Contemporary art Fairs USA

Performance art goes legit

Experiential works are showing up at fairs more and more, and a small selection of institutions and niche collectors are snapping them up

Eddie Peake's performance Infinite Disparity, 2013. Photo: courtesy White Cube

Performance art is no longer a fringe activity in the art world: the genre is gaining momentum at art fairs worldwide with more and more galleries showing works that would once have been considered unsellable in the marketplace. But this field is still very much a specialist, niche area with only a small selection of major museums and a handful of collectors prepared to invest both financially and intellectually in “live” works that must usually adhere to complex sets of instructions provided by the artists. Most collectors subsequently turn to tangible items: documentation of performance works in the form of films and photographs.

Performance art’s arrival on the mainstream museum scene was confirmed last month by the inclusion of Tino Sehgal on this year's Turner Prize shortlist for his exhibitions in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall and at Documenta in Kassel last year. Having described the virtues of the other candidates—David Shrigley, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Laure Prouvost—the Guardian's usually curmudgeonly art critic, Adrian Searle, said: "The insurmountable problem here is Tino Sehgal... a world-class artist in the way that the others are not, the bottom line is that Sehgal is already the winner."

Visitors to Frieze New York encounter a work by Sehgal at Marian Goodman gallery first shown at the Manchester International Festival in 2011. The piece, the only work available on the stand, comprises a child actor posing as a manga character named Ann Lee, asking questions of visitors. The gallery declined to comment on the price or number of editions, but a trade source says that “Sehgal’s works now sell for at least $100,000”.

Meanwhile, Herald Street Gallery in London is showing Strangers, 2008-11, by the Argentinean artist Amalia Pica in the Art Unlimited section at Art Basel next month incorporating two actors who hold a string of bunting for hours on end (the price is undisclosed).

Visitors to last year's Art Basel could acquire a limited edition video of Marina Abramovic’s 1977 performance of Imponderabilia for €180,000 from Sean Kelly gallery. The New York dealer restaged the work, where a nude man and woman make a doorway through which the public is forced to enter, at the Swiss fair. Kelly explains that the work is not sold as a “live” performance. "The video version was not available in the 1970s, but it was made available in the 1990s," Kelly says, adding that both private and institutional collectors have acquired editions.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, artists including Bruce Nauman, Hermann Nitsch, Valie Export, Abramovic and Gina Pane made political, often shocking and, in many cases, deliberately anti-museum and anti-market performance pieces. RoseLee Goldberg, the curator and director of New York's Performa Biennial, notes that museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney in New York, have found—as they have researched their collections—that they hold extensive quantities of historic material connected with performance, from drawings to photographs and writing (The Art Newspaper, November 2012). Collectors in the performance field have, similarly, tended to buy objects associated with the actions, such as videos and photographs, rather than restage the performance pieces.

At Frieze New York, Lorcan O’Neill Gallery from Rome is testing the market for work by the emerging, London-based performance artist Eddie Peake by showing his new spray painting pieces (£9,000-£15,000) and a recent neon work (£16,000), rather than any “live” works. Last July, Peake presented a performance work featuring nubile, sexed-up men and women in the Tanks, Tate's new performance and video art spaces housed in former underground fuel containers.

Even the established White Cube gallery shies away from selling Peake's live pieces. An exhibition of the artist's works, which closed last month at the White Cube Bermondsey gallery in south London, included studio-based works alongside an evolving performance piece, that was not “for sale in its current incarnation”, says a gallery spokeswoman. “Works like Touch, 2012, for which the artist staged a naked game of five-a-side football do, however, follow a set of instructions and are therefore more flexible to restage. Eddie is still exploring the commercial potential of his performance works, all of which are documented through photographs and film.”

Such documentation and material appeals to private collectors, many of which still consider conceptual live works, devoid of physical objects and items, too challenging. Sadie Coles gallery in London represents the UK artist Spartacus Chetwynd whose work comes in different formats: some pieces exist only as performances, others as films of a performance, and occasionally as sculptural installations which can include props or costumes from specific performances.

“Each work is unique in its definitions and is therefore treated differently. There are no hard-and-fast rules,” says Coles. “As with many large-scale works of art, or works of art that require a slightly more complicated commitment, the main clients are museums or private foundations.”

A few major European and US museums own live performance works including the Tate, which bought Roman Ondak's work Good Feelings in Good Times, 2003, at London’s Frieze Art Fair in 2004. The work involves creating an “artificially-created queue” using no more than 12 volunteers and actors. The Centre Pompidou in Paris owns Sehgal’s This Situation, 2007. Meanwhile, Klaus Biesenbach, who organised the retrospective of Abramovic's work at MoMA in 2010, “tipped the balance about how people view performance art”, says Sean Kelly.

“Performance art is geared towards institutional collectors as most works in this medium require time, space and preparation. Performance artists rarely create pieces with the intention of having them staged in a residential context,” says the New York art adviser Todd Levin, the director of the Levin Art Group. Offering performance works at fairs is risky as the market is limited and may not guarantee a commercial return.

“There's pressure to keep things fresh at art fairs. One reason Marian Goodman can present this Sehgal work at Frieze New York is because she has a local gallery where works by all the other artists she represents can be on display for viewing and purchase,” Levin adds.

Sehgal makes it particularly taxing: he sells his performance art pieces by means of verbal transactions in the presence of a lawyer with no written contract. Instructions on how to re-enact his works are delivered literally by word-of-mouth, with collectors under strict orders never to photograph or video his “constructed situations”.

“Sehgal's impact is still being felt. He is certainly the one who has pushed this idea the furthest, not only in terms of the initial economic transaction (how to buy his work)… but also in terms of how the spectator is addressed differently in a work that literally speaks to your individual subjectivity,” says Catherine Wood, the curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern in London.

This idea of selling “editioned live works”, as Wood calls them, has “become acceptable in the past five to ten years, where previously performance was seen as being anti-market and anti-institution”. The Scandinavian artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset have made, and acquired, works in this vein. In 2012 the city of Rotterdam paid an undisclosed fee for their piece It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, wherein a male participant hollers the eponymous title in a busy street of the Dutch city once a week. “This performance will go on forever,” Elmgreen says.

“Values in our society in general are less and less bound to physical materials,” says Elmgreen, adding that the duo recently bought Kreuzberger Pfütze (Kreuzberg Puddle), 2001, by the German artist Kirsten Pieroth. The piece, consisting of instructions and a certificate, allows Elmgreen and Dragset to draw water from a puddle in Berlin’s western Kreuzberg district and pour it out in another city.

Acquiring and showing concept-based works can prove problematic from both a curatorial and commercial point of view. “I think perhaps in the private realm of collecting such 'purchases' are more a form of patronage, rather than an investment-oriented decision, and so inevitably have a smaller pool of potential buyers,” says Wood. “Other artists don’t necessarily mind having the score or photographic document of the acquired performance shown, but Sehgal has made this impossible, which makes his position more radical but harder to sustain as a tradeable commodity perhaps.”

Documentation methods, copyright and re-enactment remain highly contentious topics. Abramovic believes that original work should be copyrighted and that artists’ permission must be sought for re-performance. Chris Burden, famous for being shot in the arm with a gun as part of his 1971 work Shoot, does not allow his works to be re-enacted. His performances are therefore not for sale as “concepts”, says his dealer, Gagosian gallery.

There are collectors, however, usually with their own large-scale foundation spaces, that are acquiring live art works. The German collector Julia Stoschek produced and presented kWh, 2002-09 by Sehgal at her 2,500 sq. m exhibition space in Düsseldorf in 2010 as part of her “Here and Now” performance art programme. The Greek shipping tycoon Dakis Joannou is also thought to own a work by Sehgal.

One couple who have taken up the challenge is the Washington, DC-based lawyer Aaron Levine and his wife Barbara who own key performance-based works, including Light/Dark, 1977, a film by Abramovic which shows the Serbian artist incessantly slapping her then lover, the German artist Ulay.

The Levines are swayed by the notion of acquiring a “concept” behind a work which, in theory, could be acted out in their living room, saying that performance art amounts to a “different kind of viewing experience for the collector; it’s not something that you hang over the couch”. But buyer beware: this market is so underdeveloped, art advisors are cautious. “This area is so cutting-edge, we do not yet have any first-hand experience in the area for our clients,” observes Jeff Rabin of the New York-based advisory firm Artvest Partners.

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