[Review] The 3rd Venice International Performance Art Week: Fragile Body – Material Body

Trieste-based performance artist Nina Alexopoulou reports from the 3rd Venice International Performance Art Week. Additional text and editing by Kiriakos Spirou.

With its third edition that took place in December 2016, the biannual Venice International Performance Art Week continued and concluded its exploration on the theme of the body, presenting works from over 80 international artists under the umbrella title Fragile Body – Material Body. Emerging and established artists exhibited alongside the pioneers of the field, drawing a connection between the past, present and future of performance at the stately Palazzo Mora. As one entered the small front yard, the clamor of selfie-taking tourists outside faded away under the red lights of the outdoor cube installation on display, where each cube contained video performances. A marble staircase then lead visitors up to the first floor of the 17th century palazzo for the first part of a massive exhibition that spanned three floors and included live performances (long-durational and shorter), videos, installations, photographs and archival material. In fact, the palazzo was filled with these artefacts and documents up to the brim, since even the attic was used to display some of the works.

Every room marked the beginning of a new exploration, a new conversation between the artist, the artwork and the viewer-participant.

A quick first walk around the rooms on the first floor revealed the variety and intensity of the works brought together for this exhibition. The way one room lead into the other without any corridors, created an impression of constant discovery and surprise, as if wandering in a labyrinth where the sense of time and place was lost. Live performances, interactive installations, videos, objects, photographs, sounds and books filled the spaces, with every room marking the beginning of a new exploration, a new conversation between the artist, the artwork and the viewer-participant. Coming face to face with this wide collection of works by the pioneers of performance art, I felt like I was back in university studying the great ‘classics’ like Marina Abramovic’s Lips of Thomas and Nude with Skeleton videos; Yoko Ono’s A Hole sculpture; and Andy Warhol’s Andy Warhol Eating A Hamburger projected outside over the courtyard. Works that form the basis of performance art canon today by the likes of Paul McCarthy, Otto Mühl and John Cage were also presented, thus connecting the past with the work of contemporary artists.

I was happy to see that the exhibition didn’t just fall back to the facile appeal of the big names or the ‘celebrities’ of the performance art world, but actually walked that extra mile by giving space, time and an audience to emerging artists as well. Next to a room with projections of works by Marina Abramovic, Australian performer Casey Jenkins is performing the long-durational work sMother (2016) —whereby she was knitting every day throughout Performance Week with a thread coming out of her vagina, “exploring the restrictive nature of gendered expectations of motherhood and fertility”. Known as a “vaginal knitting artist”, Jenkins has been doing performances involving knitting from her vagina at least since 2013, and she has received abusive comments, hate and even death threats while doing so. Jenkins has been collecting all the comments she has been receiving online, which she then projected in the form of a video in the same room she was knitting in Venice.

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The next room was dedicated to durational performances that had been alternating during the event. On the day of my visit I had the chance to watch part of Janusz Bałdyga’s durational piece The Axis of Return (2013), whose patient calmness and spartan elegance was mesmerizing. In yet another room, the audience was taking orders from a showerhead connected to Russian performer Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich’s penis, as part of his durational performance Dickorders (2016). On a completely different tone, next door, Cypriot artist Christina Georgiou was performing the durational piece Antigone’s Dream: Actions of love (2016); her performance was part of a section dedicated to the evolution of performance art in Greece since the 1970’s, presented by [mind the] G.A.P. Gathering Around Performance and curated by Francesco Kiais. Standing on a pedestal made of bricks, Christina Georgiou waited until one of the brinks found its way via the audience into her hands, to then tenderly hold it, scratch it with a metal brush and then blow the dust in the air. Meanwhile, next door, the German ensemble KörperSchafftKlang was performing Fragile Voices, a series of performance and voice pieces around fragility, exploring the limits of human voice beyond singing and speaking.

Wandering further into the palazzo, I realised that these durational performances were in fact only a small part of the whole exhibition. In the main corridor outside, people were swinging naked on Franco B’s famous golden swing while listening to tunes filled with the melancholy of a distant childhood for I’m Thinking of You (2009). ORLAN, another legendary artist, presented her Carnal Art Manifesto and Omnipresence (1993), the latter being a video documentation of her seventh plastic surgery performance.

As often the case with art fairs, the sheer volume of works on show made it impossible for visitors to give the attention and time needed to appreciate them.

Heavily archival in its scope, the 3rd Venice International Performance Week concluded a trilogy of biannual events in the ancient city, that effectually acted as a gathering of the who-is-who of the contemporary performance art scene. But even though there was significant space given to both established and lesser-known artists, the sheer volume of works on show made it impossible for visitors to give the attention and time needed to appreciate them. Most visitors remained on the first floor, where most of the live performances took place, and only a fraction of them would make their way to the upper floors where the exhibition actually was. So what first appeared as an attempt in polyphonism, interdisciplinarity and a kaleidoscopic examination of the subject at hand, proved to be an overwhelming experience, that allowed only for a semi-detached, superficial engagement with the presented work.

The Venice International Performance Art Week is a live art exhibition project conceived, initiated and curated by VestAndPage (Verena Stenke & Andrea Pagnes).

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Nina Alexopoulou official website
Venice Performance Art Week official website

 

Images:
Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki, Double Labyrinth. Edit by Kiriakos Spirou. Photo courtesy [mind the] G.A.P.
L.Papaconstantinou, Deaf and Dumb. 1971Courtesy [mind the] G.A.P.

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