In replying to a question from the crowd at a Tate Talk, Gabriel Orozco brings up an incredibly useful observation on trace of performance (Gabriel Orozco: In Conversation, Tate Talks, Oct 2014). He states that he tries to avoid any sense of the ‘relic’ in his work, he wants the work to be truly present, in that it is happening now, not that it has happened in the past. He feels that much of art is a residue of a performative action, but that is not necessary to show the performance. The discovery of the performative action can be found in what is created, but it should be an instrument that is of use to the viewer, not just the leftovers of a party that the viewer wasn’t invited too.
I’ve been grappling with this concept of performative trace and how I can work with it in my practice. It’s all too easy to create a situation where the viewer feels they’ve “missed the party” and the presented work becomes flat, dead and boring. What can a viewer take from something that has nothing to offer them? The idea that the trace is still vibrant, that it’s an instrument of action is quite exciting!
Looking at some pertinent works featuring the trace of the abscent artist has given me more perspective on what is successful and why. “Levitation” (1970), Terry Fox is a piece that uses the leftovers of a performance that stand as a work without the presence of the artist. Fox uses a mattress made of earth surrounded by a circle of blood as a bed from which he attempts to levitate. The process of attempted levitation is not witnessed by viewers as, although it is within the gallery space, it is behind closed doors. After the performative period the imprint of the artists body is visible in the earth creating an impression that would not have been there without the ritualistic performance.
Janine Antoni’s work “Eureka” (1993) is, for me, an even more interesting work involving the impression left by the artist’s body. She lies in a tub of lard, the lard that is displaced is the same volume as the artist’s body. She then uses the displaced lard with lye to make soap with which she washes her body. The trace left for the viewer is the bathtub of lard with the impression of her body and the body sized cake of soap that has been worn from use on the artist body. This work has a progression and transformation that make it very active, it has a narrative that can be grasped simply from encountering the static trace of bath, lard and soap. Lying in the lard = performance, the tub with the impression = bodily trace, soap made from lard = creation, washing with the soap = action, the display of the soap and the bath become sculptural.
In contrast I looked at Anthony Gormley’s “Bed” (1981), a mattress of bread slices with the outline of two figures cut into the surface. This work is different to “Levitation” and “Eureka” in that the outlines have been carefully cut into the bread, not pressed by the weight of a real body. The outlines are not the trace of a body, they are a facsimile or performance of the idea of a body. This is obviously an intentional part of Gormley’s work, but when looking at my own work there have been times when I wanted to create the trace of an event but have ended up artificially staging it rather than actually allowing the event to be performed. This compromised the authenticity of the work, it made the event less believable, it became poised, staged, fake and lacking in action.
This brings be back around to Gabriel Orozco’s ideas about the trace as instrument. If the performance is not encountered live by the viewer I need to carefully consider the validity and interest of the performative trace and not allow it to be a diffused situation with no possibilities and no interest to the viewer.