What On Earth Are They Thinking? Inside the Mind of a Performance Artist
Performance art is easy to mock, what with the running naked into walls, screaming “Ah” at a partner who stands a few centimeters away from your face while screaming “Ah” back at you, driving in circles in a van until the tires burn an ellipse into the paving. It’s not everyone’s definition of art, but while I see the Monty Python side to it, I also appreciate it, admire some key performances, and I’m at work on a book with Ulay, one of the nobles of performance art. Ulay, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic and Joseph Beuys are the ancien regime of the genre. But I also admire the work of a young prince in this rarified kingdom where art installation meets one-time theatrical performance. His name is JAŠA. He looks like a stunt double for Thor, a powerful physical presence, bearded and long-haired and intriguingly tattooed. He splits time between New York and Ljubljana, and has performed at every place that counts for performance artists: Frieze, the Venice Biennale, even once with Ulay (which was seen by the art crowd as the knighting of a squire, if not the passing of a torch). He just finished a festival-long occupation of house as part of the prestigious (it is not that prestigious, as it is groundbreaking, since it is turning the entire town into a new art stage) Folkestone Fringe, entitled At the Dawn of Yet Another Age of Absurdity, Composition no.2.
I’ve always been curious about what goes on inside the mind of an artist mid-performance. In conversation with JAŠA, I decided to find out.
Before a performance begins, there is the design phase. JAŠA maps out performances with his regular team, curator Mitra Khorashesh and producer Rosa Lux, in his spacious studio along the Ljubljanica River, in his native Slovenia, or in his second studio in the wilds of Bushwick. Well-crafted sketches (his artistic ability in traditional media belies the easy-out commentary of detractors of conceptual art, who like to think that artists without “proper” talent turn to performance), copious notes, mockups and models, all feed the idea phase and, in turn, become relics of the one-time performance, which are snapped up by collectors. “Feeling that I have everything under control, but still time starts running slim,” JAŠA explains. “Besides the production hustle, there is this well know excitement and calmness, looking towards a new voyage, turning a whole house into an artwork for 7 days. My main concern still lies in how to tackle with UK’s specific climate, especially the suffocating grip of Brexit within the general context of the overwhelming feeling of insecurity and anxiety, within an artwork that will breathe with its own identity and autonomy.”
Traveling to the site of a performance can radically alter the concept. Often, JAŠA will have to design-structure the performance prior to actually being in the space in which it will take place, which is not easy, since the spaces are often integral, playing much more of a role than the interchangeable theatrical stage does for a play. Of his first trip to Folkestone, he said: “We took the remains of the day to tune in, meet the crew and feel the city. Blown away by the cliffs and green, yes that famous green. Next day we start, first covering completely the facade [of the house we would occupy] with white paper bearing three big black words
With this action, I sealed the house into an inescapable situation for us and the visitors. Then we proceed with the ground floor installation, all the way through first floor’s kitchen and studio, plus one bedroom and bathroom. They all become part of the work. Right before, I take in a deep breath, leave the rush of installing and dealing with all the details, arrangements, to turn to final push of boiling energy that will melt me with the work. I simply love to disappear within the picture.”
The performance is unusual since it occupies most rooms of an entire house, and will take place over consecutive days during the triennial, with audiences welcome to come and go, stay as long as they like, and return often. Most performances last a matter of hours. This would be physically and psychologically taxing, always “on.” As he says, “On the second day, I can barely imagine how I will make it till the end, I am holding it in, since I am scared that my worries would demotivate everyone else, now that we have started with such a positive kick. Soon enough, I remind myself that it is not the first time I am in this situation, so I look for all the necessary tools to regenerate and push on.”
One component of the performance includes selecting a birch branch onto which text will be inscribed. JAŠA recalls, “Then the tree-hunting day comes, looking for that perfect first birch (out of 100) that will carry the verse ‘all in one body we walk.’ Then it is the magic of live performances, where you share ephemeral closeness with your material, others involved, like Rosa and [performer, assistant] Giulio, with whom we form the third day, when we created this really powerful combination and solo action, the support of the production team, and the public, of course. When the switch happens, and you feel people wandering around the house, when you accept the role of observing intruders, and there is that circular energy, and you take everyone with you.”
The climax of the performance, over the final two days, the façade is altered, adding letters to the initial text so that it now reads:
And what about the aftermath? A play at the theater ends with applause, a clear indication of how enthusiastic the audience was. A performance does not, especially this sort, with the audience entering and leaving, in ebbs and flows, over many days.
“It is hard to say when it is really over, the moment that you know that you have achieved something remarkable, that all the plans were executed to the last detail with passion and devotion, by everyone included, when surrounded by smiling faces, receiving energetic compliments, and you take these moments in, humbly and willingly, accompanied with a blissful smile.”
In this case, with JAŠA as a headliner of a major festival (much talked about participant of this major festival), the performance ended with a talk, a procession to plant the inscribed birch in the town of Folkestone, and a dinner.
“On the last day, concluding the process with an amazing talk with David, after the procession with the tree in the city, you put it on its temporary place. When the silence seems like the only logical conclusion, after a week of actions, sounds, words and constant movement. When, in the middle of the dinner, you disappear to take a look at the tree, and you strike a remarkable conversation with a stranger, inspired by the presence of the tree piece. Or when you have overseen a successful de-installation of all the elements that, just hours ago, structured everything we have achieved.”
The temporal nature of a performance is part of its appeal — only a few people will see it, and it is only preserved in their memories, perhaps some photographs or a video, and a handful of physical mementos that become high-end objects d’art for museums and private collections. Performance differs from an installation because it is, and then it is no more. But JAŠA appreciates this aspect of it: “Memory is the most delicate material that one can sculpt. So somehow I envy the visitors, because they do not need to see it all coming down. My body is covered in burns and cuts, due to my constant movement in the house, snap changes and bodily compositions, my head is sore, and my eyes hurt. But still, there is amazing beauty in stillness, the notion that it did happen. So packing everything and embracing people, with whom you managed to create something unique, knowing that this is another beginning of a beautiful friendship, warms your own shaken intimacy, this constant tip-toe-ing on the edge of so many things.”
Perhaps that is the most precious part of performance art. That it is invisible sculpture, transient painting, remaining only alive in the minds of those lucky enough to experience it in person. A single meal by a world-class chef, a state-of-the-art new car that is driven only once. Or a man and his assistants wandering a house in coastal England, inscribing birch wood and facades, while a fortunate few watch on.
*At the Dawn of Yet Another Age of Absurdity, Composition no.2. was on show at HOP Projects (run by Nina Shen-Poblete and TomasPoblete), Folkestone from 2–8 October 2017, a spatial and performing intervention by JAŠA, curated by Mitra Khorasheh, supported by David Thorp and Adelaide Bannerman
All in One Body We Walk, 1|100 (trees) with Meta Grgurevič