Honesty, Risk, and Presence

What creative nonfiction writers can learn from performance art

Journalists have started to refer to the current US president as a performance artist. In The New Yorker, David Remnick writes: “Insofar as [Trump] had political opinions, they were inconsistent and mainly another form of performance art, part of his talk-show patter.” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien has said, “He’s a performance artist pretending to be a great manager.” The New York Times Editorial Board writes that Trump’s antics paint a “portrait of ineptitude so surreal as to qualify as a kind of performance art, or maybe slapstick.” When applied to Trump, performance art implies condescension, a joke.

I’ve written critical reviews of performance artists, and their processes or projects are no joke. The term shouldn’t give Trump a pass or be used to contextualize him; it’s false to assume that if only we understood performance and art, we would understand him. Performance artists may use gimmicks—this spring, in Paris, for example, the performance artist Abraham Poincheval sat on a nest of eggs, hoping to hatch them—but generally these artists are damned serious about provoking audience members to pay attention. Misconceptions and stereotypes about performance art abound, but writers would benefit from paying attention to this field. For creative nonfiction writers, performance art can be instructive because of its emphasis on honesty, risk, and presence.

MoMA Learning (part of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City) explains the genre in this way: “Performance art usually consists of four elements: time, space, the performer’s body, and a relationship between audience and performer. Traditionally, the work is interdisciplinary, employing some other kind of visual art, video, sound, or props.”

In October 2016, a month before the election, the Russian performance artists Pussy Riot released a music video that showed a vision of what the world might look like if Donald Trump were to become the 45th President of the United States of America. It was high quality work, a far cry from the wiggly handheld video of the group’s 2012 guerrilla Moscow protest in a Russian Orthodox Church—the performance for which some members of the group were arrested and spent years in prison. (They are out now.) The new video was glossy, but deeply disturbing. Lifting its title from Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again visualizes violence framed by the candidate’s rhetorical violence. One woman is branded, and her flesh sizzles as it burns—extreme imagery rooted in the logical extension of Trump’s perverse use of language. By provoking physical reactions—it is difficult to watch the video without being nauseated—Pussy Riot fights against normalizing Trump. If adaptation is a form of normalization, Pussy Riot fights that, too.

While writers can learn much about presence, process, and perspicacity from the field of performance art, there’s an odd void about such elements of craft in Marina Abramović’s book Walk Through Walls: A Memoir. On the page, she sounds unbearably pretentious. The book lacks insight and reflection, many of her beliefs are hocus-pocus, and her cultural appropriations are cringeworthy. Rather than shedding light on the process of Abramović’s more than three decades of creating engaging, provocative, and at times violent art, the book is a case study about what not to do when writing about the self.

Prior to reading the book, I had listened to Brian Lehrer interview Abramović on WNYC. I was charmed by her voice, goodwill, and humor—by her humanity. She told a funny joke about Communism, which appears in the first pages of the memoir. She asserted the interchangeability of life with art, also stressed in the book. Perhaps the memoir’s tone grates because it is ghostwritten, but the problems are many. She falls into the classic pitfall of a linear this-then-that telling, which doesn’t make a case for why her experience matters. The story itself is oddly generic and reductive. For example, Abramović makes this grand claim:

When I was young, it was impossible for me to talk to people. Now I can stand in front of three thousand people without any notes, any preconception of what I’m going to say, even without visual material, and I can look at everyone in the audience and talk for two hours easily.

What happened?

Art happened.

Abramović grew up in the former Yugoslavia; her parents were members of the Communist party, so even under that oppression, she enjoyed privilege. But her parents were unhappy, and fought, and she complains constantly about how her “mother would throw [her] presents straight out of the window” and how she lived under “a tyranny of support.” The loss of the gifts (from Abramović’s father’s girlfriend, which might explain the mother’s reaction) seems to have had more impact on her than her mother’s fury, though that could be disassociation. There was palpable violence in her childhood, which foreshadows the actual violence in her art (in performances, she has cut her flesh), but she barely makes the connection. While performance art asks audience members to be actively engaged, Abramović’s memoir induces the kind of odd detachment a writer strives to avoid.

As a young artist, Abramović wanted to make her art “more visceral” by “using the body,” and although she “felt as if the possibilities for performance art were infinite,” the memoir reads as peculiarly dead. Experience follows experience, as if listings on a fridge calendar. I found myself caring less and less, thinking that art and the making of it hardly matter. How can an artist so willing to bleed for art be so boring? Lack of urgency results from an overabundance of unnecessary details and from famous names littered like candy wrappers throughout.

When we write, we want to create a heightened performance space: we want to turn slant what we thought we knew, to learn it anew, to elevate experience from the humdrum. Abramović wanted “a way to put life itself into art.” She is renowned for a magnetic presence and unwavering focus. It’s perhaps unfair to use her ghostwritten memoir as an example of a failure to create art, but it’s still instructive. A thudding lifelessness in her story shows, on one level, just how hard it can be to adapt life, effectively represented by her performance art, to a print story. On another level, a continuous catalog of life events hardly strikes an emotional chord: “I saw my father on the street, kissing the beautiful young blond woman who would become his second wife. He pretended not to notice me. I didn’t see him again for ten years.” The last thing we want is to kill the life force, to make the written account dull. If you’re going to see a clairvoyant who will mix your Turkish coffee grounds with his to read your future, an anecdote Abramović includes, do readers care that you “took three buses to get there” and rang the doorbell? We spend so much time getting there that those mystical coffee grounds are swept off the table like rubbish.

As I mentioned earlier, this spring, the performance artist Abraham Poincheval sat on eggs in Paris. The biologist R. Michael Hulet, an associate professor of animal science at Penn State University, found his act inhumane. Most likely, the eggs would not hatch. The incubation period put the eggs in an “abnormal situation,” Hulet said, and concluded: “Life is more important than some of those things that are called art.”

Abramović draws this same distinction between art and life when writing about the dissolution of her pivotal personal and artistic partnership with the artist Ulay: “I had put myself in so much pain that I no longer felt any pain. It was like one of my performances, except it wasn’t—this was real life.” All art is the act of showing up; on the other hand, life requires that we show up every day until our walk is done. But showing up for life doesn’t transfer horizontally to creating a memoir. Abramović fails to answer the question she poses—“What is art?”—but her memoir still provides good advice to the writer: “What is art? I feel that if we see art as something isolated, something holy and separate from everything, that means it’s not life. Art must be part of life.”

About the Author

Renée E. D’Aoust

Renée E. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College, and is the managing editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Her first book, Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press), was a ForeWord Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist.

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