Art? Or Theatre? | Pushing the Wave

Art? Or Theatre?

Opinion, 8 December 2023
by L.A. Davenport
The Knife by LA Davenport
The Knife, by L.A. Davenport, 2008
Earlier this year, I saw an exhibition in Munich, Germany, that left an indelible impression on me.

Life? or Theatre? showed the gouaches of Charlotte Salomon, which together form a fictionalised autobiography in three acts that she called a Singespiel, or ‘musical’ in English.

This fascinating mix of drawings, text and scenic annotations, which is not too dissimilar to a graphic novel, describes her early life in Berlin, before she was forced to flee to Southern France to escape the Nazis.

The work, one of the most significant of the 20th century, is both powerful and deeply moving. Its portrayal of her environment and development against the backdrop of the rise of national socialism, all recounted in a highly innovative and ironic manner, is both personal and universal.

Why am I telling you this, when I already wrote about the exhibition six months ago?

The reason is earlier this week I visited a major retrospective at the Royal Academy of another artist who puts herself in centre of her art: Marina Abramović.

The exhibition covers several key moments in her career, via sculpture, video, installation and performance, with some restaged through archive footage, photographs and objects, and others re-performed in the gallery by current artists.

As the Royal Academy says, live performance art has the power to be both “startling and intimate,” but for Abramović it can also be “transformative”.

I have to confess that I was not fully aware of her work, even though her name is never far from the lips of those discussing important figures from the art world over the last 50 years. Consequently, I arrived with an open mind and eager to discover more.

However, no matter your attitude towards her or her work, no one can fail to be impressed, in the truest sense of the word, by what she has put herself through over the years.

One of the most shocking works to the uninitiated has to be Rhythm 0, a piece staged in 1974 in Naples, Italy.

Here, Abramović invited the audience, over six hours, to do to her as they wished, using one of 72 objects she had placed on a table. These included a rose, a feather, perfume, lipstick, honey, bread, wine, scissors, a scalpel, knives, a metal spear and a loaded gun.

What happened next has passed into legend. After a relatively tame start, her clothes were sliced from her, her throat and body was cut, and even the gun was placed into her hand and brought to her head, with her finger on the trigger.

Unsurprisingly, she found the experience deeply disturbing, with a streak of her hair subsequently turning grey.

The Royal Academy exhibition goes on to trace a series of other performances, both alone and with her former partner Uwe Laysiepen (known professionally as Ulay), that explore the limits of physical and mental endurance.

Towards the end, the audience is confronted by two landmark performances: Luminosity and The House with the Ocean View.

The former involves a woman sitting naked on a bicycle seat in the middle of a wall in shifts for a total of over 700 hours, with a light projected on her. This clearly difficult and uncomfortable piece, not least due to the vulnerability and exposure that it entails, is said to be a work about loneliness, pain and spiritual elevation.

The House with the Ocean View is, however, entirely different.

This work, performed in New York in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, involved Abramović spending 12 days living without food in three units suspended on a wall. These represented a bathroom, living room and bedroom, with ladders made from the knives descending to the gallery floor that made it impossible to leave.

Visitors at the time had emotional, vulnerable and spiritual responses to her performance and, contemplating the space over two decades later and in another city across the Atlantic ocean, I can see why.

There is no doubt that what she has put herself though over the years is not only impressive but also thought-provoking. Later that day, I discussed the exhibition with friends, and they described being equally moved by what they saw.

But is it art? That is the question I was left with at the end of the Royal Academy exhibition.

To me, her work seems more like theatre than art, but performing her pieces in a theatre would not garner the same attention and respect, nor guarantee its longevity, in the same way as presenting them in a gallery, within the validating framework that it offers.

I also found I had to rely on the descriptions on the gallery walls to know ‘where the art is’, and that really should not be necessary.

Coming back to Charlotte Salomon, the viewer of her works has a very clear sense of her as human being, of her needs, her desires, her ambitions and indeed of her personality, as she bares her soul in its entirety.

Marina Abramović, on the other hand, remains an enigma; distant and remote. She is performing but we are creating the art, such that it is exists, through our responses. I am not sure that that is sufficient to generate any lasting meaning, other than a lingering sense of disquiet and a slightly acrid taste in one’s mouth.

I do, however, think it is important to see the exhibition, especially if you are not familiar with her or her work, if not simply to understand some of how ‘Art’ as a concept has been pushed and pulled, and eventually deformed, over the past five decades.
In other news, it is now a week since More Life as a Dog was placed on the virtual bookshelves, as it were, and it has already received a pleasing reception.

I couldn’t be happier to see the book out there in the world, nor more proud to know that the wonderful experiences I shared with Kevin, my black and tan dachshund, will live on in this way. I hope you enjoy it.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Art? Or Theatre? | Pushing the Wave