Maybe a performance art has left an impression on you and you start to wonder how you can add it to your art collection. Or you ponder about how an impactful performance piece could be disseminated to the public at large and becomes a permanent collection of a museum. Enter performance art photography and how its role extends beyond the traditional documentary one.
An Introduction to Performance Photography
There are interesting ways which artworks, installations, videos, and photographs could evoke memories of a specific performance act in the audiences’ minds. While it is not the same with witnessing the actual live performance, these different ways to exhibit performance art post-factum are impactful in their own ways.
By definition, performance photography is a form of art that captures moments during a performance art. The intended audience of the performance exists in the future, rather than being present during the creation of the artwork.
Two local examples of institutional acquisition and retrospectives of performance artists were beautifully carried out by MACAN Museum with the recent Melati Suryodarmo’s solo 'Why Let the Chicken Run?’— a collection of durational performances ranging from three to 12 hours long — and the Arahmaiani's solo exhibition in 2018 titled ‘The Past has not Passed’ that featured an extensive collection of over 70 pieces from the 1980s until today, including paintings, installations and re-enactments of memorable performances. In both instances, the museum exhibits installation and recreate spatial settings akin to where performances originally took place.
Alongside the installations, both Melati and Arahmaiani retrospectives also feature videos, costume archives, document archives, as well as photo archives of the performance. Sharing performance art pieces to the public after the fact poses a greater complication than paintings and sculptures. This is where the importance of performance photo archives lays.
The Role of Performance Photography Archives in the Digital Space
Arahmaiani’s performance art pieces are often conducted in a specific setting, in open nature and public spaces, participated by a lot of people with the artist acting as a director. For example, the public will have a much harder time imagining and knowing about Arahmaiani’s Flag Project that started circa 2006 — that has taken place in Japan, Mount Merapi, Australia, Singapore, and many other places —without the existence of the photography archives of the performance.
This past 15 July, ISA Art and Design, an online-offline gallery based in Jakarta, exhibited aforementioned Arahmaiani’s traveling performance piece as part of their
‘CORPOREAL/MATERIAL: On Performance Art and Photography’ exhibition. This
exhibition features photographic archives of performance art and performance photography pieces from 14 performance artists: Agung Eko Sutrisno, Alfiah Rahdini, Aliansyah Caniago, Angga Wedhaswara, Arahmaiani, Dea Widya, FX Harsono, Jason Lim, Jim Allen Abel, Redha Sorana & Slamet Riyadhi, Semsar Siahaan, Wimo Ambala Bayang, and Subashri Sankarasubramanian.
Other than displaying photos of traveling site-specific performances that would otherwise be inaccessible by the public, this online exhibition also shows photographic archives of historical performances that mark the turn of an era, including FX Harsono’s historical performance titled Destruction that happened during the silent week of 1997 election that sparked the 1998 Indonesian riots.
The Difference Between Photography and Performance Photography
Photography isn't just an archive to these performance photography pieces but is another form of experimentation and an independent piece of art in and of itself. Performance photography, as compared to photo documentation of performance, takes into consideration the formal aspect and technicalities of photography in creating the image.
Take, for example, works by MES 56 artists such as Wimo Ambala Bayang and Jim Allen Abel that are also exhibited in ISA Art & Design’s exhibition. Their photographs incorporate a lot of performative elements in it. In the Uniform_Code, Jim portrays the dialectic of power through the usage of uniforms and costumes. Here he captures the performative act of wearing a uniform as well as covering one’s face to show that in some instances, the assigned and collective identity brought about by outward presentation, i.e. uniform, could mask one’s identity.
Performance photography could also summarize an act, taking for example the works by a young female performance artist and sculptor, Subashri Sankarasubramanian titled ‘Qu'ils Mangent de la Brioche’ where she meticulously covers her entire kitchen floor with brioche dough over one whole day. The photographs that Subashri took, shows sequentially how space and dough were transformed by two living forces, the yeast that drives the dough to rise versus the footsteps of the house inhabitants that squish it down.
If you're looking to start collecting. performance art photography pieces, all of the photography pieces exhibited in ‘CORPOREAL/MATERIAL: On Performance Art and Photography’ are available for purchase which exemplifies one of the many ways you could collect, support, and appreciate the performance art form.