A performance artist sees his work exhibited
Two weekends ago, the Kitao Student Gallery hosted an in-person gallery event with art and boba for the Swarthmore campus community. The students lined up for the chance to walk through the workshop and view the paintings, installations and photos. The theme of the event was Hygge, which is a Danish word that expresses a quality of comfort and cozy friendliness that makes people feel at home and at peace. For me personally, this event meant a lot, as it was the first time that I was able to exhibit physical art in the form of a pair of socks, scarf and blanket, all that I had knitted.
I am a longtime performance artist with years of theater experience and dance work that continued into my time in Swarthmore. I am very proud of these performances and enjoyed the process and the excitement of going on stage live and with an audience. While I can doodle like a pro, I never got into drawing and painting, and so the last time I saw my art “on display” was probably an elementary school fair.
During the pandemic, with a lack of activities to pass the time, I started knitting, which I had tried before, as a way to pass time and express artistic intention. I also wanted to say here that I see knitting as a kind of art. It might not be as noticeable as the more traditional fine arts like painting and sculpture, but I have tried to match the knitting patterns, yarn and size of my projects to make them just as nice. to wear that experience.
I was fortunate enough to grow up to visit many museums and galleries with my family and to observe art in what I considered to be its natural habitat. There is something about walking around these maze-like rooms and seeing sculptures and paintings with their names and descriptions displayed that makes it seem like you see something of magnitude hanging on every wall. Artists somehow become immortal through these little descriptions and their self-shadows on canvas.
That being said, when I stood in line, walked through the doors, and saw my knitting sitting there with its own little inscription, I was at a loss for words. I took some time to think about this and wanted to share some of my experience of my art being translated through forms.
First of all, seeing my art placed like pieces that I have seen in museums was a personal rush. Watching the product of my work on display was a little alienating but exhilarating in a different way than the performance. Instead of the thrill of being seen personally, it was the thrill of seeing my efforts come forward and be recognized in isolation. In other words, performance is about concluding hours of practice for a part, while an installation is more about building up stress in a part. And the accumulation can be self-sufficient.
It was also a combination of my knitting time and my pandemic experience. I put in place the projects I was most proud of and it was validated not only to hear people’s responses, but also simply to be accepted into the gallery. Kitao is relatively open about these things, but I’m used to auditions and selections based on expectations of what I’ll be able to do, which adds pressure during the creative process. Here it was more about whether the job I had already done was up to the task without me having to stress myself through the whole process. It was very cool and I was a lot more relaxed about it all, which was a welcome change of pace.
But more generally, apart from my specific experience, it led me to contemplate art in its different forms. I will speak of form as the type of art (sculpture, theater, dance, painting, etc.) and of substance as emotional or ideological content.
There is no doubt in my mind that theater and dance are art forms comparable to fine art. What specifically occurred to me, however, is that the act of performance cannot be separated from the performer, but a painting can be separated from the painter for cases such as anonymity or artistic reasons. While this can be questioned nowadays due to recordings of performance pieces, this distinction has had a profound effect on the consumption of art. Historically, there has been a distinction between physical art and performance art with a supposed superiority to physical art due to its immortality and its ability to live beyond its creator.
It is true that the immediacy of performance is a limitation, but watching a person move, act or play is on its surface much more exciting in many ways than a square on a wall, however complex it may be. So does the immortality of physical art balance the liveliness of performance, or is there a balance in distinguishing impact?
In my opinion, a dance and a painting could make someone feel the same. So is the painting a translation of the dance or vice versa? How else could we hope to compare the substance of two works of art if we are also to account for the form of the art?
It’s all pretty high-spirited, and minds bigger than mine have been puzzled about it, but I like to think I learned something from this experience. When I saw this scarf that I had patiently sewn and these socks that I had worked on for weeks, I realized that I am not just a performance artist; I’m an artist. I will definitely continue to perform, and while I don’t expect performances to be framed in the halls of a whitewashed building, maybe, just maybe, I can call in the humanist immortality which in reality belongs to all art, not just to the art exhibited.