In this month’s Art Monthly I stumbled on a review of Mel Brimfield’s ‘This is Performance Art’, a fascinating work in which the artist has created a fictional history of performance art by mixing what an art historian would typically draw from the canon of performance with british cultural figureheads, especially those from early television series. As a result of a residency at Camden Arts Centre she has produced a ‘fake archival material related to a misremembered or parodied history of performance art.’ (Briers, 2010) The exhibition saw a mixture of authentic ephemera recontextualised or entirely invented ephemera.
The key to the whole project was Francis Spalding, who is the figurehead of a fictional radio series on BBC4 entitled ‘This is Performance Art’. On further research I found a recording of Mel Brimfield’s (Francis Spalding’s) lecture given at the Sculpture and Performance Conference at the Henry Moore Institute in 2010. Spalding gives a hilarious account of performance history which refers to performance art’s routes in ventriloquism, citing Joseph Beuys as a skilled ventriloquist and adept at animal training skills, who was the presenter of a BBC series called Animal Magic, in which he was the voice over for animals at Bristol zoo. He refers to Rosalind Krauss not as an art theorist or writer but as a ‘tabloid hack’ and described in detail the performance artist duo Morecambe and Wise who met at St Martins School of Art.
I find this work interesting as it attempts to parody the actual history of performance art. With so many contemporary performers looking to the performance artists of the 1970s and re-performing their seminal works I want to try to understand why. Why are we returning to this history. Marina Abramovic says her re-performance in her ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ was to re-correct the mistakes of the 1970s in which there was little documentation of the performances that took place. Are artists re-performing simply to bring these works to a new audience and guarantee their continued documentation and place with the performance art canon? What happens when these contemporary artists reinterpret the history or parody it as in the case of Mel Brimfield? Are they simply re-appropriating material from these performance artists from the past in the same way appropriation artists “borrow” images from the work of other painters or photographers. Are the scores of these early performances a free source for contemporary artists?