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Unlimited action

The performance of extremity in the 1970s

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Dominic Johnson

Unlimited action concerns the limits imposed upon art and life, and the means by which artists have exposed, refused or otherwise reshaped the horizon of aesthetics and of the practice of art, by way of performance art. It examines the ‘performance of extremity’ as practices at the limits of the histories of performance and art, in performance art’s most fertile and prescient decade, the 1970s. This book recounts and analyses game-changing performance events by six artists: Kerry Trengove, Ulay, Genesis P-Orridge, Anne Bean, the Kipper Kids and Stephen Cripps. Through close encounters with these six artists and their works, and a broader contextual milieu of artists and works, Johnson articulates a counter-history of actions in a new narrative of performance art in the 1970s, to rethink and rediscover the history of contemporary art and performance.

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Dominic Johnson

An Eight Day Passage (1977) is an exemplary example of a performance of extremity. This chapter looks at Kerry Trengove’s landmark performance of endurance, in which the artist was bricked into a breezeblock cell in a gallery and tunnelled his way out by hand over eight uninterrupted days. The performance was accompanied by a sophisticated invitation to active participation, co-co-creation and conversation by its audience. By reading this work in the aesthetic context of other practices of endurance art in the 1970s and the historical context of the miners’ strikes in Britain, as well as in dialogue with the decolonial pedagogy of Paolo Freire, this chapter discusses An Eight Day Passage in relation to duress, masculinity, limit-acts and limit-experiences, work, agency and relationality.

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Dominic Johnson

Since the late 1960s, Anne Bean’s performances, public interventions, drawings, videos and writings have been actively pursued as a ‘continuum’, and she strives to diminish the distinctiveness or iconicity of each in favour of a democracy of forms and effects. Bean’s pursuit of a continuum is discussed as a performance of extremity with regard to specific works of performance, as well as her broader assault on critical and theoretical understandings of performance and art, in terms of the potential of performance art to blur the boundaries between art and life. The argument is channelled through the theosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff – a touchstone for Bean in the 1970s – and the dubious critical methods of magic and the occult, ending up at the persistence of her refusal to be fixed or found by history.

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Dominic Johnson

Genesis P-Orridge has been a controversial figure in British art since the late 1960s. This chapter explores the national scandal of the Mail Action (1976), a performance at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court that consisted of P-Orridge’s indecency trial, after the artist was charged for sending pornographic mail art through the Royal Mail. P-Orridge’s performances with and as COUM Transmissions suggest the vital intersections between performance art, pornography, counterculture and crime in London in the 1970s. The Mail Action is placed in dialogue with P-Orridge’s subsequent exhibition (with COUM Transmissions) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in October 1976 to document the threats posed by explorations of sex, crime, controversy and esoteric ritual, in the context of the performance of extremity.

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Dominic Johnson

In 1976, Ulay undertook an exemplary performance of extremity by stealing ‘Germany’s favourite painting’, namely Carl Spitzweg’s The Poor Poet (1839). This chapter discusses the action at length in the context of Ulay’s earlier works as well as examples of performance art that seek to make interventions into institutional spaces of art as a means of aesthetic and political critique, highlighting the way such actions shed light on the border between art/life and art/crime. The chapter argues that in Ulay’s theft, the transgressing of the perceived limits of art was not simply art crime or vandalism, but part of a sustained project of questioning and deconditioning his own gendered and national identity, here, specifically, by taking aim at his own German-ness in the post-war period.

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Conclusion

Reckless people

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Dominic Johnson

The conclusion brings together underlying themes of the preceding chapters, under the conceptual problems posed by recklessness and impossibility as cultural logics. The reckless and the impossible are framed by a final case study, namely the work of Stephen Cripps, whose dangerous and risk-prone pyrotechnic performances and interactive sculptures can be understood as significant to the development of performance art – and the incipient cultural logic of the performance of extremity – in the 1970s. The conclusion offers final thoughts on the performance of extremity, and on art’s optimistic promise to manifest or achieve the reckless, the impossible, the incorrigible or the unlimited.

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Dominic Johnson

From the early 1970s, the Kipper Kids (Harry Kipper and Harry Kipper, aka Brian Routh and Martin von Haselberg) became notorious for the danger, excess, strangeness and baffled hilarity of their frequently drunken ‘ceremonies’. This chapter accounts for the former notoriety of the Kipper Kids to ask further questions about the performance of extremity as an aesthetic category in the 1970s. The theme of sabotage – or self-sabotage – emerges as a crucial element in the performance art of the Kipper Kids, in terms of their devising and presentation of specific ceremonies and works, and in their pursuit of careers as artists committed to art’s anti-aesthetic sensibility.

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‘The Painter has made a finer Story than the Poet’

Jonathan Richardson’s ekphrastic ‘Dissertation’ on Poussin’s Tancred and Erminia

Jason Lawrence

This chapter considers Jonathan Richardson’s critical ‘Dissertation’ on Poussin’s painting Tancred and Erminia (c. 1633) as both analysis and ekphrastic representation. It focuses on Richardson’s keen interest in the artist’s visual interpretations of, and additions to, Tasso’s great Italian epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata (1581). It becomes clear that both the French painter and the English critic know the Italian poem well; it is far less certain, however, whether the intended English readership would have shared similar first-hand knowledge of either the picture or its literary source. Richardson’s paragone of the two forms is intended to emphasize Poussin’s ability ‘to make use of the Advantages This Art has over that of his Competitor’; problematically, however, the pre-eminence of the visual medium in this specific example can only be attested to by means of a sustained verbal comparison of the painting and its poetic source, which ultimately seems to imply a more complex, symbiotic relationship in the encounter between the visual and literary arts than Richardson initially admits.

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On gazers’ encounters with visual art

Ekphrasis, readers, ‘iconotexts’

Claus Clüver

This chapter defines ekphrasis concisely as ‘the verbal representation of real or fictive configurations composed in a non-kinetic visual medium’. It rejects narrower definitions that exclude texts on non-representational visual configurations, including architecture, or restrict the discourse to literary texts representing works of art. But with its emphasis on the text, the concise definition unduly reinforces the consideration of ekphrasis as a form of ‘intermedial transposition’ in contemporary discourse on intermedial relations. An ekphrastic text should be primarily approached as the record of a viewer’s interpretive encounter with a non-kinetic visual configuration, which may not actually contain anything that has been ‘transposed’ from the image. This viewer may be the persona of a poem, a figure in a prose narrative, or an art critic. It is the reader’s task to construct these viewers in the interpretation of any ekphrastic text. But the role of the reader has not received much attention. This includes the question of the immediate mental reception of ekphrastic texts. The critical construct of ‘iconotexts’, suggesting that such verbal texts spontaneously trigger a mental visual image for the informed reader, is problematic, and even in a more general sense the term may be of limited critical use.

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Mirroring naturalism in word and image

A critical exchange between Émile Zola and Édouard Manet

Lauren S. Weingarden

This chapter explores how Émile Zola’s ekphrastic writings about Édouard Manet’s paintings functioned as a template on which the writer imposed his evolving theories of the naturalist novel. It argues that, while Zola championed Manet in his critical reviews of the artist’s works, he did so in the name of naturalism and the scientific objectivity and analysis naturalism promoted. Moreover, it seems likely that Manet would have read Zola’s 1868 preface to Thérèse Raquin, where the author first mandated his naturalist theories. The chapter asks what Manet would have thought about Zola’s subjugation of painting to writing and his refusal of meaningful content in his art. It proposes that Manet painted Zola’s portrait in 1868 as a response to the critic’s misinterpretation of the painter’s artistic method. Manet’s portrait of Zola also reveals how the artist, in turn, appropriated the writer and his writing to his own artistic agenda, the subsequent manifestations of which culminate in Manet’s final masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882).