From Head To Toe: Can Performance Art Be Bought?

I once heard that if you mix a comedian with a performance artist you would get a joke that no one understands (ha-ha). I should tell you that decoding what a performance means is not the only perplexity of this art: dealing with performance as a commodity is still confusing, even to the most experienced institutions of the art market. But then there's Galeria Vermelho in Sao Paulo, which has, among all other medias, a strong presence in the performance art scene.

Marcos Gallon stands in front of "Lança" by Lia Chaia, currently on view at Galeria Vermelho. Photo courtesy of the gallery.

Wanting to get to the bottom of this, I sought Marcos Gallon – a dancer, graduate in Philosophy and the head behind Verbo, a week-long performance festival organized by Galeria Vermelho. For one week in July, the gallery exclusively dedicates its program to the performative actions of artists the world over. Surely, Gallon could provide an answer to my every question – if it is even possible.

The Black Sheep Of The Art World

“In 2005, we realized that – at that time – there were no galleries or even institutions adding performance art to their programs,” recalls Gallon about the beginnings of Verbo, “So the festival was really important for the development of this field in the Brazilian art scene. It was established to create a space; a platform so artists from inside and outside of Vermelho could present their performance pieces.”

Physically impossible? Maybe. Although a performance piece is pure human action, its materialized stage is finite. Gallon explains: “Performance has an issue because it is not inserted commercially as other media – such as painting, installation or video – because it is not an object; it does not leave a trace. This fact creates a series of obstacles but also brings to the artist – and this is my very personal view – greater freedom because one does not have to deal with the needs and requests of the market. I think performance art is currently still a field where system criticism can happen.”

Ok, can we stop using performance art as an explanation for our miserable lives? And speaking of bad eating habits, Gallon says it was never their intention to democratize performance art and have it occur even at McDonald’s, for example. Still, the change in São Paulo’s art scene from 2005 to 2013 is clear on both viewers and institutions. 

Artist Marcela Levi performs In-Organic during Verbo's 2007 edition. Photo: Ding Musa

“I think most institutions are more prepared to receive, acquire and store these records and to deal with the possibility of re-enacting these actions. In addition, I also think that the galleries started to admit artists that work with this kind of support. And as a result, I realize that the big fairs have performance actions within their programs—not to mention that currently there are several platforms similar to Verbo throughout Brazil.”

So what does it mean to own a piece of performance art? Will I pay to have someone in my house cleaning the litter box? Well, no. This example is not even real, but still, no. When an art collector or an institution buys a performance piece, they are actually buying its documentation and the rights of reenacting it; it’s a contract. “The artist must accept that the performance can be reenacted. He has to decide how to create a documentation system for it to happen – a system that may include notes, photos, etc.” says Gallon.

Carolina Mendonça e Bruno Freire performs Muro em diagonal - 'Metáforas Espaciais Com Experiência' (Spacial Metaphors With Experience). During the act, they constructed and deconstructed a 13 meter diagonal wall in front of the gallery. Photo: Ding Musa

Even for the galleries interested in commercializing this type of art, there are some concerns related to the context these pieces will be used in the future. Case and point: parallel to São Paulo’s art fair, an art collector (I won't mention any names) organized an event in her house, followed by a performance where artists were rolling in the mud (you know, making art) right next to the fancy guests drinking white wine. 

Gallon concludes: “There is no way we can talk about this insertion without questioning the idea of fetishism. I think this is a very complicated fact: how the collector will present it. He or she will surely be able to give or lend this work to an institution. But how does it happen in the private sphere? I think that's the question.”

The artist Joana Bastos during the performance act 'Peça de Acervo' (Piece of Collection).  She was kept in the storage room as an artwork waiting for a collector to buy her. Photo: Ding Musa

There are still so many matters that need to be researched, discussed and reflected by the institutions in the art world in order to have performance art to become market-friendly. The biggest concern, however, is to keep its critical power and still be able to adapt to possible marketability restrictions. I approached him to find answers but Gallon instead left me with a lingering question: “Will the artist have to meet the market needs to be able to sell the performance? I think that's one of the reasons why performance is not often sold. Because nobody wants to see a naked guy pissing in the living room.”

Article by Bel Borst