It’s the first day of the National Review of Live Art and the first work I’ve seen and I’m already challenged. NRLA Artist in Residence, Kris Verdonck, has put me in a difficult position. I am led into the darkness of Tramway’s T1 along with twenty other audience members to look at a woman in a maid uniform submerged in a tank of water. The woman, who I can only assume is the female performer listed in the brochure, Sanne Wutzke, breathes through a pipe supplying her oxygen. The difficulty of my position, my unease, does not stem from concern for Wutzke’s safety, she is clearly in no immediate danger of drowning, but from where to position myself as audience member, paying customer and participant in this work.
Verdonck has submerged and displayed Wutzke, with her staring eyes, goose pimpled flesh, tiny maid uniform and high heels, specifically for my viewing pleasure. The questions I am asked by Wutzke’s watery gaze, and ultimately by Verdonck, is ‘Why are you here watching this?’, ’What are you getting out of it?’ ‘Moreover, is this offensive to Wutzke, or to women generally?’ My sincere hope is that Verdonck is aware- and therefore grappling with – these very same issues in the work. I hope this since these concerns are so blatant in IN. If Verdonck is highlighting a contemporary – albeit ironic-relationship with feminism, and the ethics of performance and spectatorship, and manipulating our expectations of these issues then, with IN, he is successfully creating a testing ground in which to explore problematic economic, ethical and artistic power dynamics of live art. Within this reading, the submerged body of Wutzke is revealed as something other than the exploited, offensive, anti feminist freak-show exhibit I at first think it is. And the artist’s power to display, objectify and exploit abstract yet tangible –contractual- factors of the female performer or ‘model’, the paying festival tourist’s insatiable desire for the live, and the artist’s desire to feed it are clearly played out. And yet I am still uncomfortable with this.
Perhaps my unease in seeing Wutzke’s body submerged in water, and in being manipulated in and by Verdonck, is compounded by the entertainment factor or spectacular nature of the work; the fact that we have been lead into a darkened performance area at a set time for a fixed duration as captive audience, rather than left to wander past or incidentally encounter Wutzke standing in her tank. This theatre-style structure could be due to the practical or logistical concerns of submerging a woman in a tank of water but within the context of IN’s critique this theatricality needs to be knowing on the part of Verdonck as deliberately choreographing the scene and making the audience passive puts specific pressure on his questioning of his artistic power -over the model/performer, over our emotions, over our desire for the live.
Verdonck is not alone in using the live, along with real men and women, to knowingly exploit political, economic and artistic power dynamics inherent within art. Conceptual artist Xu Zhen made a sculptural installation out of the suspended bodies of two real-life Chinese migrant workers in In Just a Blink of an Eye (2007). Santiago Sierra sprayed ten Iraqi immigrant workers with polyurethane foam for his Polyurethane Sprayed on the Backs of Ten Workers (2004). Perhaps the clearest comparison to Verdonck’s live display of Wutzke in IN is the work of Vanessa Beecroft. VB55 (2005) saw Beecroft exhibit one hundred women standing still in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for three hours in nothing but their knickers. Later that year she artfully arranged models next to Louis Vuitton handbags on the shelves of the same fashion designer’s flagship Paris store. And for the 2007 Venice Biennale she paid thirty Sudanese women to lie face-down and deathly still on a white canvas while she poured venereal dark red liquid over them. Following in the hotly debated footsteps of such work, IN raises important ethical questions of live art: Can a sculpture involving a live body be critiqued in purely formal terms? Is displaying a woman in a tank of water -and so objectifying her as an art object for the audience’s dubious consumption – an interesting and productive political comment? Or does the pervasiveness of art – with its markets, biennales and annual reviews- along with our desire to buy into and witness it, ensure that the criticality of IN fails and so perpetuates the ethically problematic art historical position it tries to tackle?
This review was written as part of the Writing From Live Art publication project ’We Need to Talk About Live Art’ at the National Review of Live Art, Tramway, Glasgow Feb 6-11, 2008. Excerpts from We Need to Talk About Live Art are published in RealTime Magazine (Aus) 84 April-May 08,2008.