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Blog 10: Conclusion on performance as an artform / 21 November 2012

artist aaron williamson poses on a plinth in the walker art gallery, with a face covered in eyes

Aaron Williamson as 'The Eavesdropper'. Photo by Paul Morgans

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Self-objectification is curious thing to attempt. Last Thursday, Friday and Saturday I stood on a plinth in the centre of the Victorian Room at the Walker Art Gallery as a living exhibit. I wore a rough tunic that echoed the style of costumes in the paintings all around and added a touch of Victorian Aesthetic opulence by covering my head with fake eyes as though I was representing some mythological character or other. I named the piece Cyclodusa to indicate the mutant nature of my invention: a Medusa head of Cyclops eyes rather than snakes.

Atop the plinth I was mostly immobile, holding various poses that echoed those of the models in the 40-odd High Victorian paintings hung around the Gallery. Stationed right in the centre of the room I was the first thing visitors were confronted by when they entered. Even so, many of them only glanced past me assuming that I was a sculpture. Occasionally though, I’d shift into a new pose and people would jump back or come up to touch my feet to check if I was flesh or mannequin. The eyes attached to my head created a rather macabre effect and some people were moved to remark to the Gallery Assistant on duty on how horrible I looked and turned away in distaste. Others couldn’t pull their own eyes away and stood stock still as though hypnotised until I moved again. Most people took photos at some point, many from behind my back (I could see reflections off the paintings’ glass). Kids had to be dragged away and explanations were requested from the assistants. Sketchers set up using me as a model, and tours were conducted with tales about the real-life models in the paintings.

In this way the work became, as though reflected back through the eyes fixed to my immobile head, largely about the public’s response to the 30-eyed figure as well as the Gallery’s own operations as a public venue. For me it’s this relationship between reflection and response that is one of the strengths of performance art and I’ve often made work that, being predicated on very little physical or verbal activity, consists largely in the public’s reaction to the circumstances they’re confronted by.

Performance art to my mind is a form in its own right (distinct from theatre, dance, spectacle, spoken word and so on, that it is often lumped in with) that can work conceptually on many levels. Perhaps the most notable tenet from its classic period in the 1950-70s was to resist the isolation of art from its circumstances. Firstly, the artist was no longer mandated to produce work in isolation and ‘plop’ it down in a gallery: now, the artists themselves were inside the frame. Secondly, the conditions and setting in which the work is made and shown are not ignored; performance art is most effective when it solely belongs to the situation and time in which it is encountered. Whereas a theatre piece, for example, is produced for touring and repeating anywhere, a work of performance art is made for, and belongs to the encounter.

Perhaps more than these twin elements, the artist’s own experience of being at the centre of the work is the factor that distinguishes performance art as a particular form. If one’s own presence is essential, how are you affected? What is the process one goes through? Over the long hours of posing as the ‘Cyclodusa’ I experienced a radical separation, a ‘standing apart at the centre’ that chimes with my experience of two cultural markers that are at the centre of my work and which for me are indelibly joined: disability art and punk.

When punk swept the UK in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ infamy in late 1976, the personal release I experienced was liberating: I chose to adopt an attitude and appearance that was radically different to the uniformity all around. Later, with disability I experienced a similar effect: I could never fit in with normality anyway, even if I wanted and so, working alongside many other disability artists who shared a rebellious rather than victimised attitude was crucial. I’ve always enjoyed the conceit that disability might in fact be a question of having more rather than less personal attributes. That it might be considered a ‘gain’ rather than a ‘loss’.

And so my performance as the many eyed, omniscient Cyclodusa joined all these themes into the work and made the many long hours of being scrutinised, whilst in an ostensibly objective state, a subjective pleasure to endure.

Keywords: artist,live art,performing arts,visual arts