“[Performance art] can talk to us in extraordinary ways, and make us better human beings,” and that’s not subversive. It’s about seducing, in a way. I want to show you beautiful work that tells you a story that’ll stay with you. — RoseLee Goldberg
I have one foot high-heeled foot in the art world, and one barefoot on the yoga mat, I have tasted and am rapt by both flavors, and I see performance art as the yoga of the art world. Not just because they are both sexy and hip. No, there are far more utterly authentic ways in which the two are yoked (yoga, of course, being Sanskrit for yoke, or union).
- It’s never the same thing twice. How many times have you done downward dog? It was never exactly the same thing, right? As yogameister Erich Schiffmann says, “There is no such thing as repetition.” Each time we practice, we are in a “new now,” there are new tastes and discoveries to a pose we may have been “doing” for a dozen years. Yoga is not a scripted performance. Neither is performance art. One of the primary ways performance art is distinguished from theatre, or a film, is there is no script, and the experience is a different one each time it is performed, and different for each viewer.
- Both are interdisciplinary. Yoga is a mindful meld of body, breath, mind, soul, and the infinite. It’s not yoga if it’s just one of the above. What’s cool about performance art is, it is not just one discipline. It might include painting (often with the body as paintbrush, more on that below), sound, text, choreography, sculpture, dialogue, silence. Oh yeah, the best yoga allows us to find comfort in silence, too. Performance art even has a (oh, my) relationship to pre-post natal yoga.
- Individual expression shapes the experience. “The only person who can truly practice Iyengar Yoga is Mr. Iyengar.” Thank you, Mr. Schiffmann, for another of your remarkably simple/profoundly deep insights. As mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, there are as many ways to do a pose as there are human beings.
“When I practice, I am a philosopher. When I teach, I am a scientist. When I demonstrate, I am an artist.” B.K.S. Iyengar
- Yoga is a philosophy, a science, an art, and more. The geniuses among performance artists might magically incorporate philosophy, science, music, math, and other seemingly unrelated elements in such a way that we, the viewer, may still perceive the art in the demonstration.
- Beyond limitation. Lady Gaga (who continues to stretch all boundaries herself) loves Marina Abramovic (see below). She loves that Abramovic’s work as a performance artist. “She is a limitless human being.” Performance art is indeed limitless in nature. It knows no bounds of canvas, medium, topic, or boldness. Yoga? Absolutely limitless, especially when considering the definitions of its Tantric Hatha origins. One of the meanings of “Tantra” is to stretch beyond limits.
Yes, the possibilities are endless in performance art. Here are a few of my favorite artists.
- Yoko Ono Despite Ono’s more apparent role as John Lennon’s wife, she was a critical factor at the forefront of contemporary performance art.
- Marina Abramovic Abramovic is perhaps the most noted performance artist working today. No less than Lady Gaga is a disciple. At 64, she has a vast and compelling oeuvre. Her performances have included: a stranger pointing a gun at her head, setting herself on fire, enacting her own funeral, and sitting in silence for 700 hours (which was itself parodied on Sex and the City with performance artist/yogi Beth Lapides). And not without controversy. During a recent gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, she hired performers to lie naked as centerpieces atop the dinner tables. For four hours. One dancer who was selected by Abramovic in an audition stepped down, citing the artist’s staged art as exploitative of the performers.
- Janine Antoni At times the Sarah Lawrence trained artist is lyrical, as when she walks a tightrope and appears to be walking on water in Touch (“It wasn’t that I was getting more balanced, but that I was getting more comfortable with being out of balance. Rather than getting nervous and over compensating, I could just compensate enough. I thought, ‘I wish I could do that in life’”). At others, she is visceral, raw (read: Antoni’s sculptures made of chocolate, soap, and lard. Oh, add to that, she ritualistically gnawed each of them).
- Yves Klein He made the color blue famous long before the Blue Man Group. Like Abramovic, the naked human body was a medium for him. For Klein, one singular color was his most famous medium and co-creator, International Klein Blue.
- Tony Orrico With too hasty a glance, Orrico might seem all schtick, sort of a human Spirograph. Look again. Rather, meditate on the prostrating performance in Penwald. His performance drawings are an exquisite choreography that give birth to a delicate beauty. (Excuse me, I’ve gotta run out and find a really big piece of paper and some pencils.)
- Fluxus Like a super smart mix of the Merry Pranksters and art school nerd. “Unfettered play in search of uncharted insights.” Put that on your mat and practice it, Yogis!
- Joseph Beuys Perhaps the original art enigma, wrapped in social philosophy, humanism, and shamanism . He displayed grey flannel suits on a clothes hanger, junks of lard. The curious German in a fedora once explained pictures to a dead hare in a gallery. Quote Beuys, “I cannot and will not let myself be made into a possible art object.” (See Sara Wookey’s protest letter on being Abramovic’s art object.)
- Olafur Eliasson Without doubt one of my favorite artists. One of the reasons (there are many) is his impeccable way of creating spectacular installations without creating a spectacle. In the strictest sense of the word, Eliasson is an installation artist, but his best work is performance by way of the viewer’s performing the acts of seeing, hearing, and feeling the work he has installed. “I would like to make of the world by sensing the world … Seeing what we cannot see … Without an individual being a part of it, it doesn’t really do much.”
- Ann Hamilton Her words on the warp and weft of cloth are sublimely yogic. And I love it when physics meets art (or yoga). Do watch this video clip.