Performance Art and What it Means to Me

I’m not an art critic and I don’t have a background in art but after seeing a performance at a recent exhibition, I felt so absorbed by the work that I felt compelled to put pen to paper to tease out the ideas that had been rattling around in my head for days afterwards.

I love performance art. There is something about the involvement of the artist’s body that brings an immediacy to the work for me. It’s not a painting on a wall or a sculpture in the corner that is waiting to be seen but an art form that is alive, that demands more than the passive viewing of an audience wandering through rooms of an art gallery on a Sunday afternoon. It also eliminates the distance usually present between artist and audience in traditional exhibitions.

The live performance of a piece by its originator can make for uncomfortable viewing. The artist’s ideas, concepts, gestures and movements can delight or confront us and this is intensified by the fact that we’re in the artist’s space and in their hands for the duration of the performance. There can also be an intensely vulnerable act for the artist, as they use their own body to instantiate a piece, presenting themselves as much as the work.

I’m also interested in the way performance art is somewhat of a participatory art form. The performer needs the audience and presence, and the atmosphere they create influence the artist. Each performance and each audience brings something new to the work. When I step into a performance art space, I feel like I’m entering a contract with the artist: you are here to show me something of yourself and I will stay with you as a witness to your work. I fine this especially true of durational pieces.

I found myself somewhat frustrated to be present in Limerick City Gallery last year when five of Amanda Coogan’s works were being simultaneously performed in different rooms of the gallery over the course of four hours. (We don’t have many opportunities to see performance art in Limerick so to have five pieces from an artist of this calibre in the city was such an exciting prospect but to have them all being performed at the same time in different spaces was the frustration). The artist herself performed the works, alongside a number of Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD) students and graduates. I felt that I owed it to each performer to stay with them for the duration of their piece, to feel the minute changes in the air, to see what changed in me or them as they repeated the same steps over and over again for hours.

This was especially true of Yellow, which seemed the most physically demanding of the pieces. It required the performer to sit astride a stool, wearing a Yellow dress with a long-flowing skirt whose expanse filled almost half of the room. The performer immersed the material in a bucket of soapy water that sat between their legs, hidden from view by the sheer volume of dress, then rubbed the material together to wash it, regularly looking up to catch the eye of the audience. These movements were repeated over and over again for hours. I felt keenly aware of the strain the performer must have been under as the performance progressed, because of the awkward sitting position, the increasing weight of the vast sodden material they had to lift and the fact that they were soaked from head to toe in cold water. But they did not falter and kept washing, washing, washing for hour after hour.

The performer’s expression or movements didn’t change throughout the piece but yet it felt like something had changed or deepened as we reached the second, third and fourth hours of the piece with its arduous, hypnotic movements. Was it I that changed? Was my imagining of the great strain the performer was under that caused me to feel more empathy and view them and their actions differently as time progressed?

I was often the only person in the room with them. I felt duty-bound stay with this piece. I left for short periods to see the other works concurrently being performed in other rooms of the gallery but felt like I had to keep returning, to let this performer know that I had not abandoned them, that I saw and acknowledged their effort. By the end of the piece, it felt like my presence, or at least someone’s presence, was necessary for its full realisation.

And so this brings me to Conor Coady’s performance in the LSAD degree-show exhibition, Flux, which was held in June of this year. It was Conor’s work, Epoch, that got me thinking about performance art, why I like it, what it means and what role it plays in contemporary art.

I write stories, so when someone starts a performance by walking silently into a room dressed in neat pink boxer shorts with what looks like blood covering their hands and forearms and dripping from their fingers, I immediately find myself imagining the back story, and the question ‘What has he done?’, is forefront in my mind.

With visibly straining leg muscles, Conor keeps his torso tautly vertical while he lowers his body just enough to pick up one of the thorny arches that have been placed on the ground prior to the performance. They are each constructed from five or six thick, dried and hardened briar stems that have been bound together with woven pink wool to form handles. It is a shade that matches the performers’ only clothing. As he raises the arch above his head, we realise that it is not in fact an arch, but two separate sheaves, each angled inward at the top to give the illusion of an arch shape.

Through the duration of the performance Conor weaves these bundles of thorny sticks through the air. He raises them above his head, swipes them through the air to create whip-like sounds, rubs them against an upright column in the room, stretches high to let them catch against the light fixtures in the space, allowing not just the sight of them, but the sound of them to create moments of association and resonances in the audience.

The symbolism is strong in such objects. The thorns catch on each other and fluid movements end up in struggle. One minute the branches are reminiscent of a crown of thorns but in another they are raised almost triumphantly above his head in the arch format. At times they seem like extensions of his hands, tenderly stroking his head. There is a moment against the wall where it feels very Jesus-on-the-cross-like and another that reminds me of brutal flagellation. Yet, he seems very human when he and his extended arms cling to the column as if to a loved one who is set on leaving.

Conor walks to the remaining sets of thorny branches that lie on the ground and I sense what is coming as he eyes them up. It is a captivating climax to the piece and I find myself holding my breath as he walks slowly on tender bare feet across the eight feet or so of hard thorny spines. He does it with the same vacant, mouth-hanging-open expression that he has held for the entire performance. I wince as one foot lands toe first on to the hard branches and hope he misses the thorns (‘Heels are harder,’ I find myself thinking.) I wince to see a thick triangular thorn sticking out of the sole of his right foot but he doesn’t react at all. As he slowly walks across the gallery floor I can see it each time he lifts his foot. I am fixated on it. I want to pull it out, to stop him causing himself this pain.   

This walking on thorns feels like an act of atonement, punishment for something. The whole performance takes on this aura of seeking redemption through sacrifice. As the performer slowly walks through the gallery towards the exit and the end of the piece, he catches the gaze of each audience member he passes. His eyes are accusing: ‘You saw what I did,’ they say to me.

I did see it and it’s got me thinking of performance art, what it means, why I like it, how I view it and why I take it seriously when others I know scoff at the idea of it and think it self-indulgent nonsense. I think performance art holds up a mirror to the audience. It puts them into situations they might not be comfortable with and forces them to confront what they see, how they feel and why. Each person’s experience and interpretation of the work is uniquely personal to their background, life view, experiences and current state of mind. They attach meaning to the performance that the artist may never have intended. I left Conor Coady’s performance thinking of punishment, atonement and moving on, and I wondered afterwards how much of this was in me and how much was in the performance. What am I beating myself up for? When am I going to forgive myself?

I felt an aliveness, excitement and complete absorption at this work that I rarely feel viewing a static art work like a painting. It made me crave for more works like this, where the artist themselves is an embodiment of the work and the ideas they want to present, and where I come away asking myself questions about not just the art, but about myself.

A performance of this maturity and focus is astounding from someone just finishing their degree and I’m excited to see what Conor Coady does next. He’s certainly one to watch out for.


Conor Coady’s current and previous works can be seen on his Instagram account:  @conorcoady_artist

Featured Image source from Conor Coady’s website