The contemporary performance artist is, as we’ve seen, a supremely political creature, forever troubled by acute socio-political sensitivities, with insights and perceptions far beyond the ken of mortal beings. Should any of you dare to question that sensitivity, I steer you to the ever-twitching antennae of the performance artist and educator Marilyn Arsem, specifically her description of her own immensely subtle piece, U.S. Domestic Policy II:
My performance was on November 3rd 2010, the day after the elections that brought back a majority of Republicans to the Congress. While the news was not unexpected, it nevertheless gave me a sinking feeling when I awoke that morning to read the election results in the newspaper. I couldn’t help but do a performance called U.S. Domestic Policy as a result.
But of course. What other response could there possibly be?
With the help of an intern, I purchased quantities of beautiful ripe fruit - plums, oranges, kiwi, and a bag of red peppers, as well as a hammer and a water glass.
At this point you may have some inkling of where this is going.
The performance was a systematic act of destruction. I sat at the table and first raised a line of red peppers into the air. Then I methodically destroyed the tableful of fresh ripe fruit.
Uncanny, isn’t it? You must have the gift of mentalism.
I started with the hammer, but quickly began using only my bare hands. It took a surprising amount of time to crush each piece.
Juice spread over the table, and the smell of oranges permeated the room. I continually swept the detritus to the floor as the pile of fruit was reduced, until only a tall glass of water remained on the table. After taking a long sip of water, I carefully set the glass down, and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, inched the glass of water across to the far side of the table, where it hovered for several moments half off the edge, before finally crashing to the floor.
That sound you hear is your mind being expanded as political consciousness rushes in to fill the void.
Tragically, I was unable to find video documentation of this staggering achievement, now lost to the ages. I have, however, unearthed a more recent and not entirely dissimilar piece, Edge, originally lasting a mere seven hours - edited highlights of which can be savoured below. Ms Arsem describes herself as wanting to “have a low environmental impact” but a “high impact on the psyche,” and Edge has been acclaimed for “vibrating with possibility” and “making use of space, time and physicality to explore and present endless concepts.” At risk of spoiling things for y0u and robbing the performance of its no doubt colossal drama, the two glasses of water eventually fall off the table.
If that mighty work still hasn’t satisfied your artistic yearnings, there’s also this intensely cerebral performance from 2012, in which Ms Arsem spends three hours lying face down in a gallery window while a handful of dutiful friends look on, chatting distractedly, and passers-by pass by, somehow ungripped by the profundity of the work. Regarding the piece and her art in general, Ms Arsem says, “It is a conversation, a process of discovery… I remind myself that I am not obligated to entertain the viewers.”
Update, via the comments:
Eager to impress with her intellectual gravitas, Ms Arsem says,
I consider art making as both a place and a process. It affords the opportunity to engage in embodied thinking, to challenge my assumptions, to examine ideas through different lenses, to experiment with processes whose outcomes I can’t always predict, and to take risks in a context that is framed and contained within real life.
We can, therefore, suppose that “examining ideas” and “challenging one’s assumptions” is, for her, exemplified by equating an insufficiently leftist election outcome with “a systematic act of destruction.” Specifically, the squishing of fruit. And that sharing that glib and flimsy notion with an audience that is overwhelmingly leftist in its pretensions - just like her - is the yardstick of “taking risks.” Ms Arsem tells us she graduated from Boston University in 1975 as a Batchelor of Fine Arts and has spent the intervening years being subsidised across several continents, with numerous grants and academic residencies, including here in the UK. She’s currently the Head and Graduate Advisor of the Performance Art Department at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where she teaches performance art.
Being so good at it herself.
Oh look, a button. I wonder what it does.