Performance art gets up close and personal at Perth’s Proximity

The Proximity Festival at the Fremantle Arts Centre presents a very intimate version of performance art. Photo: Tarryn Gill. Proximity Festival

Performance artists have led the way in questioning the relationships between artists, audiences and artworks. In the 1960s and 1970s, the early heyday of performance art, artists worked to break down the expectations of artist-as-actor and audience-as-onlooker. No longer were audiences passive spectators of a performance – they were players in the experience.

This month, a performance art festival in Perth is drawing the relationship between performers and their audience into even tighter focus. Proximity is Australia’s first festival celebrating one-on-one performances, and explores new methods and effects of interaction and participation in art.

Performance art: the early days

Unlike traditional painting and sculpture, performance artists let their work unfold in a unique moment of time, never to be precisely replicated again. It is not easily commodified, collected or documented.

And so we had Yoko Ono inviting viewers to freely cut away her clothing without any reaction; we saw Chris Burden get shot in the arm in front of an audience in 1971. We saw Mike Parr mutilate himself repeatedly, and edged uneasily into a gallery as Ulay and Marina Abramovic stood naked at the entrance of an exhibition.

Yoko Ono’s 1965 work Cut Piece.

Performance artists are often bold and confronting; they explore the limits of pain, morality and the human condition. Artists also often use their body as subject, object and medium for this exploration.

The Australian-based performance artist Stelarc has pierced his flesh with hooks attached to tied rope and suspended himself in public. Also, Mike Parr has sewn his eyes, lips and ears together over a long six hours.

Not all performance artworks are geared towards generating uneasy feelings. Many contemporary artists use performative interactions in their work. Popular contemporary artist Rikrit Tiravanija invites gallery goers into his exhibition where he cooks and serves pad thai.

The artist provides a service, nourishment, and a friendly space for anyone to come in, talk to and engage directly. As such Tiravanija focuses on the array of human interactions that can be generated in a warm atmosphere.

Up closer at Proximity

While many artists perform their work with or in front of a group of audience members, others have also recently focused on the more private interactions that can unfold between the artist and individual. These experiences can conjure a lot of emotions, even when nothing is said.

One-on-one performances encourage the focus away from the artist and toward the interaction between two strangers. Interaction is the subject, object and medium.

In a time when we are constantly connected to our electronic devices, email, social networking sites, an intimate experience like this can be confronting, intriguing and refreshing.

Perhaps that’s why this year’s Proximity Festival sold out in fours days.

In the past at Proximity, Western Australian artist Janet Pettigrew has led people into a mock morgue to have their body “prepared” by a funeral celebrant. Another local, Ian Sinclair, has invited people to embrace an idle moment on the couch with him, a favourite flick and TV snacks. Incendia Lascivio has let people destroy an artwork and create a new one with the remains.

Interaction with a stranger is isn’t always uncomplicated. Understanding the social cues about what is socially acceptable can be tricky, even when you are sitting on a couch with a stranger. People coming into these performances often feel vulnerable: they confess their secrets, relish in a purely corporeal moment.

Proximity Festival co-founder James Berlyn this year pays homage to a key performance artist who specialised in intimate one-on-one performances, Adrian Howells. Howells is known for exploring empathy, compassion and confession throughout his body of work. In The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding , Howells bathed, fed and nursed individuals for over 30 minutes, mostly in silence. This might be testing for many, and it is this knee-jerk reaction to an intimate interaction that Howells explored. In a time where people often publish their intimate thoughts online, a physical and private moment in time can be confronting.

Not Proximity all interactions are quite as up close and personal as this. The program this year includes a twerkshop, inhaling air from different ages on Earth, and replicating the chemical effects of love in your own body. Being a sole audience member might encourage participants to let go of their inhibitions.


The Proximity Festival runs in Perth until November 2. Details here.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.