently affected by the AIDS crisis. The artist's methodology of "cruising as a research method" is incredibly interesting, and aligns well with the intimacy and tenderness of this piece.
The body plays a huge part in performance, regardless of our feelings towards the body as a resource, a tool. Yet, there is so much more than mere bodily imprints on view. The likes of Rosie Gibbens' sculptures Spite Face and Eating Myself show fragmented body parts, except they are not exactly recognisable as such; instead they are vaguely fleshy, with various soft materials contrasted with plugs coming out of the body part. We can see how our own bodies and minds, constantly plugged in, are reflected back in this work, and this is the overall impact of the exhibition: has the performance really ended? Is an art practice not an ongoing performance, however much of a slog it might feel? Labour and gender are both incredibly performative, and as such the viewer sees imprints of themselves throughout the different works, yet will receive the artworks differently. Perhaps this will change some preconceived notions on performance art; it has certainly given me the space to take stock.