Macmillan Art Publishing 2014, 272 pp.
Performance art in Australia emerged in the 1970s and was supported through new organisations of the time such as the Institute of Modern Art (Brisbane), Experimental Art Foundation (Adelaide) and the Performance Space (Sydney). Its legacy is a conceptual dematerialised practice that has brought a political potency to Australian art practice over the last forty years. Artists such as Jill Orr, Mike Parr, Monika Tichacek and many others have created performances that resonate with the audience long after the event.
Across six chapters, art historian Anne Marsh presents an overview of Australian performance art that commences with questions of the tension between live performance and its documentation. She refers to theorists such as Peggy Phelan who argue that '... being-there in real time as a member of a live audience is … the only [way] which guarantees an authentic experience of the event in time'. While Marsh recognises the significance of ‘being-there’ she presents compelling arguments for the power of mediation, the anonymous spectator, and the ways the virtual and electronic can expand the experience of performance art.
A noticeable element throughout the book is the consistency of female artists working within Australian performance art practice. Chapters on ritual, shamanism and body art clearly articulate the powerful space that women artists occupy in using the body as a site to critique gender, politics and cultural identity.
A generous collection of evocative colour and black and white images is evidence in itself of the power of documentation. An intriguing and inherent parody throughout the book is the power of the word to evoke the power of a performance as Marsh’s descriptions of performances from Peter Kennedy to Brown Council to Stelarc chronicle the diversity and ingenuity of Australian performance art practice.
Julianne Pierce is an independent producer and Chair Emerging and Experimental Arts Australia Council.